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It's only natural that parents fight. A couple necessarily involves two completely different individuals with different experiences and world-views whose needs are often in conflict. But how we fight and how we resolve our conflicts can have a huge impact on our children's health and happiness.
The Cost of Conflict
A substantial body of research shows that conflict between parents puts kids at increased risk of all sorts of problems: depression, anxiety, disobedience, aggression, delinquency, poor self-esteem, antisocial behaviors, trouble sleeping, academic underachievement, and low social competence--even physical health problems.
The negative impact of divorce on children is determined more by the level of conflict between parents before, during, and after a breakup than by the actual breakup itself. And if you aren't yet motivated to improve the way you fight, consider this: The way you fight with your co-parent is how your teenager is most likely to fight with you. If you resolve conflicts by becoming angry, so too will your adolescent. On the other hand, if you engage in more constructive problem-solving, your teen is likely to mimic that as well.
Rules of Engagement
Here are three healthy things, based on the findings of researcher John Gottman, that couples can do to resolve conflict positively.
1. Sugar-coat your complaints. Just a little bit. You know, like you would with a good friend whose feelings you don't want to hurt. (Gottman calls this the "soft start-up".) If you learn that your partner has scheduled a business trip in the middle of what was supposed to be a family vacation, don't say, "What were you thinking? Don't you care enough about us to have our vacation on your calendar? What do I have to do, keep your calendar for you? Do you really expect me to be your secretary?"
Instead, soften your start-up: "Uh, honey? Come look at the calendar and check out when you scheduled your trip. Did you realize that trip conflicts with our vacation?" That response is more likely to do the trick.
2. Calm down already. Take a break from the discussion if it gets too heated. Agree on a time, maybe in half an hour, to get back together and re-open discussion. Then go do something to get your mind off the fight for a little while. If you meditate, this is the time to do it.
Whatever you do, don't go off into some corner to sulk, or plot out your winning arguments (this is not a good way to reduce the adrenaline coursing through your veins). The goal is to chill out so that you can come back to the discussion nice and calm.
3. Master the art of negotiation. This means you need to accept the influence of your partner, even if at first you think he or she is being totally irrational. Gottman recommends the "Aikido principle: Yield to win." This is the simple idea that if you want to "win" an argument, you cannot simply counter everything your "opponent" says--doing that will only escalate the fight. What we need to do is get our partner to agree with us on at least some points, and in order to do this we absolutely must find something we agree with in what the other person is saying.
Eileen Healy, a Redwood, Calif., licensed marriage and family therapist, cautions that if done wrong, this strategy can lead to a solution no one is happy with. For example: I give something up, then you give something up, then I give … until there is nothing left that either of us wants. That much compromise isn't going to resolve the conflict satisfactorily. Healy stresses that the art of negotiation involves positive problem solving, and that we should work on it until we both feel like we have a good solution.
Here are some more common-sense things the research reminds us: high-conflict relationships are more damaging to children when kids actually witness the conflict. (That isn't to say that lots of conflict between partners which the kids don't witness is OK--it's just the lesser of two evils.) Virtually all angry interactions, including non-verbal ones, make your kids feel bad. And, of course, disrespectful fighting--name calling, putting down, swearing--is damaging to children.
Agree to Agree
Interestingly, simply ending an argument with an apology, by "agreeing to disagree," by withdrawing, or with a simple submission aren't great outcomes from the children's perspective. Though these are seemingly low-conflict ways to end a fight, conflict resolution from one (but not both) of the parents' perspectives is not necessarily resolution from the kids' perspectives. If you can't resolve the argument in front of the children, be sure to demonstrate that the relationship has been repaired, show them that you've reconnected, and tell them how the conflict was resolved.
Fights happen, but we can make good on it for our kids and our relationship when we resolve conflict constructively in front of our children. Research has shown again and again that conflict that is repaired positively and respectfully has the most beneficial effects for those little pitchers with big ears.
Published with permission from The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and Raising Happiness: In Pursuit of Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.
About the Author
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center who studies the childhood roots of happiness. She is the author of "Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents," and the director of Greater Good Parents, a blog and website that offers parents research-based tips for fostering joy, resilience, and compassion in children. She has two daughters and lives near San Francisco.