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What if I told you that your perception of your spouse—whether you see them in a positive or negative light—determines your total marriage satisfaction both now and in the future? 

And then, what if I said your perception of your spouse is something you have the power to determine? 

It doesn’t take much to put us on a track where we see everything our spouse does or says as negative. Perception is our reality and it picks up momentum. It’s like the proverbial snowball that begins rolling down a hill. One annoyance, one disagreement, one little thing your spouse says that rubs you the wrong way can cause a perpetually growing snowball of thinking the worst of your spouse.

Of course, at times bigger things are at play, especially if there’s been a major incident that compromises the trust of your marriage. But assuming these incidents are fewer and farther in between, it’s safe to say that a negative outlook on your spouse is something that reinforces itself over time. 

It turns out, the way spouses perceive each other has so much to do with both present and future marital satisfaction. In a recent groundbreaking study, Samantha Joel and Paul Eastwick, in collaboration with many other researchers, found that what mattered most in a happy, healthy marriage included perceived partner commitment (which ranked top of the list), appreciation for one’s partner, and perceived partner satisfaction. In other words, if I believe my spouse is truly committed to and happy with our marriage, and if I appreciate them (and if they feel the same way), then our chances for marital satisfaction are much, much greater. 

Fine. Wonderful. But what if I don’t perceive my spouse in these ways? 

Then there is some work to do. But the good news is, with diligence and perseverance, it’s possible to change your perception. 

Below are seven ways to stop assuming the worst about your spouse. But one caveat needs to be made before working through these: changing your perspective is a mental exercise. And like any exercise, it needs to be practiced consistently before you start seeing results. 

  • Ask: What led you to start assuming the worst about your spouse? Can you narrow it down to an incident or a season of life? What was going on during that time? Were you experiencing feelings of stress, sadness, anger, grief, or pain? Reflecting on what started the snowball can shed light on the origins of negative thoughts and provide a frame of reference for how to change them. Even if you can’t pinpoint how the negative thoughts started, you can still work to change them.
  • Practice gratitude. Research has shown that when we consciously consider all that we are thankful for and express that gratitude, our emotional and relational health improves. So ask yourself: What are the qualities I truly appreciate about my spouse? What positive contributions do they make to our relationship? And then, thank them. Express your thankfulness to them on a daily basis. It might help to keep a daily gratitude log, with each day’s entry simply finishing the sentence, “Today I am thankful for my spouse because…Exercising gratitude is a very significant tool for eliminating negative thoughts about your spouse
  • Change the climate of your relationship. Make it your mission to connect more with your spouse. Create opportunities for simply being together, having calm, easygoing conversations, laughing and joking. Here’s a great idea: Ask your spouse out on a date. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but put effort into it and romance your spouse. Regular doses of courtship and connection can help change a negative perception and help you stop assuming the worst about your spouse. 
  • Keep your own health in check. Many times negative thoughts (about anything) emerge from the fact that we aren’t taking care of ourselves, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. And then those negative thoughts quickly find a target, usually the person closest to us. Adopt a lifestyle of self-care. Eat clean, get plenty of sleep, and get in some regular physical activity. Get outside more and absorb some sunshine. 
  • Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Stimulate your thinking with books, articles, or educational videos. Throw away negative self-talk and mental put-downs, and start affirming yourself. Keep in mind that these aren’t just shallow, feel-good therapeutics. Self-care is a lifestyle that can improve your relationship with your spouse.
  • Avoid negative talk, exaggerated talk, and the comparison game. All three of these serve to push that snowball of negative thinking faster and faster down the hill. Do everything you can to withhold negative comments, name-calling, and hostile sarcasm, even in the face of conflict. Practice healthy conflict-resolution techniques and take a time-out when necessary. Avoid using phrases such as You never… or You always… And be especially careful not to measure your spouse up against the people you see on television or social media. Those images don’t reflect reality (even on reality shows), which means your spouse would never be able to win that comparison game. 
  • Avoid scorekeeping. One sure-fire way of growing the negative-thought snowball is to keep reflecting back on all the wrongs and annoyances (no matter how big or small) that your spouse has committed in the past. And if you want to make matters even worse, keep reminding them of those wrongdoings. But, if you want to stop assuming the worst about your spouse, practice forgiveness, let the past go, and move on. This does not mean you don’t learn from the past or simply forget it. It does mean you choose not to let past events control the lens through which you see your spouse.
  • Practice empathy. A good bit of research tells us that the practicing empathy does a lot for relationship health and how we think of our spouse. Empathy helps you to consider what it’s like to be in your spouse’s shoes, to take on their feelings, and spark compassionate action. This keeps your negative assumptions and thoughts toward your spouse in check. When you begin to think the worst about your spouse, stop and seek to understand what’s going on in their mind and heart at the moment. 

I’m not going to lie. Trying to stop assuming the worst of your spouse isn’t easy. Sometimes it feels more like trying to stop an avalanche rather than a snowball. But if you make a regular practice of the above exercises—not just try them out, but dive into them with grit and determination—you’ll place yourself well on the road to changing your perspective and boosting your marriage satisfaction to the next level. 

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Too much of anything can become a bad thing. We need moderation to keep the balance in our relationships, self-talk, marriages, and so on. Asking the question “Is negativity hurting my marriage?” shows some great self-awareness and motivation to figure out how negativity can affect relationships.

What are you working with?

  1. Do you or your spouse see what hasn’t been done when you get home first?
  2. Do you see more things you or your spouse can improve on than what you or they are doing right?
  3. When things are tough, do you or your spouse feel like it’s only going to get worse?
  4. Do you or your spouse talk down about each other to other people?

If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, let’s see if there’s a perspective shift you can lean into so we can replace some negativity with positivity!

In an article for Thriveworks, Taylor Bennett interviewed Matthew Solomon, a Love and Happiness Coach who specializes in relationships, communication, and negativity and why it’s important to be aware of it.

Here’s his advice on how to confront the negativity.

1. Acknowledge the negative mindset. 

If you’re this far into the blog, chances are you’re being proactive or looking for a way to deal with the negativity in your marriage. Acknowledging is the first step for really any issue you may face. No one can fix a problem or meet an expectation they don’t know is there. By being mindful of what’s happening between you and your spouse, you’re setting yourself up to take the next step.

2. Understand the why behind negative thoughts.

Psychological research shows negativity bias can explain why we have an aptitude to see the negative more easily. 

Earlier in human history, paying attention to bad, dangerous, and negative threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death. Those who were more attuned to danger and who paid more attention to the bad things around them were more likely to survive.” 

In another article by The Atlantic, researchers, led by Geraldine Downey, address negativity’s impact on a marriage and whether a marriage is successful. 

They found that people who are insecure were more likely to act negatively out of their sense of protection from rejection. “Their own fear of rejection no doubt intensified the distress they felt, because for them an argument wasn’t just about a specific issue but a sign of deep problems and an ominous signal that the relationship was in jeopardy.” 

You don’t want to just survive your marriage, you want to thrive in it. However, to thrive, you have to do more than see the negativity that’s hurting your marriage; you must overcome it, find the root of what is causing the spiral, and slow it down so it doesn’t take the good parts down with it. 

3. Choose new thoughts that benefit you (and your spouse).

When you want the best for yourself and your spouse, it takes an active willingness and effort to improve. Some great ways to get yourself in the mindset (and with time, habit) of seeing the good, positive things are by choosing to do things to serve your marriage. 

Try implementing these tips into your marriage:

  • Do not take negativity personally.
  • If your spouse rejects your offers of help, it’s okay.
  • Spend time with positive people who are for your marriage.
  • Invite your spouse to do some fun activity with you at least once a week.
  • Acknowledge your partner’s positive accomplishments and efforts.
  • Encourage your partner to try new things.

Sometimes it’s hard finding the right words to say or refraining from saying things you want to say, but know negativity won’t help in the long run—and acknowledging that some work still needs to be done is okay. If we’re honest with ourselves, anything worth having takes time, energy, and practice. A healthy, happy marriage is worth having. Have the tough conversations, try to stay positive, and celebrate the little wins as you reach them!

Additional Resources:

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Image from Pexels.com

Here’s the thing, whether you’ve been married for five years or 50, you are still two unique people from different backgrounds with varied life experiences. Each of you has different ingrained likes and dislikes, unique communication styles and approaches to conflict, mismatched habits, and even tiny little quirks and idiosyncrasies. You’re two “I’s.”

You are gonna disagree, argue, and, yes, even fight sometimes.

That might sound like a strange thing to say, but if you are invested in your marriage and you want it to grow, you know there will be some growing pains that have to be worked through. The enemy of a good marriage is a ho-hum marriage where people go through the motions on a daily basis with no real emotion and motivation to do anything any different. 

3 Benefits Of Fighting in Your Marriage. 

  1. You Build Trust. When you realize that your spouse will listen to your needs respectfully and make good-faith efforts to meet them, trust goes through the roof! 
  2. You Move Forward When You Don’t Hold Back. When both of you understand that you can be real, genuine, open, and transparent with each other and it is totally safe, your relationship will grow by leaps and bounds. You will reach new levels of intimacy.
  3. You Know Where You Stand With Each Other. So many couples attribute thoughts, motives, and feelings to each other and end up reacting to non-existent phantoms instead of their spouse. When you fight well with each other, it’s all on the table. And that’s a good thing!

Some people are intimidated by change (and their spouse) and they are fine to go along to get along. Some spouses are comfortable making all the decisions. But when it comes to finances, parenting, sex, and other topics, the marriage is at its best when BOTH spouses are bold and honest, and bring their differences to the table and work through them. This is what it means to be a TEAM.

The intimidated, conflict-avoidant spouse may have to learn to speak up. The intimidating, conflict-dominant spouse may need to sharpen those listening skills quietly.

There is no medal for the most passive spouse. You may be bottling-up tensions, disagreements, hurt feelings, unmet needs, and unfulfilled expectations, and all the “little things” that accrue during years of marriage which are far more dangerous for your health and the health of your marriage. Stuffing it all down, ignoring it, or pretending everything is okay eventually leads to acidic bitterness, corrosive resentment, and a sense of entitlement to go outside your marital boundaries and do things that will devastate your marriage. Bring that stuff to the surface in a healthy, productive way.

Dr. John Gottman, researcher, writer, lecturer, and all-around couples guru said this: “Our research has shown that 69% of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems. All couples have them—these problems are grounded in the fundamental differences that any two people face. They are either fundamental differences in your personalities that repeatedly create conflict or fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs.”

Or, as I put it to my oldest son who is inching toward the altar, “Marriage is picking the set of problems you will have the rest of your life.” Doesn’t that sound romantic? He didn’t think so either. But it is so reassuring in marriage to know we are both different and it is totally okay. We might have some iron sharpening iron moments, but it’s safe and ultimately our differences can complement instead of compete.

There was a school of thought that happy couples don’t fight. The reality is that happy couples fight right. Gottman elaborates by saying that even how often a couple fights is not what determines the success of a marriage, but rather, it is how a couple fights. Respect is the name of the game. As long as couples respect each other, fighting in and of itself is not a threat to the marriage relationship.

How Can You, As A Couple, Fight Respectfully?

  • Make sure BOTH of you have space to express yourself and be heard.
  • Keep it about the problem or the behavior—not the person.
  • Avoid words like “never” or “always.” It’s never always true.
  • Don’t bring up past, settled issues or re-open healed wounds.
  • Winning the argument isn’t worth losing your spouse.
  • Compromise. You both should feel like you gave a little and got a little.
  • Apologize and forgive. (Maybe some of the fighting wasn’t so nice.)
  • End by reaffirming your love for each other. When the fight is done, it’s done.
  • DON’T intimidate, manipulate, or threaten your spouse. That’s psychological and verbal abuse.
  • It should NEVER get physical. That’s domestic violence.

Plan Your Fights.

The “Speaker-Listener Method,” created by The University of Denver’s Center for Marital and Family Studies Drs. Howard Markman and Scott Stanley, empower couples to truly communicate. Couples set aside a half-hour each week and take turns with one person as the speaker and one person as the listener. The speaker respectfully says whatever they want; the listener just listens. They then move toward a healthy, productive dialogue about the issue, hoping to get to the root cause and take the time to brainstorm solutions. 

One of the benefits of this method is that it provides room for a quiet spouse to have the floor and speak up while perhaps putting the talkative spouse in a position to truly actively listen. Another benefit of this method is that often couples realize that they have been having the wrong fight all along. (It’s not enough to “fight.” You want to get to the right fight—the one that makes the biggest difference in your relationship and your marriage. Maybe the fight isn’t really about finances, it’s about one spouse feeling like they have no voice in financial decisions.)

We’ve all kind of been trained to think that all conflict is bad and all peace is good. But in marriage, honest conflict surpasses a dishonest peace. Growth in trust and intimacy occurs where there is honest (sometimes hard) communication. You want to keep your marriage on the grow! You’ve got this!

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Does this describe anyone you know? Avoids conflict at all costs. Hates when someone is mad at them. Shuts down when emotions get intense. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to describe your spouse. I was describing myself. Though I justify the behavior sometimes, I know it’s not healthy. I know it affects my marriage in so many negative ways.

Since your spouse and I have a lot in common, let me give you some tips on how to deal with a spouse who can’t handle conflict.

Look at yourself first.

Are you combative? Is winning the conflict more important to you than the relationship? Do you approach every small issue like it’s a big deal? You may have come from a family where everyone fussed, cussed, and discussed while your spouse may be more reserved. Create a safe, nonjudgmental space to discuss differing opinions. It’s important that both of you are heard, valued, and respected. 

Tone of Voice Matters.

Yelling, screaming, and an overly aggressive tone will lead to your spouse shutting down. Express your thoughts and emotions with your words and a quieter intensity. That way, you’re better able to focus on the issue.

Ask, “When is a good time to talk about this issue?

Some conflict-avoidant people experience anxiety just engaging in disagreements. Give your spouse the opportunity to mentally address their anxiety, get their thoughts together, and enter the conversation with a more relaxed mindset.

If your spouse says something like, “I don’t want to talk about this right now,” don’t hear that they don’t want to talk to you. Instead, keeping in mind that tone of voice matters, ask when is a good time? Your spouse will feel respected while you’re getting a commitment to address the issue. 

Be Patient.

Your spouse continually has internal battles. Their desire is to engage wholeheartedly and resolve the conflict versus their tendency to shut down, become defensive, or stonewall. Where you may be much better at communicating your thoughts, emotions, and wants, your spouse may bounce back and forth from being defensive to being vulnerable. Revisiting conversations that you thought were resolved isn’t unusual when your spouse is working to do better at engaging in conflict. Be understanding if they share more of themselves in a follow-up conversation. Of course, you’d like them to have shared it the first time, but they may have been more focused on avoiding the conflict than resolving the issue the first time. 

Encourage your spouse to speak first when possible.

People who avoid conflict will often change their thoughts because of what their partner has already said in an effort to keep the peace. Encouraging your spouse to speak first increases the likelihood they will express their true thoughts and desires.

Don’t talk over them or finish their statements.

This sends the message that you don’t respect their perspective or opinion. Your spouse needs to communicate their perspective and not have it done for them.

Start with “I,” not “You.”

Instead of accusing, (You always…) use an “I” statement that reflects your own feelings and subjective experiences. Avoid criticizing your partner, because fights are often not about our partners. They are usually about our feelings and expectations.

Focusing on what you know, think, feel, and want as opposed to making statements about what you believe your spouse knows, thinks, feels, and wants leads to better communication and understanding during conflict.

Together, decide on a plan to deal with conflict.

There are many techniques available. The speaker-listener technique  is a good one. Learning a technique, even though it may not come naturally at first, can help you focus on the issue and the solution while ensuring that both of you feel heard. 

Don’t expect change, but celebrate growth.

Your spouse will most likely never begin to lean into conflict the way you do. It may always be an effort for them to engage in disagreements. By building a track record of resolving issues, being heard, and overcoming their anxieties, they may become more willing to come to the table and work through any disagreements. Affirm and celebrate progress.

You and your spouse are wired differently for a variety of reasons. What you may think is a peaceful conversation or debate may be causing your spouse anxiety because they see it as conflict. Never forget: you’re on the same team. Conflict is inevitable within marriage. Your different personalities are meant to complement one another. It will take effort and time for both of you. Your challenges are different. Patiently loving one another and gently working together to work through the issues you’re sure to face will strengthen your relationship and pass on a healthy legacy to those you influence. 

I’m sixteen years into my marriage and no, I still don’t look forward to conflict. But the understanding my wife and I have for each other has helped us to tackle and resolve some large marriage and family issues TOGETHER. We’re better for it and so is our marriage.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Let’s be honest. We probably already do fight in front of the kids. Whatever you want to call them—“polite” disagreements, heated arguments, emotional debates, full-on shouting matches—we have them. We don’t necessarily plan to; they can just happen. A calm, respectful conversation can escalate quickly to savage verbal bloodsport. And guess who is taking it all in?

There is definitely a marital dimension to how you fight, over what, how often, and how you make up. But what about the parental dimension? What about that little person at the dinner table, or playing within earshot, hearing the brawl through the wall?

We have a large body of research on how “interparental conflict” or fighting affects kids.

Here’s what we know:

  • Kindergartners whose parents had harsh and frequent fights were more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and behavior issues by the time they were in seventh grade.
  • When parents are fighting, it’s physiologically traumatic for kids. Their blood pressure increases (even in very young babies). 
  • If you play audio of two adults fighting who are not the parents of a child, even that has a negative effect on the child.
  • Depression, anxiety, rule-breaking, and aggression can be a behavior of a child who experiences their parents disagreeing regularly.
  • Arguing in front of a child can be incredibly damaging to their psyche, as it creates a sense of instability and insecurity. This can manifest as guilt and a feeling of responsibility, leading to lifelong feelings of inadequacy.
  • Parents tend to have their worst fights in front of their children.
  • Family discord can actually alter children’s brains and make them process emotions differently. So, kids who witness their parents arguing a lot at home may struggle in social situations and have trouble making friends.
  • Regardless of what parents are fighting about, children tend to blame themselves.
  • The typical married couple has about eight “disputes” a day. Children witnessed their parents’ arguments about 45 percent of the time.

Here’s the thing: kids are smarter than we realize or think they are, and their development and intelligence begin at birth. Here’s the other thing: fighting, arguing, tension, instability, and volatility all have an effect on children whether we perceive it immediately or not. Here’s yet another thing: disagreeing, arguing, and even fighting are part of marriage. 

So, how do we as parents mitigate the negative effects of fighting in front of the kids?

Story Time. Average American Family. (Mine.)

Sitting at the dinner table, son (6th grade) says he wants to try out for the school football team.

(Seemingly benign statement.) Not an uncommon thing to talk about at dinner. My wife immediately encourages him to try out. I counter with my uncertainty about football and brain health. (Still a civil conversation.) We go back and forth a bit. (Voices get a little louder and a little more intense.) My son is chiming in here and there. (It becomes clear that my wife and I are not on the same page on this.) She’s thinking I’m being overly cautious and robbing our son of fun and character-building. I’m thinking she is being cavalier with our son’s brain and there are other ways to have fun and build character. (This could quickly get personal. And ugly.)

What happens next is so important. And it is so simple. But our emotions usually have their way with us and innocent, common, organic conversations quickly escalate into harsh and harmful fighting that hurts our kids. My wife simply says, “Why don’t we discuss this later?” Me, “Dude, your mom and I will talk this through and let you know what we decide.” Conversation changes. Dinner is enjoyed. No harm done. Our son saw us disagree, have a debate, and stay on the same team.

Here’s what else we know:

  • Parents who can resolve conflicts and emerge with warm feelings toward each other instill better coping skills and emotional security in children, studies show. This requires admirable self-control, and not all marital battles can be worked out so calmly. 
  • Marital battles that spark uncontrolled emotional outbursts should happen in private or in the presence of a therapist, and name-calling, threats, or other forms of aggression are never okay. But seeing Mom and Dad emerge from less hard-to-control disagreements satisfied, without resentment, can yield big rewards for children, according to researchers and experts in conflict resolution.
  • Parents who expressed warmth and empathy toward each other during arguments also fostered a sense of security in their children that their families would be okay, according to a two-year study of 416 U.S. families.
  • The research complements findings from a 2009 study by Dr. E. Mark Cummings that children whose parents have constructive conflicts, showing support and affection for each other, exhibit better social skills, including cooperation and empathy for peers.
  • Even if parents fight sometimes, a higher ratio of positive to negative exchanges is linked to less sadness and worry in children and teens, according to a recent five-year study of 809 families. Displays of warmth and mutual support helped offset children’s fears about parental discord.

It’s not whether parents fight, but how they fight in front of the kids that matters. And how they make up.

All conflict between parents is not harmful to children, but some conflicts may be very harmful for children to observe. Children may even benefit from observing constructive conflicts. However, destructive conflicts are linked to multiple problems in children and are stressful for them to hear or witness. Click HERE for how to fight in front of your kids.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Image from AdobeStock.com

Why are you fighting?” That’s the question one little girl posed to her parents at the dinner table as they were in the midst of a heated discussion about what needed to happen after dinner. How do you talk with your children about why parents fight? 

It’s pretty much a given that parents will get sideways with each other in front of the kids. Sometimes it’s about something ridiculous and other times it’s something of a more adult nature. Here’s the thing: whether it is something small or something that really matters, how you fight impacts your children. Children do not like conflict. 

Witnessing your parents have an argument can be very scary and unsettling for children of any age. Here are some tips for talking with your children about why parents fight.

  • Check your own emotional temperature. It’s very important to be emotionally-aware for yourself and for your child. Before you talk with your child about the reasons parents might fight, you’ll probably want to make sure you’re emotionally ready for it. For instance, right after a fight might not be the best time to have the discussion. When you take the time to cool down before approaching your child, you are practicing emotional regulation, which is a very important skill for both you and your child. When you talk with your child, be specific about the emotions they might be feeling right now. They could be experiencing fear, sadness or worry, among other things. Helping them to put names to what they are feeling will help build their emotional intelligence. It also helps them learn how to process through an experience.  
  • Keep it age appropriate. Everyone experiences conflict from time to time. Remind them about the time they didn’t want to share their toy with their sibling or when they were angry with one of you for not letting them do something. That’s a disagreement, too. Sometimes parents fight when they have different opinions about things, they are upset about something from work or they are tired, have a lot going on, or aren’t feeling well. Help them see that healthy disagreements are normal in families.
  • Discuss feelings and tone of voice. There are times when parents argue that their tone of voice sounds mean, angry and loud. These moments can be very stressful for children. Literally, researchers have measured cortisol (the stress hormone) in children’s bodies and have found that even infants respond to their parents’ fighting. This could be a time when you apologize for the way you expressed your emotions and use it as a teachable moment to talk about how what we say and do when we are angry or upset with each other impacts everyone in the family. We all make mistakes. The goal is to learn how to do things differently the next time you have a disagreement.
  • Reassure your child that you love them and that your desire is to work things out. If possible, let them see you resolve the issue together. If you are fighting about an ongoing issue that is creating significant angst in your marriage, be careful what you share with your children as you do not want to say things that are untrue or will paint your spouse in a bad light. You might tell them that you are asking for help to solve your problem if you cannot resolve it on your own.

Fighting scares children. As a parent, helping them to see that disagreements are part of being in a relationship and letting them know that just because parents are fighting, it doesn’t mean they are going to get divorced can help settle their anxiety. Teaching and modeling what healthy conflict looks like decreases drama in your home. It also prepares children for healthy relationships in the future.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

It started with a simple question from my son at the dinner table. “Can I invite a few friends to go to Six Flags Amusement Park with me for my birthday?” Would it end up as a fight in front of the kids?

Mom: That should be fun. How many friends are you thinking about?

Son: Two.

Mom: Sounds like a good idea.

Dad (Me): Hmmm. I’m not so sure that’s a good idea right now.

Mom: Really. Why not?

Dad: Have you looked at the cost for one person to go to Six Flags? Let alone 3 or 4. Have you looked at our bank account lately?

Mom: How many times does our son turn 10 years old?

At this point, we had a decision to make… 

  1. Do we continue this disagreement that was morphing into an argument in front of our kids? 
  2. Should we squash the conversation until we could get behind closed doors? 

We both were starting to recognize that we felt strongly about our opinions. Internally, we were questioning the next step of the discussion and asking,”Should we have this fight in front of the kids?”

I’m going to jump in with how we fight, or put another way, resolve disagreements and conflict in front of our children, if that’s where you find yourself. It is inevitable that you and your spouse will have a disagreement in front of your kids. How you handle these disagreements can have a great impact on them. 

If you choose to work through conflict with your spouse in front of your kids, here are a few tips:

1. Respect, Respect, Respect

  1. There is never a time when it’s okay to disrespect one another’s thoughts, feelings or desires regardless of how emotional you get or how strongly you feel about a particular issue. 
  2. It’s even worse to disrespect one another in front of your children. 
  3. We disrespect when we belittle one another’s thoughts, are dismissive of each other’s emotions and devalue each other’s desires. 
  4. Respecting one another is more important than coming to the “right” solution. 
  5. Dr. Adam Grant, a psychologist at the Wharton School and New York Times best-selling author states that, “When parents disagree thoughtfully and respectfully, that sets a standard for kids to learn to do the same thing.” 
  6. Your children are learning how to treat other people they disagree with based on what you show them.

If you realize you have disrespected your spouse, it’s important that you not only apologize to your spouse, but that you also talk with your children about it. They must understand that disrespect is not acceptable.

2. “I,” not “You.”

I could’ve said to my wife, “You don’t know how much money is in the bank.” But I could have also said, “You care more about him having fun than about us being responsible.” In that instance, I’ve attacked her and assumed what she knows or cares about. Dr. John Gottman, marriage therapist and researcher says, “When you start sentences with ‘I’ you are less likely to seem (or be!) critical, immediately putting your partner into a defensive position.” Instead of starting with “You,” I can say, “I’m concerned that paying for this trip may not leave us enough money for other necessary and important things.” 

☆ Focusing on what you know, think, feel, and want as opposed to making statements about what you believe your spouse knows, thinks, feels, and wants leads to better communication and understanding during conflict.

3. Avoid statements like, “You always,” or, “You never.

Statements like this make generalizations about a person’s character, placing the focus on them and putting them on the defensive while taking the focus away from the issue. 

4. Tone of Voice and Body Language Matter… a lot.

I encourage you to stop and watch kids talk and interact sometime. Many talk with their hands, give colorful facial expressions, their tone gets high when they’re excited and loud when they’re upset. This is the lens through which your child sees your body language and hears your tone of voice. Not to mention that research says 93% of communication is made with body language and tone of voice and only 7% are the actual spoken words. Avoid eye-rolling, sighing heavily like you’re disgusted, slumping your posture like you don’t care or rolling your neck like you have a bad attitude. Your children are reading each of the cues you’re sending.

5. Be clear to your children when it’s resolved.

Your child is processing what they see and hear. If they hear the conflict and are never privy to the solution, then you’ve left their imagination to wonder. Research by Dr. Rebecca Brock, assistant professor at University of Nebraska, indicates that unresolved marital tension can lead to children experiencing anxiety, depression, and distress

This may cause children to feel extremely insecure. 

If your child sees the two of you arguing, be sure they know and see that you’ve resolved the issue. Even if it’s just to say, “I know you heard us arguing earlier. I just want you to know that we figured it out and everything is good now.” The details of the solution may not be necessary to share. But the acknowledgment that the argument is not going to tear you apart helps bring closure for the child.

How Not To Fight

  • Never attack one another physically or emotionally. That’s domestic violence
  • Don’t manipulate, intimidate, or threaten your spouse. Threatening to walk out, leave the marriage, or do something that is hurtful or permanent can leave scars that wound for years.
  • Never put the kids in the middle of your argument. They should not be choosing sides or used as a pawn to help you win your argument.

What Not To Fight About In Front Of The Kids

There are some things that are simply a bad idea to argue about in front of the kids.

  • Sex
  • In-laws
  • Discipline

If you’re going to fight in front of the kids, then you should definitely make up in front of the kids. (No, not that kind of “make up.” Shame on you! 😳 ) A hug and a kiss in front of the kids is plenty. Verbally affirming your love, respect, and commitment for one another also sends the message that your commitment to one another is bigger than the disagreement. Arguing in front of your children can be damaging to them, especially when it’s not done in a healthy and productive manner. 

Model Healthy Conflict Resolution.

Studies show that your children can learn healthy conflict resolution skills when you model it for them. How you treat one another, including when you disagree, provides an example for how a couple communicates respect and acceptance. You’re also modeling how to effectively deal with your emotions and appreciate others emotions. These are all skills that will definitely be useful as your child engages in relationships throughout their life.

My son did get to go to Six Flags. After listening to me and his mother talk about our thoughts and feelings regarding the gift and adding up the cost, he had a greater appreciation for his gift. Did he know that I was not the one in support of the trip? Maybe, but I don’t think it bothered him as he, I, and his other friend rode the roller coasters. He also learned that his parents can disagree, both have strong opinions, and still love, respect, and remain committed to one another

★ What do you want your kids to learn when they see you fight?

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

How to Parent an Extremely Sensitive Child

When little kids have big feelings, it may require a different approach.

If you’re the parent of a young child or toddler, you know the joys (and consequently devastation) of a helium balloon. My 4-year-old, Jackie, held tightly to the string of a balloon that had been floating around the house, left over from a surprise “just because” package from work. Her face lit up with pure delight as she ran around the house with it. I warned her not to let go of the string, because if she did, it would float to the top of the high ceilings in the living room, making it unreachable. She dismissed me with a “Yeah, yeah mom,” as kids do, and continued to play as I made lunch in the kitchen. 

One minute later, there was a terrible shriek. Bone-chilling. And the weeping and wailing began. Jackie had accidentally let go of the balloon and, sure enough, it had floated up to the high ceiling, out of reach. And now the world was ending. (TBH, I may or may not have rolled my eyes.) As I stopped preparing food and prepared to go comfort Jackie, I heard her younger 2-year-old sister, Maddie, attempt to comfort her. “I’m here! I’m sorry, sissy! I’m sorry!

Jackie’s response through screams and sobs? “No Maddie, it’s not your fault. You don’t need to apologize. THE BALLOON NEEDS TO APOLOGIZE!

If you’re the parent of a young child or toddler, this scenario seems pretty typical, right? But what do you do when this is a daily occurrence? Or even multiple daily occurrences? What if your child cries easily and often? They have multiple meltdowns a day because they are so highly sensitive. How do you handle the crying, outbursts and tantrums and still discipline a sensitive child, without crushing their spirit? 

Recognize That Emotions Are OKAY.

Many of us were taught at a young age to suppress our emotions, whether it was our parents’ intentions or not. Telling a child, “You’re fine… don’t cry…” when they’re upset minimizes their feelings. Instead of building a connection and safe space for them to process through, it actually tells them that their emotions make you feel uncomfortable, angry or annoyed and can slowly chip away at the sense of security they feel with you. We are often triggered by our children’s behavior, taking us back to how we were parented. So be intentional about allowing their big emotions and responding with connection instead of reacting as if they are wrong. Make space for them to feel, no matter if you see their emotions as logical or ludicrous. Try switching up, “You’re fine… don’t cry…” to “I can tell you are feeling ____. It’s okay to feel that way. I’m here.” 

Help Them Learn Emotional Intelligence.

ABCs and 123s are great for our children to learn, but what about emotional intelligence? Children are not born knowing how to regulate their own emotions. It’s absolutely a skill that needs to be taught! So help your child learn to recognize what they are feeling by giving them the vocabulary of emotions. Talk about your own feelings, read books about naming and dealing with emotions, and above all, be there for them without judgment of their emotions. Then, help them find effective calming strategies like: Count to 10, Take Deep Breaths, Read a Book, etc.  Often if your child is acting out, or “misbehaving,” it is most likely due to an underlying unmet need like being hungry, tired, or feeling disconnected. Grabbing a snack solves 97% of our household meltdowns. (Because yes, kids get HANGRY, just like Mama!)

Practice A WHOLE LOTTA Patience With Your “Orchid Child.”

Human development specialists W. Thomas Boyce and Bruce J. Ellis explained the opposite ends of the human temperament continuum using two Swedish words, Orkidebarn, which translates to “Orchid Child” and Maskrosbarn, which translates to “Dandelion Child.” Where Dandelions are known for surviving the most challenging circumstances and still thriving, Orchids require “just right” conditions to flourish and grow. Children who show more of an “Orchid child” temperament are just the same. They need more time, patience and help at learning to self-regulate their emotions. So hang in there! Be the calm in their chaos, and show empathy and compassion for their big feelings. It’ll take time, but they will learn how to process through their emotions more quickly and effectively as they mature.

Have Confidence In Disciplining Without Damage.

For many parents, the term discipline has been confused with punishment. We want to discipline (aka teach) our children in order to prepare them for the real world. However, neuroscience shows us that children’s brains are naturally impulsive and lack the self-control of adults. Many times children simply cannot (as opposed to will not) follow through with our demands because their brain doesn’t yet have a fully-developed frontal and prefrontal cortex, both of which are crucial to regulating self-control. However, parents often try to force their children to learn to obey through consequences, time outs and other methods that serve to control the behavior. And these types of discipline can absolutely get our children to conform, but that may not necessarily teach them what they truly need to be successful in life: self-control. 

In order to teach self-control to our sensitive child, we need to:

  • First focus on responding with connection. Get down on their level, or try to make eye contact with them. Acknowledge, name, empathize and validate the emotion they are feeling. For example: “I can see you are upset because you don’t want to stop playing. That is very difficult. I understand.”
  • Then, stay calm and caring while still maintaining control of the situation. Avoid raising your voice, pointing fingers or threats. Make space for them to feel angry, upset, frustrated, sad, etc., without trying to “fix it.”
  • Next, provide a simple directive on what needs to happen. The fewer words you use the better. An example may be: “It’s time to leave,” or “We are leaving now.”
  • Then, firmly hold the limit you’ve set. Avoid trying to explain your reasoning or rationale at this moment. For instance, don’t say, “We have to leave right now or we’ll be late and then we’ll miss the whole appointment! Hurry up!”
  • Finally, once the emotion has been regulated (through the help of naming the emotion and working through it using calming strategies), we can come back full circle to discuss step-by-step what happened, without blame or shame, and provide ways to handle a similar situation better next time. (Ask your child what they could do differently next time. If they aren’t sure, provide some options such as using a specific calming strategy and talking about what they are feeling. Be sure to end the conversation with encouragement for next time and remind them that you love them, no matter what!) 

★Bottom Line: You’re NOT Doing It Wrong… It’s Just That Hard

No one has this parenting thing down to a “T.” You know, there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. A sensitive child can be extremely draining… but rest assured, you are not alone. Connection is the key to handling a highly sensitive child, or any child for that matter. You’ll just need to cultivate a bit more patience with your Orchid child. Helping your sensitive child learn how to self-regulate their big feelings will take longer, since their brain needs to be more developed (i.e., older). But give it time and you will see tremendous growth! Meanwhile, keep those tissues handy.

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