swans floating on lake - parents can argue nicely

Can parents learn to argue nicely with each other?

How to successfully handle conflict with your partner is one of those life skills that isn’t taught at school, although perhaps one day it will be.

But when you were out on the dance floor (or wherever you were) and you saw that special someone, the idea that one day you might fight over issues like what some imaginary future children should eat, or wear, or watch, probably wasn’t top of mind. And it may not even be something you talked about once the relationship became more serious.

However, once you have kids these issues can suddenly go from being never thought about to a major sticking point between you and your partner.

We can advise our kids or our friends to have discussions with a prospective partner about the other person’s views on raising children. But if you’re reading this, it may be too late to do this ahead of time. That doesn’t mean it’s too late altogether, though.

Although we know kids do best when they’re being raised in a stable, predictable, caring environment where conflict is low and parents communicate well with each other, this doesn’t mean kids have to have a totally argument-free environment. In fact, it’s really important that children learn that living with, and managing, differences of opinion is not only possible but a terrific skill to have and to keep working on throughout life.

One of the problems we see when children are in a home where they see lots of friction, conflict and arguing and no constructive conversations is that it’s very distressing. They feel anxious about it. They worry that Mom and Dad might break up. If the arguments are over something to do with the kids, they feel guilty because they think they’re the source of the friction and the tension. They blame themselves, because they think: “here’s this huge argument and it started when they were talking about whether or not I should do such-and-such, so I’ve caused it”.

Sometimes we may find that something that annoys us about our partner is also something we see in our child. Or perhaps our partner is frustrated by a trait we share with a child. If we remember that our children are a mixture of genetics and our shared environment and how we raise them, this makes sense. But one thing I would really stress, as people seem to forget, is that it’s important to remind yourself of the wonderful things that attracted you to the other person in the first place.

Conflict is normal and healthy, and it’s quite appropriate for family members to have disagreements, but children need a home where these are not too heated, not too frequent, not involving any kind of escalation or threat, or aggression or violence — we know these things are very bad for children. But at the same time, you don’t need to pretend that there are never any disagreements. Kids have to learn about conflict, because conflict is part of life.

We all come to parenthood with our own perspective, influenced by our own experiences, opinions, and perhaps even dreams of how we imagine our future and our children’s futures. So there’s no shortage of things to argue about. However many of these can be resolved if parents are able to avoid some of the arguing pitfalls that commonly occur.

A lot of couples get into strife because they break some foundational rules about how to argue constructively. And bear in mind most people have never even heard of these rules, let alone seen them in action. Given that a lot of what goes in our adult relationships tends to be based on what we’ve observed growing up, a lot of people believe that the only way to argue with your partner is to do things like:

  • Each person expressing their opinion in a rigid and inflexible way and refusing to budge (in other words, insisting that one person has to be right and the other wrong, rather than looking for middle ground).
  • Pressing for an immediate decision when the issue may take more time to work out, or there may be a “just for now” way of doing things that can be reviewed.
  • Getting caught in negative thought patterns or ways of speaking such as “typical – another fight” or making accusations along the lines of “you always…” or “you never…”
  • Letting the conversation be derailed by other topics.
  • Getting into a cycle of blame and defensiveness.

Some things you can try to do instead are:

  • Set aside some time to discuss the issues.
  • Make a point of working on your communication – letting each person speak without interrupting, and having the other person listen, then paraphrase back what they just heard.
  • Trying to understand the other person’s perspective and not always feeling as though you have to win on every issue.
  • Understanding that your own upbringing, and your partner’s, may be contributing to how strongly you both feel about the situation, and working out if that’s really relevant.

Communicate positively and constructively, and remember children are very attuned to the endings of arguments. So if you have an argument, try to make sure they see that you compromise and make-up afterwards.

Things don’t have to be at World War Three stage before it’s worth getting some help to manage these issues. This doesn’t just help adults, it helps children enormously. When parents learn the skills of effective conflict management, kids grow up believing that disagreements have solutions, which is important not just for themselves, but also for their own future relationships.

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