All parents, I can confidently say, have fallen into the parenting trap of being the good cop or bad cop from time to time.
While married, I was typically the bad cop who enforced the rules, managed the schedules and basically the one on the front line of this wonderful battle called parenting; often leading to tantrums, tears and tumultuous attempts at consistency. Our lives reflected the imbalance of maintaining structure given that I worked while the children were at school, and he didn’t make it home until dinner was close to finished.
When their father came home, he was greeted with smiles and excitement because he was, by nature, the fun playful father or in other words, the good cop.
As you are reading this you may smile in recognition of these dynamics or eve roll your eyes in resignation if these are reflections of a part of your parenting regimen. Sounds harmless I’m sure, however, these polar dynamics can instill patterns in behavior that can become challenging in fostering and maintaining healthy relationships.
Parents are different people, so of course their relationships with their children will differ and that doesn’t have to mean better or worse. What can be a problem is when parents allow their children’s temporary preferences to solidify into unhealthy roles, such as “the nice parent versus the mean parent,” “the capable parent versus the inept parent”, or “the involved parent versus the uninvolved parent.”
These types of rigid roles hurt both parents and children.
In a well-functioning family, the strongest bond should always be between the parents, being the secure base of the family to avoid the “divide and conquer” dynamic.
This difference in parenting styles, on the surface may seem to be due to personality styles. I am “type A” and therefore am more comfortable in establishing and maintaining order, and he is… Not (hahahah) and therefore seems more carefree and energetic. In my experience working as a mental health therapist, things are never as simple as they seem.
Ask yourself, why do you need to maintain structure, when sometimes it may be OK to let it flow just a bit? Why do you need understanding and leniency when a bit of a reality check might be necessary for the child? What are the underlying beliefs about this way of parenting and where do you think they come from? What needs are we fulfilling in our parenting styles for ourselves?
Understanding this element of yourself and your partner could serve in a deeper connection, emotional intimacy and strength in your role as parents.
It is the manifestation and perpetuation of these rigid roles that leads to what is called Triangulation in family systems theory. Murray Bowen theorized that people’s actions in a triangle reflect their efforts to assure their emotional attachments to important others, their reactions to too much intensity in the attachments, and their taking sides in others’ conflicts.
In other words, a triangle creates an odd man out, while two are connected against one.
Bowen theorized that a two-person emotional system is unstable in that it forms itself into a three-person system or triangle under stress. They intentionally or more commonly, unintentionally create confusion as a means of controlling the situation in a passive way.
Triangulation or establishing this good cop vs. bad cop, can become unhealthy in families when it causes undue stress on the third party and/or when it prevents, resolution of the dyad’s conflict.
There are three components to triangulation:
1. Persecutor: This label describes an individual who attacks the others who are participants in the triangle.
2. Rescuer: This is a person either within the created triangle or outside the triangle that acts as a rescuer or someone who is the “saving grace.”
3. Victim: This label describes an individual who carries an attitude, in some situations (if not all), of “poor me.” While there are cases in which the person is the victim (due to how they are being treated by others), the triangle describes a person who creates a triangle in such a way that they become the “victim.”
In a family, the strongest bond should always be between the parents and in a well-functioning family, the parental bond needs to be the secure base of the family to avoid the “good cop/bad cop” dynamic.
It may seem innocuous; however, these roles can create lasting hindrances to individuation of the child and rift in the emotional safety of all parties.
Inconsistent messages from Mom and Dad can leave kids unsure of what is expected or appropriate. Plus, they feel guilty that their behavior has caused a conflict.
Having to always be the enforcer can make one parent feel resentful toward the other. This resentment can lead to a larger drift when one doesn’t feel respected or supported in the decision-making or carrying out of the consequences.
Not only that, arguments can strain the relationship between parents, and leave kids favoring one parent over the other or making them feel as though they need to be loyal and defend one parent.
The truth is, kids need both sides of parenting. They need love, they need fun. They need boundaries, they need freedom. They need silly, AND they need “the look” every once in a while.
A united front is so important for your children’s sense of security and safety and for your relationship with your partner. Be strong and stick to the decisions you made together, and everyone will know where they stand and thrive as a family unit.