How to Raise Children and Keep Love in Your Marriage

Letter #2

Dear Dr. Harley,

I need some help with my marriage. I have read your books: Love Busters, His Needs, Her Needs, and 5 Steps to Romantic Love. These books were great and have been a big help to my wife and I.

However there is a Love Buster that I don't quite know how to deal with. That Love Buster is my step-son. He suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder / Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and it is really draining on my marriage. I am not really sure what category of Love Buster this would fall into, but it is a big Love Buster in my house. The heart of the problem is that my wife feels that I don't treat our son fair or show him enough love and I, of course, think the opposite.

Dr. Harley, our son is a terror on two feet. He is only 10 and he really wants to please us, but because of his handicap he does poorly in school, the dog does not get along with him, he is always breaking my wife's and my own personal belongings and he steals from us. When I come home from work I never know what to expect. There is always bad news regarding something he did. Since the bad news hurts me so much, I feel myself emotionally withdrawn from my son, and because I am withdrawn, my wife tells me that this is a Love Buster for her, and then she starts to withdraw from me. It's a vicious cycle.

We have tried support groups for ADHD and sought other counseling too, but so far it has not worked. I would greatly appreciate any advise that you can give me.


Dear R.D.,

Reading between the lines, I assume that your wife wants you to react to your step-son's inconsiderate behavior with patience and love. I'm sure that she does not always react that way herself, but whenever she sees you upset with him, she feels as if you are upset with her. So she withdraws from you to escape the pain.

One approach to your problems is to count the years before he is out of the house. If your marriage can survive until he is old enough to leave, you can pick up the pieces and try to rebuild what your "Love Buster" almost destroyed.

But I have a more proactive approach to your problem that may not only prevent the loss of love units, but also guide your step-son into a successful life.

My approach to child rearing is found in both Love Busters (chapter 10, "Resolving Conflicts Over Children," and His Needs, Her Needs (chapter 11, "Family Commitment."

I make two recommendations. The first is all decisions made regarding children must follow the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). The second is that each week parents set aside what I call "Quality Family Time," where the family is together. This time is always especially planned to be enjoyable and educational with an emphasis on taking other people's feelings into account. In other words, the primary purpose of Quality Family Time is to teach children the ethical values of behaving in a way that is cooperative and thoughtful.

I don't believe that you and your wife are following the Policy of Joint Agreement when it comes to raising your son, and you are certainly not spending much time in Quality Family Time. You have probably had conflicts about discipline, and you have had your way one time, and your wife has her way the next. Your step-son is probably getting mixed signals. And your wife's reaction about your fairness and love may reflect the fact that you don't spend much quality time with him.

I've never been convinced that the factors leading to the diagnosis of ADHD are inherited. There are so many similarities in the conditions under which ADHD kids are raised that I believe environment plays the crucial role. My entire family is full of high-energy people. I could hardly sit still in school, and even today find lectures intolerable. But I was trained to be considerate of others. My father would not allow me to behave any other way.

My personal opinion is that ADHD kids are not simply high-energy children. They are inconsiderate high-energy children. What makes your son a Love Buster is not his high energy, or his failure in school, or his short attention-span. It's his stealing, lying, disrespect, temper tantrums, abuse, and many other traits characteristic of those who have never been taught to be considerate. I don't believe that thoughtfulness is an instinct -- it is learned, and most often taught by parents.

What will solve your marital problems, and your step-son's social problems is for you and your wife to make a commitment to train your child consistently and with an emphasis on cooperation and thoughtfulness.

Start by agreeing that, from now on, you and your wife will never discipline your son unless you can enthusiastically agree. No more mixed signals. He will be getting all of his reprimands from both of you, or he won't get any at all. That means that you and your wife will spend many hours discussing how to handle this "terror on two feet." But you'll do it together.

You should also set aside time together (you, your son and your wife) each week for Quality Family Time. Remember that it should be enjoyable, and the time should be devoted to teaching him to be cooperative and thoughtful. Once you have set aside time for your family, you'll find that the Policy of Joint Agreement will be much easier to implement. Your wife will be thrilled that you are taking leadership in your son's development, and will want it to work for him. What had been a Love Buster will turn into a Love Builder. Your effort will not only deposit love units in your wife's Love Bank, but you will see your son's selfish pattern of behavior begin to show signs of thoughtfulness.

The Policy of Joint Agreement will not only help you and your wife overcome conflicts over discipline, but also set an example for your son. It is a rule that insures thoughtfulness because it forces you to take each other's feelings into account. But during your Quality Family Time the policy can apply to your son too. Ask him to help plan each outing so that all three of you will have a good time. In the process of coming to an agreement, he will have to consider your feelings just as much as you will have to consider his. You don't go anywhere or do anything until you have an enthusiastic agreement from all three of you.

Plan ahead for your son's misbehavior so that it does not ruin your experience together, or alienate you from your wife. Have contingency plans if he does not cooperate with you. Since this is an educational experience, expect mistakes. But you and your wife will also experience his growth. The longer you have this time together as a family, the more enjoyable it will be for all of you, because your son will learn to be more thoughtful.

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