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How the ‘terrible twos’ bonded us

Getting through this trying stage with our son has given my wife and me a team mentality.

Gracia Lam

You want to know why I’ve always been skeptical of relationship experts?

I once met two at a party hosted by a prominent shrink. Over the course of the evening in lively group chats, one insisted that opposites attract and that being opposites brings couples closer together than anything else. The other insisted with equal fervor that what makes couples closest is being similar and having similar interests.

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As a married father of a toddler, I say nuts to both of them. In the spring of 2012, my wife and I confronted the test that will either unify or repel all couples who have children: the spiritual battle against the “terrible twos.”

To be fair, our son, Max, was only 18 months then. So he was in clear violation of the “contract” by embarking on that awful period six months early. But embark he did.

And we called it a spiritual battle because in the beginning we expected to see Max’s head spin around like that kid’s from The Exorcist. Maybe it would be the time he snuck up on our nervous cat, pounded on a dishpan, and then cackled like the Joker as it leapt 3 feet in the air. Maybe it would be after he melted down in the middle of the supermarket, trying to smack one or both of us, and then grinned mischievously as we hustled him out of the store for a calming-down period. We could feel dozens of sets of eyes on us that we assumed were judgmentally bearing down.

All kidding aside, what has made this battle a unifying experience — yeah, present tense; we’re still in it — is our constant self-examination, the constant question of whether or not we’re bad parents.

In retrospect, we realize our parenting didn’t cause any of the meltdowns. Still, in the moment of each incident, we nearly hate ourselves. But that temporary self-loathing has inspired us to offer each other encouraging words meant to help us stay on the same page. We’ve made a pact to react to the meltdowns with patience and consistency.

Without my wife’s post-meltdown pep talks, I might be tempted to release my inner Granddad Freeman (see The Boondocks cartoon) and threaten to spank Max. I don’t. But danged if I don’t think about it! And without my pep talks, Max’s episodes would have my wife weeping in a corner, asking the cat why karma hates us . . . and expecting a response!

And speaking of karma, prior to Max’s birth, I’d suspected the “terrible twos” stage was the invention of child psychologists and self-help-book publishers. We’d overhear parents in the mall, in the supermarket, in restaurants lamenting about their kid and the “twos.” And we’d smirk and think to ourselves, brat! Or at least I would smirk and think brat, and my wife would elbow me for doing so.

But then Max himself confirmed the phenomenon. It was how you might feel if there were ever an episode of Finding Bigfoot that actually showed Bigfoot. So now I know the “terrible twos” stage is real. And the funny thing is that, while my wife and I do bond over our shared love of everything from jazz to football and faith, food, fashion, hiking, and Seinfeld, our determination to not lose our cool and guide him through this developmental period has made us so tight that the only thing we’re not doing when we get a victory (in the form of a meltdown bomb defused) is high-fiving and chest-bumping.

Another bonus in this family battle? Other parents who give that understanding nod in public or whisper, “We’re going through it, too; hang in there, and whatever you do, stick together.”

James H. Burnett III is a Globe staff writer. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

TELL YOUR STORY. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.

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