Kara Hoppe, MA, LMFT
PACT Level 2
Los Angeles, CA
I recently became a parent to a beautiful baby boy, and I can speak from my own experience when I say that the struggle of mothering and coupling is real. I now have a new appreciation for the complexity and depth of parenting and partnering. By bringing that experience to my work with couples who are parents, I have found that honing in and practicing win-wins are two of the many PACT skills key to supporting a couple as parents.
Negotiating win-wins (i.e., where both partners win) can be a game changer for couples, especially couples with kids. It takes courage to ask for what we need as individuals and parents, and asking for what we need/want is fundamental to achieving a win-win. This process can lead to a secure-functioning relationship for the couple and to individuation for each partner. The couples I work with love win-wins because the goals are not to compromise but to be open and honest about what each partner wants, to be flexible and creative with each other to arrive at a win-win, and then to claim that win-win. Additionally, there are no victims/martyrs in win-wins.
Rose and Will have a 3-year-old girl, Joy, and are struggling with their couple connection. They present wanting communication tools, but as I cross-question, cross-track, and cross-comment, I realize that part of the reason both partners feel so lonely is that they have no win-wins. Each solution or decision they arrive at has a winner and a loser. This pattern goes back before they were parents and before they were partners, but it has been amplified due to parenthood.
I introduce the concept of win-wins to Rose and Will, and they get excited at the idea of both getting some version of what they want. Also, they marvel that they have never considered that a possibility. Will is naturally very funny and exclaims, “I thought I would always get what I wanted, and Rose would always be pissed at me.” They both laugh, so I joke about how fun that sounds. Then I press further: “So that’s the jam? Rose yields to your needs and harbors resentment, and you let this continue?” Will stops laughing. “Yeah. Sometimes. Actually, often.” I continue to press: “How do you know she’s not happy about the decisions you guys make?” Will has an ready answer: “Because she becomes cold and snappy with me.” I turn to Rose: “Is this true?” She cops to it. I suggest we use our time to try something different and I encourage them to pick an easy way to practice finding a win-win. They decide on their morning routine.
Rose begins by whining: “You get to sleep in and I don’t, and on top of having to get up early with Joy, I’m always late to work. No win-win here!” I help Rose find clarity on what she wants: “Do you want Will to wake up with Joy?” “No. I love our quiet morning cuddles.” Then she straightens up in her rolling chair and says, “What I need help with is giving Joy breakfast.” I see fear in her eyes as she waits for Will to response. Before he can say anything, I point this out to Will. He softens and looks down. I do a gentle down the middle: “It’s hard for both of you guys to be vulnerable and ask directly for what you need.” They both nod. Then Will responses in a calm voice, “I can give Joy breakfast, but I need you to let me do it my way.”
And with that, Rose and Will are engaged in their first win-win in therapy. I’m there to help them find clarity, empathy, and further awareness for themselves and each other, but they are doing the work to arrive at their win-win. The process takes the rest of the session, with a few fits and starts, and has a victorious ending for both Rose and Will. They are proud of themselves and happy with their new morning routine.
Personally, I can relate to why this is so hard for many couples with children. Without support and psycho-education about win-wins, it would have been easy to get into a lose-lose rut in my relationship post baby. That pressure I—and many moms—feel to do it all can be a relationship killer. Also, it’s hard to stay present to relationship sabotages when there is another being to care for; one or both parents are physically, psychologically, or otherwise depleted; and the relationship itself has changed so dramatically. Parents undergo huge personal transformations during parenthood, and those internal changes shift the entire landscape, so even if a couple were securely functioning before baby, they mostly likely will need some support post baby. It’s important to normalize this for the couples during therapy. I like to share that the skills and principles of PACT have been incredibly helpful in my marriage and that it is a daily practice for my and my partner to be securely functioning. That way, they know they are not alone in the struggle to navigate a thriving coupledom as parents and can relax a bit into the process. Making it a daily practice gives both partners ample opportunities for win-wins.