Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have been fighting a lot for the past few months. I know arguments are a pretty normal part of a relationship, but I’m concerned that our battles are starting to affect our two kids, ages 4 and 6. Both of them have been behaving differently lately—acting out, having trouble sleeping, and even squabbling between themselves much more than we used to. I can’t help but think that our arguments are rubbing off on them somehow. How can we stop our fighting and how do we reverse the damage I’m sure we’ve already done?
A: You’re absolutely right about two things: First, fighting with your spouse is perfectly normal. Frankly, I’d be pretty suspicious of any relationship that didn’t have its ups and downs. Not letting the sparks fly once in a while is a good indicator that one or both partners are feeling apathetic and would be better off apart. Second, children are extremely sensitive to the emotions of the adults around them, and the fight s they’re witnessing are almost certainly affecting your kids—probably more than you know. There’s a right way—and lots of wrong ways—to fight. Here’s what you need to know.
Slow down. It’s not easy, but whenever you feel a fight brewing, try to take a break. That doesn’t mean ignoring whatever the problem is, it just means that you and your wife will agree in advance to wait a while—maybe until the kids are in bed—to have your discussion. There’s a good chance that when the appointed time finally arrives, you’ll have forgotten what you were arguing about in the first place or it won’t seem nearly as important as it did just a few hours before.
Keep it private. To the extent possible, do your squabbling out of earshot of the kids. If you can’t put some distance between you and the kids, at least try to keep your voice at a conversational level.
Be nice. In the heat of the moment, it can take only a heartbeat to go from simply arguing to saying something you don’t mean and may never be able to take back. Contrary to popular wisdom, words can do just as much (or more) damage as those famous sticks and stones.
Figure out what you’re actually arguing about. Whether the fight started because you put the big pot in the wrong cupboard or because your wife forgot to pay the garbage bill, chances are good that that’s not the real reason for your spat. At their core, most arguments have to do with either stress about money (not earning enough or spending too much) or labor (not doing enough or feeling overworked). Try to think about what’s really going on and why it’s so upsetting. Spending the time to dig a little deeper and to consider the root causes can be remarkably helpful.
Let the kids see you fight. Yes, I know that sounds completely contradictory to everything I’ve just said, but it’s important for the kids to see how you and their mother handle conflict. The idea that it’s possible to disagree with someone respectfully without destroying the relationship is huge—and somewhat counterintuitive. Watching mom and dad argue, resolve differences, apologize, and make up can give them a model for how they’ll handle their own quarrels—with each other, with friends, and with romantic partners in the not too distant future.