My husband and I are strong-willed firstborns who sometimes disagree. Fundamentally, we hold the same values, but the nitty-gritty of everyday life can send us over the edge: freaking out over finances, spending time with extended family, negotiating for me time, dealing with his shoes flung in the hallway (again) or the bird’s nest of hair I left in the shower drain (again).
Arguing isn’t the most fun pastime in my marriage, but it’s definitely a part of the relationship. Disagreeing helps us see each other’s point of view more clearly and gives us the chance to say important things we might be holding back. As long as it doesn’t get mean-spirited, I find fighting — and making up — is a good thing.
So, yes, I’m an advocate for marital disagreements. The challenge is when fighting happens in front of the kids, and anyone who says they “never” fight around their offspring is full of it.
I know what the research says: Parents who fight in front of their kids are screwing them up good. Kids who witness intense parental fighting have higher incidences of depression, anxiety, and aggression. When I hear those facts, my heart sinks.
We don’t plan to have it out while our kids are bopping through the kitchen on a Sunday morning in search of more pancakes. Sometimes, though, being human gets the best of us, our emotions take over, and the thoughtful parents we strive to be forget about the little people listening. No one wants to cause their kids unnecessary stress, but sometimes we can’t help it because, newsflash, nobody’s perfect.
My husband and I are well aware our disagreements affect our three girls, ages 14, 12, and 5. Not only does the research show this, but our daughters are also pretty vocal about how they feel. They tell us they don’t like it when we fight, that it makes them sad or puts them in a bad mood. Their input reminds us of our responsibilities to them — not to bottle up our emotions and never disagree, but to model how to fight fairly, find common ground, and make up. I’m not saying it’s ideal, but in some ways, fighting in front of the kids holds us accountable to them — and to each other.
Fighting in front of the kids sucks, but having them believe that the only good marriage is a conflict-free one isn’t healthy or realistic either. Pretending to be unaffected by someone else’s actions or comments, or thinking it’s not worth the trouble to stand up for oneself, is not something my husband and I want to model for our girls.
We want them to learn how to make a point, listen to the other person’s perspective, no matter how infuriating in that moment, access their empathy, and stay away from name-calling and hurtful language. Most importantly, I want them to see us work through our differences so they can learn how to do it too.
This plan sounds great, I know, but it’s not always easy to adhere to in the heat of the moment. I also realize that making the case that all conflicts are actually teachable moments doesn’t make it okay for us to fight in front of our kids. One of the worst things in the world is the look on my kid’s face while she’s watching us squabble: wide eyes, mouth slightly agape, worried. I’ve seen my daughters’ faces flush and crumble when they see us fight.
But pretending my husband and I don’t butt heads is a lie, and I’m not interested in raising kids who believe love is only about getting along or that they should avoid conflict, even if it means casting aside their own feelings and needs.
My kids deserve 360-degree relationships where they feel secure and loved enough to express their dissatisfaction, even if it means fighting about it. That’s why when my husband and I do end up throwing bombs at each other over the kitchen island, we always circle back around with our girls. We tell them adults who love each other sometimes fight, that we love them and aren’t fighting about them, and that we’re sorry if we worried them. Then my husband grabs me and gives me a bunch of sloppy kisses that I try to fend off while my tween and teen tell us how gross we are and the 5-year-old bum-rushes us to get in on the action.
Fighting happens. It’s how we fight and make up that matters most to our marriage and our kids.