I still remember the first time my parents ever fought in front of me. How many people can say that? I was 14 years old and they got in an argument about how to get to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco (imagine that scene in the Incredibles where they are trying to get to the robot and they are yelling about which exit to take…you have the idea). I was so shaken by this experience that I went to our pastor, afraid that my parents were going to get a divorce. He laughed at me and calmed my fears sending me to my parents to talk to them.
Far from getting divorced, my parents had just been unable to do what they normally did when they disagree, leave the room. Before I was born, my parents had made a conscious decision to never, never, never, disagree in front of their children. Any time they had a disagreement they would go somewhere else and talk it out until they could come out as a united force.
I completely understand why they did this. Even now, in my mind, my parents are a beacon of unity and true love. I never had the trauma of hiding in a corner while my parents yelled at each other, or felt like I needed to choose between them. Besides lying, the worst thing we children could do was to try and pit our parents against each other; it never seemed to work anyway.
While I understand why they took this path, let me tell you why my husband and I will not be following in their footsteps.
Let us fast-forward. I am 20-years-old and living with my new husband in our first apartment. My husband and I have known each other less than a year (we dated for six weeks and were engaged for six months) and have yet to have an argument of any real weight. That is until “the great shoes incident” of 2010.
It doesn’t seem like much now. In fact we laugh about it these days. My husband wanted to keep our shoes in a pile by the front door; I wanted them to stay in the closet in our room. But my husband (the only child of a single mother) and I (the girl who had never really seen her parents argue) had no idea how to settle the disagreement.
What should have been simple discussion and compromise turned into a two-hour screaming match that ended in my husband storming off, and me in tears. Over where the shoes should go!
Because neither of us was ever shown how a loving couple argues we had no idea how to do it. It’s taken us a long time, and we are still not perfect, but we are no longer the angry newlyweds. We disagree, but we do so with respect and discussion.
Here are three things we avoid and two things we focus on when disagreeing in front of our children.
We avoid “you” statements.
“You never take out the trash!” “You always spend too much money!” “You always feed the kids too much junk food!” These kinds of statements always feel like attacks and put your partner on the defensive, and sometimes that can turn into the offensive. You want to avoid that. Nothing escalates a disagreement to an argument like putting someone on the defensive.
We focus on “I” statements.
“I would really appreciate it if you took out the trash.” “I am worried about the amount of money being spent.” “I think we need to talk about what foods the kids should be eating.” All these “I,” statements get the point across without the aggression of “you” statements. These statements invite your spouse into a discussion rather than putting him or her on trial.
We avoid bringing up other arguments.
Have you ever noticed how a disagreement about the trash can turn into a full-on fight about your mother-in-law and you have no idea how it happened? We’ve noticed this usually happens when we are really tired or grumpy. Whatever the cause, bringing up other fights in the middle of solving a separate problem is just not helpful. If you are upset about the trash focus on the trash. If you are really upset about your mother-in-law taking another jab at you, don’t use the poor trash as your springboard.
Side note: one of the few things we NEVER do in front of our kids is bad-mouth their grandparents! Just like we never bad-mouth each other in front of them. Big, big, big no-no!
We avoid raising our voices.
This is a biggie. If we are having a disagreement that is escalating to the yelling stage, we pause it. I think what is most traumatic for children when they see their parents fight is listening to the yelling. Yelling shouldn’t happen anyway, but let’s be honest, for most of us it does. If there is something you and your spouse need to work out that can’t be done without heated emotion, that is something to do away from where your kids can hear it. However, really and truly work hard to squish conflicts before they get to that point.
We focus on validating each other’s opinions.
My husband is AMAZING at this. Even when he thinks I’m out of my mind he takes the time to say “Honey, I can understand why you feel the shoes should go in the closet, you think that they will be more organized that way. However….” Even though he disagrees with me, he takes the time to acknowledge what I just said and why I feel that way. I feel understood and know that he is actually listening and so I am more willing to listen to his side. This tactic also defuses the potential for misunderstandings because if he doesn’t understand my reason, I catch it right away and can correct it.
As our two children have come along we have talked about how to handle disagreements when they are around. While we obviously choose not to yell at or demean each other in front of our children, we do not hide our disagreements either. Our children will not panic at age fourteen because they saw mom and dad fight for the first time. But we also hope that they will have learned enough from watching us that when they are newlyweds they don’t find themselves into tears over a small thing because they don’t know what a healthy disagreement between a loving couple looks like.