When we fight in front of our children

There had been clues along the way.

The prolonged hugging in the morning, before Fred left for school. “I love you too much,” he said, as he rested his cheek against my belly. I responded in kind and wrapped my arms loosely around him. He repeated himself one more time, “I love you too much,” before he finally let go to head for the car. But midway he stopped and ran back to hug me again. “Okay, go, go!” I said.  “Get in the car!”

Yesterday, when he seemed to overreact when his afternoon playmate had to go home for dinner. “WHY does he have to go?” Fred had shouted in tears. “HOW do you know he is eating dinner NOW?” Max and I had already started arguing in the next room by that time. I later realized that Fred was dreading to let go of his friend, afraid to be left alone in the house while his parents were fighting.

Where there is love, there is conflict. Where there is intimacy, there is hurt. We fight because we feel and because we care. As the saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. As long as we engage in conflict, we are showing that we care enough to engage.

I know this. At least, after 10 years of marriage, I know this. I know that lack of sleep or misunderstandings can trigger some of our meltdowns. I know that within 24 hours things will blow over. I know that, despite the hostility we feel at those moments, our love cannot be so easily destroyed.

But at 7, Fred doesn’t know this.

I remember the first time I heard my parents fight. I was in bed, and all I could remember hearing were my father’s shouting and my mother’s muffled crying. At the crack of dawn, I woke up to study my mother’s face and body, making sure she was still breathing and that she would soon wake up. I had believed, then, that you could die from someone’s anger.

I was 7, the same age Fred is now.

The night after our fight, while Fred and I were reading at bedtime, we came across the word “courage” in his story book. I asked Fred if he knew what the word meant. He asked, “Is that like me not crying last night?”

I realized we had not talked about the fight. I told him to feel okay about telling Mommy and Daddy how our arguing makes him feel. I told him that sometimes as adults we forget; we are so emotional and we forget how our anger impacts our children. Fred, who had been stoic this whole time, suddenly started blinking back tears until they overpowered him. I realized, then, how much he has grown, how much of a complete person he has become, and how vigilant we have to be now in his presence.

Long before I became a mother I had a goal to spare my future children the stress of a war zone at home.

A number of things have defined the person I’ve become, but none more than the experience of witnessing and living with my parents’ fighting. The feelings of powerlessness had led to depression, the fears to anxiety, the anger to a sometimes overly strong need for independence from any man. But how easy it has become to prioritize getting all our emotions out over making a serious effort to consider the impact on our children. More than once I found myself saying something to Fred that echoed too painfully what my mother used to say to me, something that used to give me zero comfort: “Your father is not angry at you; he is angry at me. This has nothing to do with you.”

A fight between Mommy and Daddy is the cracking fault line in a child’s world. Our fighting has everything to do with them.

After a day of not speaking, I finally reached out to Max when I saw the notes in Fred’s school folder. Fred had been acting out that day. He did not listen to his teachers. He was angry. They made him write a letter of apology to be signed by us. Without explanation, we both knew the cause of his behavior and what we needed to do to restore normalcy to Fred’s – and our – life. Like a powerful glue, it was our child that put us back together again. Our children have everything to do with us.

How do you handle your marital conflicts when it comes to your children? Are you able to fight behind closed doors? How do your children react to conflict?

8 thoughts on “When we fight in front of our children

  1. Man, this struck me right in the gut.

    I’d noticed the acting out in my (then) 4 and 2 year olds after their dad and I would get loud. We have made great strides in dealing with our martial strife away from little ears.

    It’s not always easy and we dont always succeed but we each try to get the other to check it for another time.

  2. My parents didn’t fight. They didn’t show me it was okay to disagree, that love can patch anger. Anger terrifies me. I bottle it, hide it,avoid it.
    My husband is more than willing to air grievances, just to get them out. it does clear the air, but only if done respectfully and with time to find common ground again.
    Needless to say, we’ve had to work out how to disagree so we both feel better. It’s a constant work in progress.
    When my kids are around, I often walk away from anger, to come up with an appropriate response. I don’t know if this is working well. My six year old comes to my defense some times. I don’t want her to feel responsible for me or my feelings!

    • I think you are handling it well with the kids. They say it is good to cool off versus reacting quickly and strongly. Funny, I grew up surrounded by anger and it still terrifies me. Anger can terrify regardless if you were swallowed by it or never saw it…you are right, though, that seeing anger in a healthy way can let us know that it is okay to have it in our lives, that it is natural and necessary but that we can also manage it.

  3. My first reaction to a fight is to generally shut down. No talking, no touching, no eye contact. Perhaps the occasional passive-aggressive comment. Mature, I know. I can’t say that the kids have ever noticed this. Perhaps I’m the one who needs to do the noticing so I can gauge how they respond.

  4. Hey Cecilia – I’ve stopped checking my Google Reader as I’m SOOOOOOO far behind, which is why I wasn’t even aware you had posted two entries! But I’m glad I checked in to see if you wrote and you did. Yay!

    And boy what a post. Like you, my parenting decisions are based on my own childhood experience and I definitely do NOT want my children to witness the fighting as I remember all too well how that made me feel.

    We both try to be careful but sometimes things get out of hand pretty quickly although the last time, it was a big blowout that involved my mom and myself, which my daughter witnessed. She freaked out and I was so mad at my mom who wouldn’t walk away even when both my partner and I urged her to. But it didn’t surprise me as this was the same person who fought in front of me, and I still remember those horrendous moments to this day.

    I am with you and believe that conflict between a couple is not indicative of a bad connection. It’s sometimes just a missed connection. We know that but our kids don’t. Our job is to reassure them, but also to find a more effective way of airing our differences that will not have any detrimental effects on our kids. Easier said than done, I know.

  5. What a wonderful post, poignant and important. My husband and I have the same issues–I’m no good at hiding how I feel about something, and he can be overly snarky. We know the argument will blow over, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact our kids. It’s a constant struggle, though, to out their feelings before ours in that moment.

    I found you through a Twitter #ff today, and so glad I did! I’ll be back for more.

  6. This is a post that hits home big time! Let me begin by saying that I appreciate your courage for sharing this. It’s something that, whether we acknowledge it or not, most married couples deal with.

    I have argued in front of my children.

    While I do regret some of the arguments I’ve had in front of my children with husband, sometimes, when we both are respectful and behaving as rational adults, I haven’t. When I haven’t regretted the argument being in front of my children, we (my husband and I) maintain a respectful tone and begin with the goal of resolution. I think these kinds of arguments are good in that they model for our children how we can disagree and come to a mutual understanding through discussion.

    I try (keyword: try) to prevent the “oh-I-regret-saying/doing-that” kind of arguments by breathing, walking away, and revisiting whatever it is that we are disagreeing about at a later time. It’s tough, but I think it’s necessary for the sake of my children.

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