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8 healthy ways to fight with your partner without traumatising your children

By Melody Tan 7 min read
Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Families fight. That’s not a weakness but rather a reality of human beings living together. The difference is in how we fight.

A few days ago, my husband and I were in the kitchen, teasing each other in a mock-arguing fashion.

“No, you didn’t!”

“Yes, you did!”

You know how it goes.

We both knew we were joking—we were smiling at each other—but our tone of voice had altered to reflect the roles we were acting out.

At that time, our three-year-old was still finishing up his dinner in the living room. He had his back to us and while he couldn’t hear every single word we said, being in a tiny two-bedroom open-plan apartment, he could still make out we were having a “heated” exchange.

“Are you guys fighting?” he asked.

Without cues from our body language and facial expressions, our son—who till now has never seen us fight, for real or pretend—immediately clued in on our disagreement based simply on the tone of our voice.

We cleared up what was happening pretty quickly but the incident got me wondering about what would happen when my husband and I really do have a disagreement, and the kind of impact it would have on our son.

Also, as seen, children don’t even need to understand what we’re saying to figure out Mummy and Daddy aren’t happy with each other. So, should we hide any fights we have from him or use it as a teachable moment?

What are tweens most worried about?

Tween worry

Karen Holford has masters degrees in child psychology and family therapy, and is Mums At The Table’s resident family counsellor. She warns that children can often struggle when witnessing their parents argue.

“They feel anxious and uncertain,” she says. “It rocks their foundation and they fear that their parents will split up. Sometimes they feel that the parents' fighting is all their fault and sometimes they’ll behave ‘badly’ to distract parents from fighting with each other.”

Karen’s statement is backed up by findings from the Growing Up in Australia study, which followed the development of 10,000 young people and their families from all parts of Australia, over a period of six years.

While you may assume the worries of tweens would be related to climate change, body image or bullying, the study found that these 10 to 13-year-olds worry most about issues within their family. In particular, over half were worried about fighting in their family.

All that worrying can have a detrimental long-term impact on children. According to Jennifer S Miller, an expert on social and emotional development, and founder of the site, Confident Parents, Confident Kids, “Studies show that kids who lived in households with regular parental fighting experienced a higher stress level than others who lived in more peaceful households. Over time, that stress compromised the children’s brain development, leading to impairments in learning and memory.”

So, for the sakes of our children, should we simply stop fighting?

How to fight with your partner in a healthy way

Let’s be real here. We’ll never be able to stop fighting. In spite of all our good intentions, fights or disagreements, especially with those we’re closest to, will eventually happen.

The secret when it comes to keeping our family together and not causing our children undue stress isn’t in how often we fight but in how we fight. When marriage expert John Gottman studied why couples get divorced, he found that the frequency of fighting didn’t matter when it came to couples who stayed together versus those that did not. All fought. The difference was in how they fought.

“Conflicts are normal,” says Karen. “They happen when two very different people grow closer to each other and notice that they have different priorities, beliefs, habits and values. But, when your differences threaten your closeness, you have a choice. You can fight about them bitterly and hurt each other. Or you can talk about them in constructive ways, learn more about what’s important to each other and find creative solutions that you both enjoy.”

1. Outbalance the negative with positive

We need to lay a healthy foundation for when we do fight and this comes in the form of guaranteeing our partner (or children) of our unwavering love. While this may sound like a grandiose gesture, it’s actually the little things that count the most.

One of the main discoveries marriage expert John made in couples who stayed together was a magical balance of five positive interactions to one negative interaction (called the Gottman Ratio).

“How do we appreciate the work that our partner puts into our life? Yes, we may put in hard work, too, maybe even the lion’s share. But recognising and appreciating even small contributions creates a culture of appreciation in family life that translates into appreciative children,” says Jennifer.

“Consider that the way we talk to our partner becomes the way that our child speaks to them, too. I noticed that my son started thanking me for dinner after my husband thanked me a number of times.”

2. Before you argue

There are several questions worth pondering before you launch into a fight and these include:

  • Why is this issue bothering me so much?
  • Am I tired, hungry or full of strong feelings, and would it be better to sleep, eat or go for a walk and calm down before we start to talk?
  • What values and personal beliefs do I have that are being challenged in this conflict?
  • How important is this issue? Will it matter in a year’s time? Is this battle worth the damage it might do to our relationship?
  • If I were in the other person’s shoes what would I be most concerned about?
  • What could I do differently that might help the situation and what positive difference might that make to our relationship?
  • How can I explain my concerns in a positive and caring way, so that the other person is more likely to be happy to help me?

3. Imagine you’re at work

What do your disagreements look like when you’re at work? Chances are, they tend to be quite amicable. So use those same conflict resolution skills at home.

“Children need to learn that adults have differences and discussions and they need to learn these skills at home,” says Karen.

Kids don’t need to be protected from the reality of disagreements, but they need a good example of how to discuss differences respectfully.

“Kids who lived in households in which parents argued but genuinely resolved the arguments—kids were aware if parents faked a resolution—were actually happier than before they experienced the argument,” says Jennifer.

“That’s because they learned that their parents can fight and work it out. Their family survival was not at risk every time there was an argument.”

4. Maintain respect

“Healthy fighting between couples does not look like fighting at all,” says Karen. “It looks like two adults being able to discuss their different ideas respectfully and come to a win-win solution whenever possible.”

This means avoiding landmines such as:

  • Blame
  • Walking away
  • Scorn

5. Lower your voice and listen

Many of us would be familiar with loud voices or shouting during a fight, but Karen says it’s a futile attempt to get our point across.

“We raise our voices hoping to be heard, because we don’t feel listened to,” says Karen. “But no-one is really listening—we’re just trying to think of stronger and louder ways to express our own ideas.”

For some, that may mean trying to be more understanding and “listening” to the other person’s feelings. For others, it could be taking the time to think about what the other party is really trying to say.

6. Repeat what you’ve heard

really listening when fighting

Some 2000 years ago, an ancient biblical prophet hit the nail on the head when he advised, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

One of the main reasons why fights start—and escalate—is because we’ve failed to listen “correctly”. We may say one thing but the other person may hear something completely different.

Karen suggests these simple steps:

  1. For every point a person is trying to make, take the time to check that you’ve actually heard correctly: “So you’re saying . . . ? Did I get that right?”
  2. Let the other person clarify anything that may have been misunderstood.
  3. Then swap roles so that you both have a chance to speak and be heard properly.
  4. Repeat this process, one point at a time, until you’ve heard and understood what you both have to say about the issue.
  5. This process can feel strange at first, so don’t worry if you feel awkward. It’s worth persisting because it feels very good to know you’ve been heard and that experience alone can lower the heat of the discussion.

7. Take the time to calm down

Fighting is often a highly emotional affair and this can often negatively impact an argument since we’ll often fail to think rationally. Karen says it can often take up to 40 minutes before a person can calm back down and that the time should be taken to soothe the more emotional person rather than to try to resolve the situation.

“Comfort and let them know you care,” she says. “Listen to their feelings, acknowledge them and let them know that you understand why they are feeling so strongly.”

8. Remember what win-win looks like

“No-one really wins an argument,” says Karen. “The winner loses the trust and respect of the loser. The loser loses hope. And sometimes the relationship is broken forever.

“When you’re both working towards a mutually beneficial solution, you’re more likely to feel respected, understood and positive about each other. You may have to be flexible, and you may not get exactly what you hoped for. But it’s better than destroying your relationship.”

The Bible has great wisdom in this, stating, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

When you fight in front of your children

Being a parent isn’t about being perfect. Perfect parents don’t exist and trying to become one will only cause you unnecessary stress.

So if you do fight in front of your children, there is a silver lining and it involves being open and honest.

“If it ever gets out of hand, apologise to them and assure them that your relationship is secure and adults do have arguments that get out of hand sometimes, just as children do; that when we don’t feel understood, we can get frustrated and then we can respond in ways that look like anger,” says Karen.

“The important thing is to mend the relationship afterwards and take care of each other.”

Melody Tan is project manager of the Mums At The Table multimedia initiative. She lives in Sydney with her husband and their preschooler son.