"I'm tired of playing bad cop to my husband's good cop," says Diane, a 37-year-old speech pathologist. She and her second husband Carl, a stockbroker, have been married for four years, and though she never expected blended family life would be easy, she didn't envision nonstop arguments over child-rearing, either. Complicating the picture is the fact that their children are far apart in age -- Cassie, Diane's daughter from her first marriage, is 14, and Sam, her son with Carl, is only 3.
As far as Diane is concerned, the problem lies with Carl: He's too indulgent with Sam. "Whenever I try to instill a little order -- like making sure he's in bed at a reasonable hour -- Carl laughs at Sam's antics, sabotages my efforts or even contradicts me outright. Other times he makes it clear that even though Mommy says no, chances are good Daddy will say yes."
Yet as lenient as Carl is with Sam, Diane reports, he's far too strict with Cassie, who is starting to hate the stepfather she once adored. While Diane is perfectly aware that Cassie can be as impossible as any teen-ager, "Carl comes down so hard on her that I find myself defending her, even though I'm also furious about the things she's done or said."
Discipline issues are driving 36-year-old Carl crazy, too. While he recognizes the need for consistency in a child's life, "Diane is too rigid," he insists. "She's so stuck on doing things her way that she loses sight of the important stuff." Carl doesn't want to abandon all the rules, but he sees no reason why they can't be bent once in a while. "I know bedtime is 8 p.m., but if I get home from the office late and want to horse around with my son for a while, what's the big deal?"
Besides, he adds, isn't it hypocritical to lambaste him for being overindulgent with Sam when that's precisely what she does when Cassie flouts their instructions?
Striking a balance
"Clearly, Diane and Carl both feel strongly about what should and shouldn't be done when it comes to handling discipline issues," notes Jane Greer, a New York marriage counselor. "In a healthy marriage, each partner's views must be voiced, discussed and negotiated if necessary."
Most parents find themselves in a similar situation at one time or another. Try these suggestions to ease the tension:
* Remember that differences in your approach to discipline don't mark one of you as right and the other wrong. Early childhood experiences are powerful, and most of us think our own family's way of handling issues is the only way. Learning to accept your partner's style, instead of criticizing or being insensitive to it, is the first step to reaching a compromise.
* Try to present a united front. Though this is not always possible, at least agree that the parent who starts an interaction with a child be the one who finishes it. This tactic will also prevent a child from playing Mom against Dad, and you and your spouse from blaming each other. Later you can privately discuss your disagreements and how to handle similar situations in the future.
* Try switching roles. Since Diane was most upset at being seen as the bad guy, it helped when she and Carl agreed to switch roles for one week. Instead of her being in charge of bath time and bedtime, Carl was. After he experienced how difficult it can be to get a 3-year-old to brush his teeth and into bed, Carl was more understanding of Diane's feelings. In turn, Diane was more appreciative of the time her husband wanted to spend with their son. Once they stopped arguing about discipline, they were able to restore the closeness they once shared.