The art of conversation is a complicated skill, especially when it comes to communication in relationships. Sadly, it is one that I have really struggled with because I did not see healthy communication of difficult issues in my family when I was a child. It is often said that parents should not fight in front of their children. For example, Dr. Phil says that fighting in front of your children is “nothing short of abuse.” I disagree. In fact, I believe that fighting in front of your children, or at least having difficult conversations in front of them, can be extremely helpful for their future.
Let me clarify. First, I do not believe that it is acceptable to scream at your spouse, call them names, belittle them, throw things, etc., in front of your children. If you find yourself moving into any of those areas, you should stop the conversation whether or not your children are present, because those types of behaviors are going to do nothing but harm your relationship, and they will certainly harm your children in the long run as well whether they are present when it happens or not.
However, conflict is a normal part of a relationship, and your children will get their role models from you for how to deal with conflict. While they certainly should not hear every difficult discussion, it can be very helpful for them to be present for some of those discussions when 1) they are old enough to handle it, 2) you know that you and your spouse are mentally prepared to keep the discussion within healthy limits, 3) you will have an opportunity to discuss the conflict with your child at a later point, and 4) your children frequently sees positive interactions between you. As long as you are using healthy techniques in your discussion, your child can learn how conflict is dealt with in a relationship by observing you. As one article for teens puts it, “Watching how parents resolve differences can give you some important information about how you handle conflict, and how you might handle arguments in the future.” Similarly, a study from the University of Virginia found that:
Teenagers whose parents encourage them to express their own opinions and who make a point of discussing tough issues as a family are less likely to succumb to peer pressure than other teenagers.
In order to fully understand my perspective on this, you need to know a bit about my family. Despite loving me and my siblings deeply, my parents struggled constantly with one another. The first time one of them mentioned divorce in my presence was when I was nine years old, so when they finally divorced when I was 21, I had none of those common emotions that children of divorcing parents are supposed to have: guilt, shock, confusion. Instead, I felt a mixture of sadness and relief.
Because my parents got along so poorly, they tended to have two methods for dealing with conflict. The most common was a complete disconnect. They stayed apart as much as possible, moving in different life patterns in order to avoid conflict. They talked with each other only when necessary, although they complained to others about each other constantly. The second method, which occurred when they could not avoid a fight, was a combination of harsh sarcasm, emotional manipulation, and criticism of the other person’s basic character.
Unfortunately, one side effect of growing up in this environment is that when I get into heated discussions with my husband, I often feel like my mental toolbox is empty. I want to react in healthy ways, but I never saw that modeled in my childhood, so I am frequently at a loss. My learning in this area has come from a combination of reading about relationships and observing healthy couples. For example, I remember visiting a friend and his parents for the weekend when I was in college. During the course of dinner, the parents got into a fight. Remembering it now, I think the wife was upset because the husband was not helping to prepare dinner, although I’m not sure. Whatever the conflict was, I remember that after dinner the wife was cleaning up the dishes. The husband came up behind her, gave her a hug, and whispered something silly into her ear. She laughed, he joined her in cleaning up the dishes, and I had a revelation. Disagreeing did not always have to lead to ongoing tension. It could sometimes be resolved with tenderness. These kind of obvious revelations are what makes me wish my parents had been able to fight in healthy ways, and had done at least a little bit of that type of fighting in front of me.
An Embarrassing Discovery
I tell you all this as an apology. You see, my discovery this week was simple enough to be embarrassing. What I discovered was quite simply that kindness makes a huge difference when having difficult conversations. My husband and I had a serious discussion this weekend about our future, specifically in the next year or so. Because we are in different situations right now, with him working full time at a stressful job and me staying at home, we were coming from very different perspectives. In fact, when we first tried to have the conversation, we broke down into sarcasm and anger within the first five minutes and decided to put the discussion off until later.
The next day, though, when we tried again, I decided that since this week’s challenge is behaving with kindness, I would inject as much kindness into my side of the conversation as possible. So I asked for his opinion and really listened. I stifled my desire to jump to conclusions about his intentions. I spoke carefully and thoughtfully. To my surprise, the conversation went really well. He felt listened to, and listened to me in return. Instead of taking on opposite sides of the issue and attempting to “win,” we discussed both sides of the issue, and ended up at a solution that worked for both of us. And, color me humble, it was his idea. Without a healthy dose of kindness, it is unlikely that we would have gotten far enough in the conversation for him to think of the solution.
I’m not saying that kindness will make your discussion of difficult topics easy. We still had moments where the conversation went off track or one of us stumbled back into unhealthy fighting habits, and I’m sure that we will continue to negotiate and refine our solution. Ultimately, though, I think you will find, like I did, that whatever the conversation is, approaching it with kindness toward your partner will make it easier. And, every so often, letting your kids see you practicing these skills, even if you practice them imperfectly, just might add a few tools to their mental toolbox for later use.