A complicated question at first sight, I know.
But think about it for a minute: If you are a parent like me, do you ever worry about how your child’s spouse will treat them?
I think we ALL worry about these things; at least if we allow ourselves to think about them honestly for a moment or two.
Most of us would agree that the love we have for our children is the PUREST form of Unconditional Love we’ve ever felt for another human being; and that we would wish nothing more than for them to always be safe and happy.
As I point out in my new book, Don’t Get Married! (Unless You Understand A Few Things First), Unconditional Love is different from the Unconditional Positive Regard we have for our spouses. (See also my post, Unconditional Love vs. Unconditional Positive Regard for more on this difference.)
Unconditional Positive Regard is a term I coined that means ‘benefit of the doubt’, or, ‘innocent before proven guilty’, and it represents the best we can strive for in our marriages if we hope to build a solid, trusting foundation with our spouses.
But it is NOT Unconditional Love.
The reason there is a difference between the Unconditional Love we have for our children and the Unconditional Positive Regard we can work towards with our spouses is simply because, when it comes to peer-to-peer relationships like that between spouses, we expect something IN RETURN from them; that is, we expect THEIR Unconditional Positive Regard for us too!
With spouses, it’s a two-way street. We are peers. Thus, Unconditional Positive Regard.
With children, not so much; at least not when they’re little. Thus, Unconditional Love.
This is how I, at least, conceptualize the difference.
We parents are the ones who are SUPPOSED to give Unconditional Love to our children. Once they grow up, they can only hope for the nearest approximation from their spouses; that is, Unconditional Positive Regard. If they and their future spouses work on it, they can get this from one another.
I find this to be true enough, both personally and professionally.
But don’t you wish your kids could ALWAYS get Unconditional Love? That they’ll always be safe and happy and engaged with their lives even after we are gone?
I do. Every day, and sometimes several times per day.
So when you picture the way they might be treated by a future spouse, how do you imagine it or HOPE it looks like?
I know when I speak with my parents-in-law today that they had to once make a decision to entrust their ‘little girl’ to me in marriage, and that my own folks had to make a similar decision regarding me some time ago as well. That’s just the way parents think.
This perspective never really changes for parents; at least not the ones I’ve talked to. And I don’t think it will ever change for me either. Our kids will always be our kids, no matter how old they are OR we are.
I want my son or daughter-in-law to give me the same feeling I try to give my parents-in-law: That their child is safe and can thrive with me; that I will continue to work on my flaws and to grow in my Emotional Competence. I too want to know that my children are safe, happy, and thriving with their spouses.
So, again, from the beginning:
Do you treat your spouse as you would want your child to be treated by theirs?
Yes or no?
Is there a tenderness and a respect there?
Is there loyalty, compassion, fidelity?
If (when) you make mistakes, do you try to correct them, learn, and grow from them?
Are you always striving to become a more Emotionally Competent, true adult?
Is there support, no matter how you feel about what your spouse is doing or what they are asking of you? Do you give them the benefit of the doubt (Unconditional Positive Regard) so that you could respectfully discuss differences in opinion?
Are you trustworthy with your spouse’s heart? I call this trust ‘Micro-Trust’ in the new marriage book. It means trusting someone with your feelings; that they will Listen to you and Validate you before making their own Comments. It also means that they will use and practice Restraint.
It is a goal of parenting to Listen, Validate, Ask, then Comment to our children. I call this technique LVACTM and it works.
Why shouldn’t we ‘LVAC’ with our spouses?
In fact, why shouldn’t we try to treat our spouses as somebody else’s child; one who was cherished and precious at one time?
Why shouldn’t they be the apple of OUR eye too?
In the end, if and when your children choose to marry, it will all come together, you’ll see.
What I mean here is multigenerational in nature: That the person they choose will treat them as they have become USED to being treated by you; AND that YOU will have an emotional reaction to seeing how they are treated by that person.
Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that we LIKE who they pick AND what we see.
I don’t know about you, but this inevitability motivates me to do my best with both my spouse and my children, every day. The goal is NOT to never mess it up; the goal is to at least know something about what is going on so that you can work on it and improve your skills continuously.
Your spouse deserves this.
Your kids deserve this.
YOU deserve this.
Take care and, as always, all my best to you and yours,
Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.