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A Fighting Chance
August 10th, 2011

I’m skeptical of any married person who claims that she doesn’t fight with her spouse.  No two people are so perfectly aligned that they never disagree, never hurt each other’s feelings, or never sense friction of any kind.  I think I’m even more skeptical of people who claim that they do disagree, hurt each other’s feelings, and sense friction and still don’t fight.  Something about that just doesn’t feel genuine to me.

Of course there is a continuum here.  What I call a fight you might call a discussion.  What you call a fight I might call a hostile screaming match.  What I call cooling off you might call the silent treatment.  And so on.  But the commonality here is that there is conflict, no matter how civilly or heatedly it is expressed.

When the two conflicted adults don’t have children, their fighting style is mostly a personal choice.  Provided it’s not done publicly there’s not much place for anyone to say what is the “right” way to fight.  If yelling and screaming gets the anger out of your system and the issues out on the table (and your partner is game for it), then who am I to claim right or wrong?  If a calm conversation is both cathartic and productive, then more power to you.

The kicker, though, is when kids are in the picture.

Questions abound.  Should our kids know that we fight?  Should we let them see us argue?  If they know we’ve had a fight should we put on a happy face when we’re in front of them, or is that disingenuous and stressful for them?  A post yesterday on NYT’s Motherlode asks these very questions.

The social worker quoted in the article says just what you’d expect her to say – that what matters most is that kids learn how to manage their differences; that they learn how to do so in a loving fashion and with respect; and that they learn how to voice their own needs and opinions.  This all sounds quite manageable in shrink-speak, but I wonder if it isn’t a great deal harder than that in real life.

GAP and I aren’t “fighters” per se.  We disagree and argue often enough – we are both strong-willed and opinionated.  But we don’t yell or scream.  Ever.  We don’t get huffy with each other in front of IEP, which for the moment I think is the right call.  He’s too young to understand that conflict between Mommy and Daddy is normal and healthy and I don’t want any occasional tension between us to ever frighten him.

But what of the future?  What about four or five years from now when he’s in elementary school, perhaps getting into playground spats with friends from time to time, has several siblings he has to get along with, and needs an example of how to settle an issue effectively?  How then does our example affect him?

Like most parenting issues, as the mother of a two-year-old this one is new to me.  So much of what I will learn about raising a child is out in the future still.  And, like many other parenting issues I’m sure we will screw this one up, at least a couple of times, before we get the hang of it and figure out what works in our families.  Nevertheless, I wonder if there is some path – whether wide or narrow – within the boundaries of which I can walk with some assurance of safety.  Even though I know I’ll make mistakes in this realm, I hope that they will be minor.

5 Responses to “A Fighting Chance”

  1. Laura H. Says:

    Such a hard topic. I’m starting to realize that how much we let our kids see needs to depend on how much it affects them. So we need to be in-tune with how they perceive disagreements we have.

    My husband and I never disagree about our parenting in front of our children. We support each other in our parenting in front of them always, and discuss different opinions in strict privacy after the kids are asleep, or when we’re out for a date night.

    We have had several times when we have disagreed in front of the children in calm, non-raised voices and we have thought nothing of it until one of the kids has said something like, “you need to apologize to each other and give each other a hug.” It was so weird because we both felt that no apologies were necessary, neither of us was disrespecting the other and we were just discussing a difference of opinion. Yet somehow the kids thought we were fighting. Woah…if they are sensitive to that then maybe we need to be extra mindful of it.

    I think 99% of the time we are modeling good behavior by showing our children how we communicate and compromise. Can I say the kids have never seen us actually fight with raised voices? No; it’s happened a few times. We certainly make mistakes as married partners and as parents. But when I make those mistakes, I always make a point to apologize, discuss it with my children and show them through future modeling that I learn from my mistakes.

  2. Gale Says:

    Laura H – You make such a good point about the kids knowing that Mommy and Daddy are on the same side. IEP is old enough now to know that if he doesn’t like Mommy’s answer to a question he can go ask Daddy. But because he’s only two, usually Daddy was standing right there when he asked me. (He needs to hone his strategy skills!) But as he gets older he’ll get better at this and I think it’s important to establish early on that Mommy and Daddy have each other’s backs. We have to do this with our nanny too so that he knows that he can’t appeal her authority to his parents.

    I was intrigued by your comment about having had a disagreement with your husband that the kids thought warranted an apology and a hug. As adults we are much more comfortable leaving things unresolved – Agreeing to disagree, or realizing that you’re not getting anywhere with more talking and just letting things cool off on their own. But with kids we always work to resolve the conflict. Any time IEP gets put in the corner when he gets out he has to say he’s sorry and give a hug and a kiss to the person he disobeyed. So he’s learning now that the proper way to end a conflict is to kiss and make up – literally. With young kids I suspect it’s imprortant for them to see the resolution to the conflict so that they can move on in their own minds knowing that Mommy and Daddy are okay. But perhaps as they get older (into middle school, maybe?) they are old enough to understand that not all disagreements are resolved in a tidy fashion and that sometimes we need a little space from the other person before we’re ready to apologize and hug.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I must say – I tend to believe that your “style” of disagreeing now is likely to remain your style of disagreeing in the future.

    Sure – a second child adds more stress and commotion, but our natural communication approach remains.

    I won’t say I haven’t raised my voice more with two than with one, but generally, in my experience, what disagreements took place during my marriage never came close to the sort of screaming matches you hear about, or disrespect that some might fear.

    As for the lessons in apologies? In simply admitting to being wrong?

    They’re pretty important. And why not by example?

  4. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Interesting post, Gale. My husband and I fight much more now than we ever did before having kids. Less time to ourselves, less sleep, and more commitments in general have made us less patient with each other and more prone to occasional blow-ups. Like you, we try not to fight in front of our kids, but when we do – and this is a lesson I learned from Christine Carter’s Raising Happiness – we try to make it a point to make up in front of them too. She made a great point in her book about how parents tend to settle their disputes after the kids are in bed so as not to prolong conflict in front of them, leaving the kids to wonder if the tension they witnessed (or maybe just sensed) was ever resolved. That made a lot of sense to me, especially since my tendency is to put on a happy face for them.

  5. Cathy Says:

    I agree with BLW and Kristen. Your style now will likely remain the same and it’s providing an excellent example to your young boy on how to resolve conflict. I’ve found that a real detriment to the good example you are setting is everything he’ll pick up from friends at school.

    The concept of making up in front of the kids seems to make sense as well. You will be fine.