Studies show that marital conflict can positively impact our kid's adult relationships, too.
I’ve often said that my husband of 35+ years taught me how to fight. I grew up in a loving, fairly mild-mannered household, while he was raised in a louder, more spirited (but also loving) family where lively arguments were the norm.
So, when we had our first big fight, I was sure we were headed toward divorce. And the idea that we could do it in front of our future children? No way.
The truth is, trying to create a conflict-free relationship is downright unhealthy and I’d have to say, based on years of personal experience, practically impossible.
As my favorite marriage expert, Dr. John Gottman, puts it, "a certain amount of conflict is needed to help couples weed out actions and ways of dealing with each other that can harm the marriage in the long run." Basically, a couple’s relationship grows only if the couple successfully reconciles the inevitable differences that will occur.
So once you accept that marital conflict is a given, how do you get to the place where it can actually be a positive experience for your kids?
The first step is to set some pretty basic ground rules: no screaming, no name calling, and no violent physical contact. Many studies have shown that any one of those factors increases overall stress in children which can impact behavior even into adulthood.
However, a 2014 study by Rollins College researcher Dr. Lindsay Aloia found that adults who experienced their parents and other family members arguing (with those ground rules in place) as children actually had a lower stress response when handling a current conflict with their partners.
The notion that our kids can actually learn from our fights is comforting to me (as in "Phew, we didn’t completely mess them up"), but it also makes a lot of sense. Here’s why it's OK to fight in front of kids:
1. When your kids watch you express anger in a healthy way, it gives them positive tools to deal with their own strong feelings.
Anger is definitely one of those emotions that get a bad rap in our society. Maybe you were told to "stuff it" as a child or that it’s "not nice" to get really mad.
It’d be great if all parents had the presence of mind to say "It’s OK that you’re angry, but it’s NOT OK to hit or scream at your brother/sister/friend. Take a time out and go punch your pillow instead."
The next time you start to feel your blood pressure rising with your partner and little eyes are watching, you can do just that (punching a pillow is optional). But be sure to create a verbal lesson at the same time by saying something like "I’m so angry at you (partner) right now, I think we’d better take a time-out and come back to this when we’re feeling calmer."
2. You’re modeling healthy conflict resolution skills.
In conflict resolution training, you learn about the predictable stages of conflict which is helpful to know whether you’re dealing with disagreements at home or work or anywhere in between.
In a nutshell, the sequence moves from awareness of the conflict issue, experiencing its escalation, through the anxiety and stress in the heat of the moment and into the "aftermath" where resolution or dissolution occurs.
Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you can move through all of those stages quickly and relatively smoothly with your partner — a lovely example for your wide-eyed children.
Other times, though, you’ll have to take that time-out and resolve the issue on your own. If that’s the case, you might not want to talk about the great make-up sex you had, but you can certainly say to your kids, "Dad/Mom and I had a good talk last night and a great snuggle this morning… sure felt good after that big fight yesterday."
3. Witnessing positive conflict resolution creates a sense of security and resiliency for your kids.
In the words of a great (probably female) sage, "If mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy!" And to tweak that for our purposes here, "If you’re happy, your kids are happy."
Simplistic, yes, but studies have shown that children at every age, starting in infancy, are experts at picking up on tone, body language, and emotional undercurrents between the adults around them.
In his book, Marital Conflict and Children: An Emotional Security Perspective, psychologist Dr. E. Mark Cummings states that "frequent, unresolved fighting chips away at [a child’s] confidence, triggering sadness, anxiety, and fear in children of all ages."
Likewise, when you’re getting along well with your spouse, your child’s sense of security deepens and she/he can confidently explore and learn about his or her world. That’s a pretty resounding endorsement for practicing responsible, loving conflict resolution, isn’t it?
4. If you’re managing your relationship conflicts responsibly, your kids will be able to manage stress better in their adult relationships, too.
This brings us full circle to Dr. Aloia’s 2014 study that I mentioned at the beginning. After interviewing 50 couples about experiencing family arguments at a young age, the researchers then measured levels of cortisol — the stress hormone — in saliva samples after the couples were asked to discuss something that caused conflict in their current relationships.
Those who had witnessed early conflicts at home showed lower cortisol levels during those monitored discussions, leading to Dr. Alois’s observation that "conflict experiences can be beneficial, by alleviating tension and avoiding conflict escalation, reducing communication apprehension, and contributing to closeness within the relationship."
What a relief to hear that I didn’t inadvertently add to my sons’ adult stress, at least in this area!
And to test that assumption, I actually asked my two sons (now in their 30s) about their memories of watching their dad and me argue when they were kids, and how they think that might have impacted their current relationships, for better or worse.
While both talked about being occasionally worried that we’d get divorced (a common response to witnessing even mild conflict in middle childhood, according to Cummings), I’m happy to report that each basically gave us good points for "fighting fairly".
Our older one (who’s naturally more of a "debater" like his father) even said that he thinks he's helped his wife get more comfortable with conflict, much like my husband, Peter, did for me in our early years.
And our younger one feels that his commitment to moving through arguments quickly is a direct result of watching Peter and me resolve our differences without letting them drag on for days in some passive-aggressive snit.
Now, as you consider how you can incorporate some of these ideas into your own marriage going forward, I’ll leave you with a final tip I picked up from one of the terrific articles I read while researching this one.
The author, Diana Divecha, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist affiliated with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, shared this: "When our daughters were pre-schoolers and interrupted our disagreements with concern, my husband and I would smile and reassure them with our special code. I held my fingers an inch apart and reminded them that the fight was this big, but that the love was this big — and I held my arms wide open."
That feels like it would be not only a comforting gesture for our kids, but a good reminder for us parents in the throes of an argument. I wish I’d thought of that when my boys were young, but maybe it’s not too late for you to try it.
Deborah Roth is a Relationship Coach and Interfaith Minister who loves supporting couples in navigating the ebbs and flows of maintaining and nurturing successful, long-term relationships. To learn more about her work and/or schedule an introductory couples coaching session, just visit her website.