Dr. Phil says fighting in front of your kids is nothing short of abuse. It's a good thing he wasn't at my house this morning.
I was so irritated with my husband that I removed myself from the kitchen, where he was pouring cereal for our two kids. Maybe I should have gritted my teeth and muscled through the gruelling morning routine. If I hadn't been so tired, stressed out, and . . . angry, then I could have waited to discuss it with him while the kids were at school. The thing was: I couldn't.
"Honey, can you come here for a sec?" I called my husband from upstairs, where I was theoretically cooling off. Like all parents, I had a busy day ahead: I had a brief to write, a letter to draft and an article to file. I could feel the anger and hurt dragging me down. I couldn't afford to slow down.
We had roughly seven minutes to iron out our conflict if we were going to get the kids to school on time. I believed that was just enough time to make some headway on the latest variation of our endless argument. In our six years of marriage, it seems that all of our conflict has been one long argument broken up over 80 months. The themes are always the same: One of us is hurt that the other doesn't fully recognise our contributions, and one of us is angry that the other let us down. Normally, I can pocket the anger for a few hours and circle back with my husband when the kids are no longer underfoot.
But not this morning.
My husband appeared in the doorway. "I need to talk about this morning," I said.
He nodded his head, so I kept going. "I feel like you don't respect the promises you make to me." In this case, he'd promised to wake me up early and didn't - a capital offence, it was not, but I was still hurt.
His defense was solid: We'd both been up most of the night with a sick kid, and he'd simply fallen asleep. His failure to wake me up wasn't a referendum on the respect he had for me, it was pure exhaustion.
We volleyed back and forth. Our voices were not raised, but they were tight, clipped. We were definitely arguing. In his eyes, I saw the exhaustion I felt. There had been two sleepless nights this week, on top of a lice outbreak in our house the week before. Both of us were running on fumes. The combination of fatigue and stress had turned us into bundles of bad feelings and low-level coping skills.
I knew my kids were at the top of stairs, listening to every word. What, they must have wondered, is going to happen?
My impulse was to shut the door and stuff the bad feelings swirling like snowflakes between me and my husband under the bed. Plaster on a fake smile and chirp at the kids that it was time to go to school. But instead, I waved them into the room.
"Can you hear us fighting?" I asked. They nodded their heads slowly and took a few tentative steps forward.
When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the mechanics of my parents' marriage were invisible. Like a reliable wall clock, I saw only the face and the hands. All of the springs, cables and wheels were hidden behind the clean circle of numbers and rotating hands. Occasionally, they'd snap at each other about little stuff, such as which rental car company was better or the best route to church. But I never heard them engaging in meta-conversation; there were no discussions about how they communicated or how they felt about what was going on between them. Not in my presence at least. When I entered my own marriage, I had no idea how much work I'd have to do on the relationship. I was wholly unprepared for the quotidian struggles of saying what I wanted, expressing my feelings and resolving conflict.
"Do you want to know why we are arguing?" I asked my children, ages 5 and 6.
I told the kids that my feelings were hurt because Daddy didn't do what he said he would. Then, my husband explained that he'd made a mistake and felt hurt that I was being so hard on him.
My husband summed it up: "We are both feeling hurt and angry, and we're trying to work it out."
My goal in inviting my kids into the discussion was simple. I wanted them to know that it's hard work to maintain a healthy relationship. For all the picture-worthy moments at school picnics, before a date night or when we've just cut a birthday cake, there are mornings like this, filled with simmering resentments, anger, and wounded egos. I wanted them to see behind the face of our marriage, to get a glimpse of all the delicate parts that can easily get gummed up during daily life.
Dr. Phil's warning against fighting in front of children notwithstanding, there is research that suggests there are benefits to arguing in front of children. Gordon Harold led a team at Cardiff University that studied the effect of parental arguments on children. The research showed that having a heated discussion in front of your children can show them how to work through disagreements and achieve resolution.
Not surprisingly, the research also showed that marital arguments that involved physical or verbal abuse can damage kids emotionally. Similarly, behaviours such as sulking, withdrawing, slamming doors, or putting the children in the middle of the fight adversely affect children. However, in the vast terrain between total harmony and destructive behaviours, most marital disagreements offer plenty of teachable moments for kids. After all, our children will encounter conflict in all of their relationships, so showing them how to give voice to tension and work through discord with a loving partner will give them valuable insights into how a real relationship works. It will teach them that the relationship tool box should include skills such as negotiation, communication and compromise for the inevitable moments of conflict.
The research also confirmed my suspicion that suspending our arguments until the kids are out of earshot isn't necessarily good for them. For one thing, the kids always know when something is up. They are sensitive, and can tell when their parents are upset with each other. By driving these conversations underground, we aren't sparing them anxiety. In fact, we likely increase their worry by not discussing the conflict in the open.
I confessed to my therapist that I'd fought with my husband in front of my children. "Am I a horrible mother?" I asked. He laughed and offered assurance: "Who says a good mother isn't allowed to express her anger? Don't you want your kids to learn how to do that?" Of course I do, but it's hard to shake the feeling that I did something wrong.
I don't know what my children learned this morning. I'd like to think that we showed them something about fair fighting and conflict resolution. If nothing else, they will know that even in the best relationships, they will sometimes experience hurt and anger. Maybe they will understand that the sign of a good relationship isn't the absence of those bad feelings, but the willingness to work through them.