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(Henrik Drescher for The Globe and Mail)
(Henrik Drescher for The Globe and Mail)

Disagreements over childrearing are growing cause of divorce Add to ...

Franco Margarita wants his six-year-old son to play outdoor sports. His ex-wife, he says, would rather let their boy play on the Wii.

While they were still married, Mr. Margarita urged his wife to be firm when their son threw tantrums or refused to go to sleep. The couple read parenting books and talked about discipline strategies, says Mr. Margarita, an IT professional in Toronto who requested a pseudonym to protect his son's privacy.

His wife was a softie, he says. "She always found an excuse for why she wouldn't follow through."

Arguments over their son's care, along with other marital issues, escalated until the couple separated when the boy was almost 4. As parents, he says, "we see things in very different ways."

Disagreements about money, sex, children and housework have long been chafing points in modern marriages. But now that parenting has become a mass obsession, clashes over how to raise kids are enough to tip shaky relationships over the edge, family therapists say.

As public debates rage over childrearing philosophies as polarized as Dr. Sears's attachment parenting and Supernanny Jo Frost's tough-love approach, homes have become battlegrounds writ small. Couples who saw eye to eye before they had kids may find themselves locking horns over issues such as sleep training, time outs and whether an iPhone is an appropriate distraction for a toddler.

It's normal for one parent to be more strict and the other to be laissez-faire, since they come from different family backgrounds, says Gerry Turpin, who's been a parent educator with Parentaide Plus in Montreal for more than three decades.

Over the years, however, Mr. Turpin has seen a change in how couples deal with their differing approaches. Under duress, he says, today's couples "tend to latch onto parenting as one of their tools for the war."

Marriages suffer when parents don't set limits for their kids, he adds. Parents want to do the best for their children, but "they don't want to say no."

Without clear boundaries, children run amok and parents blame one another for the chaos, Mr. Turpin explains. "I've heard parents say, 'Why the hell didn't you step in to take care of this?' And the other replies, 'Why didn't you?' "

Danny Guspie, founder of Fathers' Resources International, says parenting disputes play a major role in about 20 per cent of divorces among the dads who meet at his support groups in the Toronto area.

Often, he says, "guys get the feeling that their style of parenting isn't really valued." For men who have been highly involved in their kids' lives, he says, "that's a huge challenge."

The sexual drought that often follows childbirth can be difficult for new dads, Mr. Guspie adds. "If they at least felt that they were still valued or cherished, or not totally usurped, it wouldn't be so bad."

Ingrid Taylor, mother of a two-year-old girl in Montreal, says it's only natural to put a baby first.

Her husband was the one who suggested co-sleeping with their child, says Ms. Taylor, who declined to have her real name published because her divorce isn't final.

After their daughter was born, however, he began to resent having a baby in their bed, she says. In couples' counselling, her husband asked the therapist to persuade her to stop breastfeeding their one-year-old "so that he could have more sex."

Ms. Taylor says she refused because weaning at that age wouldn't benefit her daughter. The marriage deteriorated largely because her husband refused to make way for their child, she says.

Parenting styles are not radically different than they were 50 years ago, according to David Code, a marriage and family coach in State College, Pa. "It's just that we bring a new intensity to them."

The new intensity may take the form of refusing to night-wean a toddler or allowing kids to dominate adult conversations, says Mr. Code, author of To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First.

Increasingly, he says, "couples are married to their children instead of each other."

But keeping marriages strong after children arrive isn't just a matter of booking "date nights," according to research by psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan at the University of California, Berkeley.

In a clinical study led by the Cowans, expectant parents who attended a weekly couples' group for several months before and after their first child was born were more likely to maintain marital satisfaction over a period of five years, compared with parents who did not attend the program.

Couples with older children may benefit from taking parenting courses together, Mr. Turpin says. A parent educator can suggest ways of bridging the gap between parenting styles, which will reduce tension in the home. Eventually, success in resolving problems with the kids may increase parents' confidence in dealing with other issues, he says.

For a family to thrive, he adds, "it's got to begin with the couple."

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