If my spouse and I argue and disagree a lot, will this have a negative effect on our kids? Though our relationship is still intact (for the most part), we have what I can only describe as a "high-conflict marriage." Is this likely to hurt our children?
Everything depends on the way you approach and handle your differences. Believe it or not, it might be a good thing for your children to see you and your spouse having an argument – as long as you manage the situation in a respectful and healthy way.
It's a sad fact that few people ever have the opportunity to see their parents resolve a conflict in a positive and mutually satisfying manner. Instead, disagreements within a marriage all too often deteriorate into yelling matches and character assassinations – either that, or they are suppressed and repressed. Children who have repeatedly observed these destructive responses to conflict are likely to be ill equipped to manage the disagreements that will inevitably arise in their own lives and relationships. But if Mom and Dad can learn what it means to model healthy methods of solving problems in the home, every member of the family will benefit in the long run.
This doesn't mean that they should make a habit of arguing in front of the kids. There's room for discernment here. In particular, you should never voice a disagreement in front of a child who is the subject of that disagreement. Generally speaking, if there's to be any kind of positive outcome, the children should be old enough to understand what you are talking about and emotionally mature enough to grasp the concept that you can disagree with someone whom you deeply love and respect. Preschoolers and grade-school children may misinterpret a spirited parental exchange as the unraveling of their world. They should rarely, if ever, witness a serious parental disagreement. Older children and adolescents, on the other hand, can learn something by watching two mature people settle an issue in a constructive fashion.
Obviously, this isn't the place for a detailed exposition of all the principles involved in settling marital disagreements. But the following basic concepts can serve as a helpful foundation for parents who want to work on this important area of family life:
- Mutual respect is an absolute necessity. Respect acknowledges the ultimate worth of the other person. If parents don't respect one another, or if respect flows only in one direction, attempts to resolve issues are likely to be unsuccessful or hurtful.
- When a disagreement arises, conversation should focus on the issue and not the person. In other words, avoid the temptation to attack your spouse. Stay away from "you" statements, especially those containing the words always, never, should or shouldn't. Replace them with statements that accurately express your own feelings about the issue at hand.
- When an issue needs to be discussed, pick an appropriate time and place. Not at the end of the day when energy is low and fuses may be short; not right before bed; not when anger is at a fever pitch or when there isn't time to work through it. It's helpful to have discussions of this nature in a place that's relatively free of distractions and interruptions.
- Pray together before discussing the issue. Laying the problem before God can help keep it in perspective and reinforce your common ground.
- Each person must be able to express his or her viewpoint fully, without interruption. Learn how to listen carefully, and get into the habit of checking frequently to make sure you understand what the other person is saying.
- Avoid dragging events from the distant past into the current issue. Comments such as, "Here we go again!" are never helpful.
- The discussion of an issue should eventually arrive at a point of exploring possible courses of action. It may help to list a number of possibilities. Remember that there may be times when you will have to "agree to disagree." When this happens, the other person's viewpoint is not to be subjected to constant ridicule.
Some couples will have been over these principles during premarital counseling. Virtually every marriage could benefit from reviewing them. If, after trying to implement these measures, you find that your chronic conflicts continue to drag on, never reaching resolution, it may be time to seek professional help. If you need referrals to counselors who are qualified to assist you in this area, don't hesitate to give us a call. Focus on the Family's Counseling department can provide you with a list of professionals in your locality who specialize in communication issues and marital dysfunction. Our staff would also be more than happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone.
Gaining Closeness Through Conflict: Dr. Greg Smalley explains how to work though conflicts in your marriage in a way that will result in more closeness and caring.
Love and Respect