"Dr. Laura....In your last post, you warned parents against fighting in front of our kids. But as you always say, we're not perfect, we're human! What are we supposed to do when we disagree? And isn't it good for kids to see parents work out disagreements, and make up? And isn't okay if spouses don't always agree -- we can still love each other."
Yes, Yes, Yes! The nature of human relationships is that we will disagree. It's wonderful for children to see their parents model how to work out disagreements. It's important for them to know that we don't always agree, but we always love each other. And it's critical for kids to see us make up.
That doesn't mean it's okay to yell at each other in front of our kids. The research shows that a disagreement followed by working things through and making up can teach kids valuable lessons about working through conflicts constructively. But the research also shows that yelling always affects kids badly, even if you make up eventually. Yelling is not constructive conflict resolution, ever. It's a tantrum. (And no, it's not "authentic." What's authentic is the tears and fears under the yelling.)
So given that conflicts are inevitable, how can you best handle them when you live with kids?
1. When you or your partner start to get irritated, start by doing exactly what you would do (or hope to do!) if you were irritated with your child – Breathe! Notice your upset. Remind yourself that you love your partner and you can work this out.
2. If you can keep your equilibrium to discuss the issue, do so. Your kids will benefit from watching you:
- Acknowledge the issue. "Hmm...I get stressed out when we're late going someplace. We seem to have a problem leaving the house on time."
- Listen to your partner's upset. Breathe. Bite your tongue. You'll get a chance to express your view.
- Empathize with your partner's view. "It sounds like you think I'm the one making us late. I hear you were in the car waiting for me and the kids. That must have been frustrating for you, watching it get later and later and we didn't come out of the house."
- Express your view without blaming or attacking. "I was frustrated, too. I had to help the kids get their shoes on, plus wrap the pie to take with us, plus get myself ready. I would have loved to have help getting all that ready, and I would have gotten to the car sooner."
- Be sure to acknowledge your contribution to the problem. "I do admit that I didn't start getting ready in time. The time just got away from me this afternoon."
- Resist "piling on" like "I do all the work around here...If you just helped once in a while, things would work better." Deal only with the issue at hand at this moment.
- Agree on a solution for the future. "Let's agree that we'll always set a timer half an hour before we have to leave the house and then we'll all work together to get ready to go. If we're ready early, we can play a quick game of tag in the yard once we load the car."
3. If the conversation starts to get heated, stop. Don't wait until you're fighting mad. The person who is less annoyed can just say, "This deserves a longer discussion than we can have right now. Let's talk later so we can come up with a good solution. I love you, and I know we always work things out." Give each other a big hug.
4. What if one of you has a hard time dropping the issue? Write it down. Really! Put your note in a private place you’ve agreed on, like a decorative bowl on a shelf. Shake on your agreement to talk about it later.
5. What if you're still angry? Remind yourself that you want to work things out with your partner and anger doesn't help you do that. Right now, you're in "fight or flight" and your partner looks like the enemy. Do whatever you need to do to calm yourself and shift your mood, like breathe deeply ten times, shake out your hands, find something to be grateful for. As soon as you can, say to your partner “I need a hug” and give them a big hug.
6. Stop gathering resentments. If you keep gathering kindling, sooner or later you’ll erupt in a firestorm. Just let it go for now. Tell yourself “We’ve made an agreement to talk about this later. Right now, I’m looking for solutions, not blame.” To melt away the anger, notice the more vulnerable feelings under the anger. Are you feeling sad that you’re being taken for granted? Hurt that you’re feeling not listened to? Your partner did not cause these feelings – they’re your feelings, almost certainly from your own childhood. If you let yourself just notice and feel them, they’ll melt away. And then you won’t need the anger, so it will evaporate.
Will your partner’s behavior melt away, too? Sometimes. But even if it doesn’t, you’ll find you can communicate about it so much more effectively that things shift quickly.
7. That evening after the kids are in bed, listen to each other. Express your upset by talking about what you feel under the anger, and what you need, rather than attacking your partner: “Getting the kids ready and out of the house always feels stressful to me…I would like to brainstorm about how we can make the whole thing easier…right now I feel very alone with it, like I have to make it all happen…I would love to feel like we are equal partners in this.” Is this hard? Of course, it takes great maturity. But "expressing anger" by attacking the other person shuts down the safety, and therefore the discussion. If you really want to work things out, research shows this is the best way to do it.
8. The next day, be sure to share with your kids that you resolved the situation. "Remember yesterday when I was upset that Mommy doesn't cook the things I love now that she's a vegetarian? We talked about it. We agreed that I will make whatever food I want two days a week, and she will make her own food if she doesn't want to eat what I'm making. When she cooks, she can make what she wants, and I will always at least try it so I can learn to like new things. Want to help me make dinner on Sunday? I'm thinking meatloaf!"
9. What if you can't agree? Agree to disagree. Explain that to your kids the next day. "Remember when Dad and I disagreed about whether it's time to buy a new car? We got pretty mad, I know. You know that you can be mad at someone and love them at the same time, right? We still aren't sure yet. I'm worried about spending money on a car right now. Dad is worried that the car is breaking down a lot. It's a hard decision. We're going to keep talking about it. Sometimes you have to think a long time before you can make a good decision."
10. Keep your ratio positive and show kids the good things, too. Every relationship needs seven positive interactions to each negative interaction to stay healthy. Initiate positive interactions whenever you can, from kind comments to warm hugs. Be sure your children see your love for each other, played out in front of them on a daily basis. If you've been disagreeing a lot lately, or your kids have been witness to your yelling, step up the warm connection. It's good for your relationship, of course. And that's the modeling children really need to see -- that it's more important to be "love" than to be right.