This posting continues a four-part series on improving your relationship to improve your children's well-being. Go here for the first post, "Your love life, your child's happiness."
Parents fight. A couple necessarily involves two completely different individuals with different experiences and world-views, whose needs are often in conflict. But how we fight and how we resolve our conflicts can have a huge influence on our children's health and happiness. A substantial body of research shows that conflict between parents, whether or not they are married, puts kids at increased risk of all sorts of problems: depression, anxiety, disobedience, aggression, delinquency, poor self-esteem, antisocial behaviors, trouble sleeping, academic under-achievement, and low social competence—even health problems. Suffice it to say that fighting with your co-parent is not a "happiness habit" for your kids.
This post is for both married and unmarried parents: the negative impact of divorce on children is determined more by the level of conflict between parents before, during, and after a break-up than by the actual break-up itself. And if you aren't yet motivated to improve the way you fight, consider this: the way you fight with your co-parent is how your teenager is most likely to fight with you. So if you resolve conflicts by becoming angry, so too will your adolescent. On the other hand, if you engage in more constructive problem-solving, your teen is likely to mimic that as well.
So here is a quick lesson, based on decades of research, in how to fight with your co-parent in a way that won't scar your children. As with most things, we parents are modeling important things for our children when we fight with our beloveds (or ex-beloveds). Conflict is a part of life, and so exposure to it can actually be an important lesson in emotional literacy for kids if it is handled in the correct way.
Here are three healthy things, according to researcher John Gottman, that couples in stable marriages do to resolve conflict positively. Remember, what is good for your partnership is also good for your kids.
(1) Sugar-coat your complaints a little bit, like you would with a good friend whose feelings you don't want to hurt. (Gottman calls this the "soft start-up".) I'm a big fan of directness, so I do this one wrong all the time. But my direct but, ahem, emotionally charged complaints aren't good predictors of a successful marriage, so I must change my erring ways. Last night Mike revealed that he scheduled a business trip in the middle of what was supposed to be our vacation. Real-life marriage DON'T: I said, "What were you thinking?! Don't you care enough about us to have our vacation on your calendar?! What do I have to do, keep your calendar for you? Do you really expect me to be your secretary?!?" It was ugly, and—shocker—the conversation didn't go well. I should have softened my start-up: "Uh, Mike? Come look at the calendar and check out when you scheduled your trip to Boston. Did you realize that trip conflicts with our vacation?" probably would have done the trick.
(2) Calm down already. Take a break from the discussion if it gets too heated. Research shows that it is particularly important for men to take some time to get their heart-rate down if they are starting to get really angry. Agree on a time, maybe a ½ hour later, to get back together and re-open discussion. Then go do something to get your mind off the fight for a little while. If you know how to meditate, this is the time to do it. If you struggle with getting too worked up during a fight, you gotta learn how to calm yourself down. Whatever you do, don't go off into some corner to sulk, or plot out your winning arguments, as I am prone to do. (I've been known to jot down key bullet points to make my argument air-tight. This is not a good way to reduce the adrenaline coursing through my veins.) The goal is to chill out so that you can come back to the discussion calm.
(3) Master the art of negotiation. This means you need to accept the influence of your partner, even if at first you think they are being totally irrational. Gottman recommends the "Aikido principle: Yield to win." This is the simple fact that if you want to "win" an argument, you cannot simply counter everything your "opponent" says: this will only escalate the fight. What we need to do is get our partner to agree with us on at least some points, and in order to do this, we absolutely must find something we agree with in what our partner is saying. This is a tough one for me, given my stunning gift for argument and tendency to be 100% right.
My friend Eileen Healy, a great family counselor, cautions that done wrong this strategy can lead to a solution no one is happy with. For example: I give something up, then you give something up, then I give…until there is nothing left that either of us wants. That much compromise isn't going to resolve the conflict satisfactorily. Eileen stresses that the art of negotiation involves positive problem solving, and that we should work on it until we both feel like we have a good solution, or at least one we are both willing to try.
Here are some more common-sense things the research reminds us: high-conflict relationships are more damaging to children when kids actually witness the conflict. (Which isn't to say that lots of conflict between partners that the kids DON'T witness is okay – it is just the lesser of two evils.) Virtually all angry interactions, including non-verbal ones, make your kids feel bad. And, of course, disrespectful fighting—name calling, putting down, swearing–is damaging to children.
But fights happen, and we can make good on it for our kids AND our relationship when we resolve conflict constructively in front of our children. Print this worksheet to help you remember Gottman's tips for positive conflict resolution. Research has shown again and again that conflict that is repaired positively and respectfully has the most beneficial effects for those little pitchers with big ears.
Interestingly, simply ending an argument with an apology, by "agreeing to disagree," by withdrawing, or with a simple submission aren't great outcomes from the children's perspective. Though these are seemingly low–conflict ways to end a fight, conflict resolution from one (but not both) of the parent's perspectives is not necessarily resolution from the kids perspective. If you can't resolve the argument in front of the kids, be sure to demonstrate that the relationship has been repaired, show them that you've reconnected, and tell them how the conflict was resolved.
As Rudolf Dreikurs famously warned, "children are great perceivers but poor interpreters." Kids feel it deeply when their parents fight—they are great perceivers of emotion and tension—but most often they "think in their hearts that they are responsible for their parent's fighting," Eileen says, which makes them distressed, anxious, and even depressed. So this week, let's improve the way we express and resolve conflict with our co-parents. Next week's post will be about the positive and simple things that we can do to become better friends with our co-parents.
Less Yelling and More Joy with Your Parenting Partner
Click here to listen to Rona Renner's December 16, 2007 radio show on a similar topic. Join Rona and guests, Joshua Coleman, PhD, parenting and relationship expert and author of The Marriage Makeover, and Rona's husband, Mick Renner, PhD, as they offer ideas for creating a healthy and happy environment for your family and give you tips for making-up after a fight.
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