Spouses Fighting in Front of Children

Spouses fighting - AdobeStock_61365477In a previous Marriage Insight we wrote about spouses fighting in front of others. But what about spouses fighting in front of their children? Is that any healthier? Essentially, it is not! (We’ll explain why we say, “Essentially” later in this Insight.) What’s ironic is that a lot of parents worry about what their children see on television, the movies, the media, etc. But these same couples overlook the damage they cause when their children see them fighting in hostile ways with each other. They overlook the fact that their children’s innocence is assaulted whenever they hear/see their parent’s abusive behavior.

I confess this happened to me as a child. My parents continually fought in front of us kids. I still remember, to this day, the confusion and the emotional pain I felt. I now know that my parents modeled the opposite way that conflict should be handled. Sadly, Steve and I, later, did the same thing to our children. We fought in unhealthy ways in front of our children. I wish I could say we didn’t; but we did.

We selfishly yelled and acted immaturely in front of our sons. It wasn’t right. We know that now. And it hurts our hearts to think that we didn’t recognize it sooner than we did. We will always live with that regret. That’s one of the reasons why we’re addressing this issue. We’re praying that it will cause spouses to find healthier ways to resolve their conflict. If spouses won’t do it for their own sakes, we hope they’ll do it for the sake of the children! It needs to stop, for one reason or another (actually for both).

Spouses Fighting in Front of Their Children

When children see the two people they love the most—pitted against each other—it hurts them deeply! Their young minds just can’t process that type of behavior in mature ways. (From their behavior it’s evident that many parents have the same problem.)

A number of years ago, Steve and I watched a powerful television program that woke us up to the problem of spouses fighting in front of their children. It aired on a national program called the “Dr Phil Show.” A married couple had asked for help to deal with their fights in healthier ways. So video cameras were placed in this married couple’s home (with their permission).

Afterward, the husband and wife sat together on his show to view portions of their videotaped fights. It was an eye-opening show to watch. The cameras showed this husband and wife screaming vile, destructive things at each other. Their children were right there in the room watching and hearing everything. It was evident from the children’s behavior that they were extremely upset. The daughter cried, pleaded, and yelled at her parents at different times to stop. The son just sat in stunned silence most of the time, rocking back and forth, obviously disturbed.

Spouses Fighting in Front of Their Invisible Children

And yet still, this couple continued on as if the children were invisible. And for the most part, the parents later admitted, they were. They didn’t even notice their kid’s reactions. They were so caught up in their “right fighting” that they stepped around and over the children to verbally assault each other.

This couple was shocked as they watched their children’s reactions during these fights. After viewing the children’s reactions they voiced how terrible they felt. Here’s one specific thing that Dr Phil told this couple that we all consider:

“I’ve got a news flash for the two of you. You’re not the only ones living in your home. You’ve got children who are watching and are listening to how you scream at each other. What do you think the impact is when you yell and scream? …If you care about your children, you’ll start caring enough about them to grow up and make the life decision to control yourselves. Think to yourselves: ‘We’re going to calm down, grow up and put our children’s interest over our destructive behavior.'” (Dr Phil McGraw)

This couple resolved to find the help they needed to change their behavior. And they did. (That’s what we learned in a later report.) They eventually learned how to resolve their conflicts in healthier ways. What a great relief this has been for all involved!

This also affirmed to us all the more that couples can learn how to better deal with their conflicts. They just need to be intentional in seeking help, and applying the principles they learn. We have done this and it shows that others can do this too.

Spouses Fighting Teaches Children

Concerning this issue, one of the main “arguments” we’ve heard is that children won’t “learn” that it’s normal that married couples disagree with each other. And they won’t “learn” how to resolve conflicts if they don’t see it modeled for them.

Admittedly, these can be valid arguments. But what do children learn when their parents assassinate each other with their words? What do they learn when they hear and see their parent’s hurt, berate, and demean each other? It is even worse when abuse is involved! That should never be! And how does it help children when their parents bring up subjects that their kids have no business knowing about?

So, we did some research to help you on this issue of spouses fighting in front of their children. We surely would have appreciated learning the following advice. We hope you will too. (And if you have advice, please start or join the discussion below.)

So, here is a “fighting tip” we hope you’ll prayerfully consider:

“Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring and integrity, they think of you.” (H. Jackson Brown, Jr.)

But there’s more! Prayerfully consider the following:

What ARE You Teaching Your Children?

When you and your spouse disagree with each other do you model “fairness, caring and integrity?” If not, then what are you really teaching your children? Even if you can’t persuade your spouse to act in a way that appears fair and caring, what’s YOUR excuse? Are you told in the Bible that you’re excused from acting as a person of integrity, because your spouse is treating you in an opposite way? Wouldn’t it be better for children to have at least one parent who honors the Lord in how he or she treats everyone in their home?

We’re told in the Bible:

• “Let us make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.(Romans 14:19)

• “Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else. For each one should carry his own load.(Galatians 6:4-5)

Concerning Spouses Fighting in Front of Children:

“It’s not just how you act when you know [your children] are watching, it’s how they see you when you’re not looking. We worry so much about what they see when they are flipping through the channels on television. Kids have another view of the world. It’s the things they see and hear everyday in and around the family.

“We can turn the television off. We can select the channels they can watch and for how long. But we forget that they’re more impacted by what they see everyday in their own lives. How you respond to them, how you live, what you do in a crisis and yes, how you love each other should be the real concern.” (Bob Perks)

On the issue of spouses fighting in front of their children, Dr Henry Cloud (a Christian psychologist, and author) was interviewed in a Today Show article titled, “Fighting in Front of the Kids.”

Here’s a portion of the advice that was given:

“While disagreeing in front of kids is OK, and even healthy, Cloud emphasizes one thing to avoid. Don’t have angry fights. It’s important to use kindness when speaking to your spouse. Also, model good listening skills by respecting and validating the other person while still articulately and calmly communicating your feelings. ‘It is the anger and the adversarial tone that threatens children’s security and causes them to blame themselves,’ cautioned Cloud.

“Another important rule, according to Cloud, is to remember the following two caveats. First, if the discussion is about the child, or involves decisions that will affect the child, take it to private quarters. Second, if emotions are running high and feel too intense, save the discussion for later.

“…In the same vein, Cloud says that, if a discussion is too heated, parents should create pre-arranged signals. These are given to let their partner know the conversation should be shelved for later, in a more private setting.”

And then:

Here’s a great tip from another article on the subject of spouses fighting in front of their kids:

“Never argue about decisions concerning the kids. You may occasionally disagree over rules for your children, but work that out behind closed doors. Otherwise, ‘the parent who isn’t siding with the child could seem like the bad guy. And that can make him or her a less effective parent because their authority is being circumvented,’ says Dr. Michael Osit.

“But there’s a bigger issue: When children see they can divide and conquer their parents, they may get an inflated idea of their role. ‘If they start expecting to get what they want all the time, then they don’t know their place as a child. They’ll think they have authority in other areas of the family,’ explains Dr. Osit.” (Alexandra Gekas, from the article, “9 Rules for Fighting in Front of Your Kids”)

Additionally:

“Do NOT include your child or children in the discussion. Do not use your children as messengers! And do not encourage your child to gang up with you on your spouse! Avoid language like, ‘Go tell your mother…’ or ‘Give this to your father and tell him, ‘I’ll talk to him when I’m good and ready.’ Be especially diligent about never bad-mouthing your partner. Sentences like, ‘Your father cheated on me with another woman, but you can’t tell him I told you so,’ or ‘She is a terrible mother,’ should never be said in front of your kids.” (Margot Brown, from her blog, “Yes, There’s a ‘Right Way’ to Fight in Front of Your Kids”)

Concerning spouses fighting Margot also gives this advice:

“All couples have disagreements. Certainly, there’s a difference between arguing and fighting. It’s best for kids if you model how to handle those disagreements with respect and affection, while looking for solutions instead of blame. Don’t you agree? The goal is for the child to observe two adults having a disagreement in a healthy respectful way and still love each other when it’s over.

“Your child gets the opportunity to hear you both discuss your differences in a collaborative way. It also allows your child to learn that successful problem solving includes: thinking about it, communicating their ideas to the other person and finally to listen and learn from the other person. That’s why managing the argument so that it doesn’t escalate into a screaming match is all about effective communication and striking a balance between you and your spouse.”

On the Issue of Spouses Fighting, Prayerfully Consider:

When you argue with each other in unhealthy ways:

“You have a choice: either vent your impulse or love your children. Those are mutually exclusive. When you fight in front of your kids, you are putting your need to explode ahead of your kids’ best interest and peace of mind.” And: “What are you fighting about? What’s your goal when you call each other names? Is it worth trashing your children’s harmony? Can you even remember what was so important last week that you were willing to trample over your children? What ‘victory’ were you looking for? Is it worth it? Do you think your kids think it’s worth it?”

“There are important issues in every marriage that need to be discussed. Turn the volume down to deal with them. …Don’t say you can’t control your anger. That’s not true. It’s that you don’t control your anger. Have you had fights at your boss’s house? At church? At a restaurant with friends? You don’t do it when you can’t. …The only person you control is you. Choose to control your impulses.” (Dr Phil McGraw)

Focus on the Family counselor Jim Groesbeck gives this advice:

“If your voices remain calm, if there’s mutual respect and good listening, and if the subject matter is appropriate for children, then opening discussion in front of them may be helpful. It may serve as a model. But children must witness a positive outcome, not a negative one.”

Also know:

“It’s hard to be married. It’s hard to be a parent. But the best thing you can do for your marriage and for your kids is to recognize that disagreements and quarrels are a private matter that need to be identified and resolved between you and your spouse without an audience.

“Don’t fall back on the silent treatment either, kids aren’t stupid. They recognize tension and hostility as easily as an animal does. Do your entire family a favor. Figure out your problems on your own and provide your children with a positive example of conflict resolution that doesn’t involve screaming matches.” (Heather Long)

Most importantly

We’re told in God’s Word:

• “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.(Romans 12:17-18)

• “Do not have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments because you know they produce quarrels. Instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.(2 Timothy 2:23-24)

• “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and ready by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.(2 Corinthians 3:2-3)

The question on spouses fighting in front of children is: What message are your children reading in the ways you treat each other as a husband and wife?

We pray this helps.

Cindy and Steve Wright

— ADDITIONALLY —

We give a lot of conflict resolution stories and tips to help you grow your marriage in our book, 7 ESSENTIALS to Grow Your Marriage. We hope you will pick up a copy for yourself. (It’s available both electronically and in print form.) Plus, it can make a great gift for someone else so you can invest in their marriage. And who doesn’t need that? Just click on the linked title or the “Now Available” picture below to do so:

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