At this point, I am not sure what to think or how to handle this. I know you can’t change a person, but in some way I believe him when he says he could change. What should I do?
San Francisco, Calif.
In the early stages of a happy relationship, couples tend to focus on areas of similarity and let the differences slide. Sometimes, in fact, couples can seem so compatible that they don’t even realize significant differences exist. But all relationships have differences, and it’s important to bring them into the open in order to understand how they might affect you.
You told your fiancé that spanking children is a deal breaker for you, and his response was that he’d be willing to reconsider and possibly change his views. It’s a good sign that he’s taking your perspective seriously—it shows flexibility and open-mindedness, two qualities that usually accompany strong marriages. But what I’m not hearing in his response, or in your letter, is how you two intend to move forward from here.
Instead of sitting in a holding pattern, noodling the dilemma in the privacy of your respective minds, you need to dive deeper into this difference together. For instance, since your conversation took place, has he been able to articulate why he believes that spanking made him a better person? If you see it differently, are you able to talk about those differences? Has he been curious enough to research the effects of spanking on kids to understand why you feel so strongly about this that you would leave him despite how much you love him?
Many people become the kind of parent their parents were, unless they’re educated otherwise. Healthy parenting is about influence, not power. It sounds like you grew up with parents who knew that parenting involves guiding and teaching, not pain and control. The word discipline, in fact, is derived from the Latin word discere, which means “to learn.” Children don’t learn from being hit and left crying—in fact, they miss the entire lesson, which is the conversation about why what they did was problematic or dangerous or inappropriate and what they can do differently to get their needs met instead. Nor do adults learn well by being hit—and perhaps more significantly, if your fiancé hit you to communicate his displeasure with something you did, that would be called abuse. That’s why spanking children is illegal in some 50-odd countries, though it’s legal in the United States (within specific parameters).
Even so, in 2018 the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement against corporal punishment (their term for spanking), citing evidence of its harmful effects on child development: an increased risk of mental-health problems, cognitive issues from toxic stress, relational difficulties (loving and trusting someone who hits you is hard, which creates problems in adulthood if that is a child’s experience of love), and aggressive behaviors (children copy their parents’ actions, and also externalize their anger and sense of helplessness), among others.