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What to Do When One Parent Is Always the Bad Cop

Being the bad cop is wearing and breeds resentment. Here's how to help balance the scales and become a unified front with your partner.

Once you get married, you fall into roles. One partner takes out the trash. The other deals with the cable company. When kids come along, the divvying up continues, from making lunches to helping with math homework. Sometimes it’s based on schedules. Sometimes it’s personal preference, but the stuff usually falls into place and the work gets done.

But then there’s the issue of discipline, of what defines acceptable behavior and how deviations from that should be handled. When there are a different set of beliefs, it can rankle a couple. One of the biggest issues happens when one parent is the default disciplinarian. While we’re far removed from the “wait until your father gets home” style of parenting, many still tend to make one person the bad cop — the one who doles out punishment and is very disappointed. It might work for the short-term, but ultimately, it’s wearing and breeds resentment. Also: research shows that this style of parenting is ineffective. Discipline in a two-parent household works best as a unified front.

So, if you’ve slid into this structure and your partner doesn’t dish out discipline with you, how do you make it work?

There’s a basic reason you and your significant other are not of a singular mind. You were raised by different parents.

“There’s more than one way to make a salad or write a term paper,” says Dr. Carl Hindy, clinical psychologist and author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? There’s also no one absolute, single way to raise kids. Differences are actually good. Children are always going to be exposed to people in charge, from teachers to bosses to other relatives, and learning to adjust to expectations is a necessary life skill.

It only becomes a problem when there’s an imbalance, and one partner ends up doling out the limits and being seen as the bad cop.  At some point, a parent will be out of town, and the easygoing one will have to be in charge without the ability or the respect. Kids may not like hearing “no”, but they know that it shows someone cares and is looking out for them, says Lesli Doares, licensed marriage and family therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina.

A stark divide also means that the child has to be an arbiter of their parents’ words. That’s an adult’s job. Kids will adjust, but they’d prefer consistency over the stress of making that judgment, says Keith Miller, licensed clinical social worker in Washington, D.C. and author of 21-Day Marriage Transformation: The Simple Antidote to Relationship Conflict and Negativity.

It becomes more of a problem when the child splits the parents over their differences, and that’s when fighting can start. Unlike other responsibilities, the worry about how your kids will turn out ups the intensity.

“You’re not dispassionate team members,” Hindy says. You believe in your approach, because it’s yours and it’s the one you know for an unknown process. “It’s wanting to be in control and have a set plan and life doesn’t work that way,” Doares says.

Inevitably, comments get made on how you’re handling a situation, and it sounds like criticism. Regular reminders are given to “be careful,” and it all can feel like you’re not being trusted. But that’s not really it, because, as Hindy says, every time you take a child in a car, there’s the tacit acknowledgment that your ability to manage is respected.

Disciplinary differences is the cover. The tension is actually due to an omnipresent relationship issue: not being appreciated for all that you do. And if that’s being felt, you and your partner will merely dig into your respective positions, because any shift feels like losing. One problem with that. “You won’t fight your way to a good outcome,” Hindy says.

What’s needed is common ground, where you may not fully embrace a foreign approach, but you can become comfortable with it. So, it entails a conversation, and, like most of them, it’s best if it’s more exchange, less trying to prove a point.

“It’s not an intervention,” Miller says. It begins with understanding. With whatever elicits a strong feeling from your spouse, ask with genuine curiosity, “Why is that important to you?,” Doares says. And keep asking that with each answer. Eventually, you might hit, “My dad wasn’t around and I don’t want them to be jerks.” Once identified, you can either come up with a solution or accept that the hot-button can’t be controlled.

And you have to talk about your side of things as well, sharing what matters to you, that you’re worried that your kids won’t have friends, that you were raised by stoics so talking is hard, and, “I don’t know if my approach is good.”

By voicing your vulnerability – and showing humility – you’re giving the always-appreciated gift of validation. “When people feel understood, they can put their weapons down and start working on the immediate puzzle,” Hindy says.

Immediate is the keyword. You’re not crafting a plan written in indelible ink. Kids change constantly, and brothers and sisters are not exact copies. “You have to rethink all the time,” Doares says. Any idea can be tried for one week without any harm. You then tweak, adopt what works, scrap the rest, and most importantly, be forgiving of yourself and your spouse for not being perfect. “Humans beings like yes or no, black and white, when life is in the gray area,” Doares says. “Mistakes are made. It’s how we grow.”