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Fighting in Front of the Family

Here we go again. Your spouse is driving you crazy, and the last time this issue came up it turned into a knock-down, drag-out fight. Your blood is starting to boil and you’re feeling defensive. One more snide remark or eye roll, and this is going to turn into a monster fight. Just as you’re about to let loose, out of the corner of your eye you notice your child appear. It’s the moment of truth—do you attack or withdraw? Is there another option?

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The Good

Couples argue. When people live together and their lives are entwined, annoyance, irritability and conflict are inevitable. Sometimes these feelings escalate, and arguments turn into fights. When it was just the two of you, it was easier to hash out disagreements in the moment. Or, if tempers were running too high, you could go to your neutral corners, cool off and then move on. But when you have kids, things get complicated. You don’t want to fight in front of them, but if you don’t deal with things right away, you might never find the time (and including time to cool off first is even harder).

The good news is that anger itself is usually not the problem. In fact, anger, when appropriately managed and articulated, is often a normal part of healthy relationships. When you and your spouse are angry with each other, you have an opportunity to teach your kids valuable lessons about how relationships work. In a perfect world, you would always be calm and composed—even during a disagreement—and never utter a disrespectful word to each other. You’d listen attentively before responding and even check in with your partner to make sure you understood his point of view before calmly and rationally presenting yours.

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You're probably not perfect, though (and who is?), but you can still turn these conflicts into teachable moments for the entire family. Don’t lose heart if you start out with raised voices, poor listening or disrespectful words. You can still turn the situation around to model valuable skills for your kids. Start by taking a break to self-soothe, and wait until you’re calm before revisiting the issue. Then, discuss your disagreement in a respectful manner, focusing on listening and understanding first, while resisting defensive reactions. Even though your conflict may not have started well, doing these things will show your kids that being angry does not have to mean losing control.

Cutting your partner off and refusing to respond is not a healthy way to handle conflict. However, often the best option in the heat of an argument is to agree to disagree for the moment, temporarily part ways to take time for self-soothing and then decide later if the issue needs to be revisited (perhaps this time behind closed doors). This choice teaches your kids that not all disagreements need to be resolved immediately. They’ll learn that sometimes the best option is to wait until they’ve soothed their anger before talking about what made them angry in the first place.

The Bad … the Ugly

John Gottman, PhD, is a world-renowned psychologist and author who is known for his groundbreaking research on what makes marriages succeed or fail, as well as research on how marital dynamics and parenting style impact children. In his book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, he identifies four behaviors that couples demonstrate during conflict, which are highly predictive of divorce and equally damaging to children. What he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Just as your kids learn from the positive ways you cope with conflict, they unfortunately learn a lot when you use The Four Horsemen.

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When you and your partner engage in these destructive behaviors, you do more than just teach your children to use these behaviors themselves (and make no mistake, they will learn them and use them). According to Gottman, “children raised by parents whose marriages are characterized by criticism, defensiveness, and contempt are much more likely to show antisocial behavior and aggression toward their playmates. They have more difficulty regulating their emotions, focusing their attention and soothing themselves when they become upset.” There is also evidence that these kids become sick more often, experience higher levels of stress and even perform more poorly in school. Although it is not necessary (or realistic) to expect your relationship to be conflict-free, if The Four Horsemen are present in your marriage, it is essential that you address them.

Gottman suggests that letting your kids know when a conflict is resolved can help mitigate the level of stress they experience. Your kids are much more perceptive than you realize. Whether they are in the room or somewhere else in the house when conflict happens, they’ll likely sense it on some level and will need your help in processing their emotions about it. Be sincere, give them a hug and reassure them. If they witness you coming to some resolution, compromising and apologizing (perhaps even embracing each other), you will at least ease the feelings of uncertainty and instability that children often feel when their parents argue. Perhaps they’ll practice these behaviors as well.

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The Bottom Line

Coping with The Four Horsemen and breaking destructive behavior patterns is not easy. Still, it is rarely too late to try. Fighting fairly and productively is a learned skill. If your kids have seen you behave in ways that you’re not proud of, you can still show them that you are willing to acknowledge your faults and work on new behaviors. Any time they see this from you, you give them the chance to learn a lesson in self-evaluation and self-improvement. There will be plenty of times in your kids’ lives when they’ll behave inappropriately and you’ll ask them to work on changing their behaviors. Don’t be afraid to show them you can do the same.

If you experience the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in your relationship, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, also by Gottman, is required reading. Although couples often find it helpful to enlist the assistance of a therapist when working through these issues, it may not be necessary depending on your evaluation of your relationship while reading this book.

The bottom line is that for better or worse, conflict in a relationship is instructive to your kids. When it happens in front of them, it will have an impact. Even if they’re not in the room, they'll know if they’re in earshot. The questions you have to ask yourself are, “What do I want to teach my child about relationship conflicts?” and “Is my behavior modeling that lesson?” When you work on managing conflict effectively, you set the stage for your kids to have healthier relationships both now and in the future.

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