When asking new clients why they have come to therapy, a common answer is to ‘improve communication’. On exploring further it often transpires that this is a euphemism for unresolved irritations bordering on rage.
It can be a brave and creative decision to begin couple counselling while there is still the energy and enthusiasm between them to tidy up the messier parts of a partnership, and to put in the effort to resolve differences in a better way.
Couples that realise endless bickering is tiring and usually unproductive can be helped to find resolution through negotiation. But anger is a symptom of other emotions, it’s part of the human condition and needs an outlet from time to time.
Opinions vary widely as to how much children are affected by witnessing their parents having arguments. But the realisation that conflict is part of human relationships is a valuable lesson for a kid, and there are useful tips to keep this safe
Children will pick up tension
The notion that rows can be ‘saved for later’ is a false hope as little eyes and ears are often hyper-vigilant and will pick up on a tricky atmosphere. Children will ruminate and their worst fear is that a calamity is lurking and the parents may even separate. And woven into this mix is usually an assumption that somehow, mysteriously they might be to blame.
Far better to allow parental differences the airtime they need, but there are rules:
Never allow a row to become a fight
This involves ensuring that voices can get passionate but never violently loud.
No yelling, no door slamming and no personal insults allowed.
Children won’t understand the context and can be bewildered and scared by seeing the symptoms of a very heightened atmosphere.
Tough though it may be, try to allow each other time to voice grievances and don’t interrupt by butting in. Otherwise, all that will happen is that the situation will get more loaded and what should be listening time, actually becomes just white noise that marks the gap until the other can blurt out their own side of events. It’s hard enough, but give each other time to express their opinion. Keep to a fair fight.
It’s fine to express negative emotions, we all have them, but let the family see that they pass. Anger comes and anger goes.
Never bring the children into the row
In therapy, I often hear one or other of the kids being used by warring couples as witnesses for the prosecution or the defence. Leave them outside the grievance and never put them in a position where they feel obliged to take sides. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make
Don’t raise voices in front of the tinies
Pre-verbal children will only understand noise and body language. Up to the age of 7 it’s also hard for them to grasp multiple emotions, so caution is needed with language and behaviours. After 10 years, there’s more understanding of complexity of feelings.
Also don’t forget that most healthy siblings will learn about vehement rivalry and arguments just amongst themselves and on a regular basis
Don’t use the silent treatment
No child is going to learn the art of healthy disagreements if they see one parent shutting down. This can be the tight lipped ‘I’m not discussing this any more’, or the permanent retreat into another room. Detaching from a row is likely to inflame the situation, one person will feel abandoned as if their feelings aren’t worth being heard, and the other is passively biting back grievances which, unaired, will just stick and smoulder.
There is often just one truth but two perspectives. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, but it shows respect for another point of view. This is an essential skill for any child to learn, both in the context of relationships, but it’s also a valuable lesson for better communication in other aspects of life.
Resolve is Imperative for everyone involved
The most important part of conflict is for children to see that anger is not a deal-breaker. Couples who can row, but can also publicly show their affection are the ones offering up the healthiest message that difference is a part of life and that to care enough to want to be better understand and be understood is a foundation of good relationships.
The opposite of love isn’t hate – it’s apathy.
The couple relationship underpins the family so let difference thrive but allow affection a bigger space in the relationship between parents.
Make sure that children see the reparative embrace, a loving look, and an affectionate squeeze or kiss.
When asking clients how anger was dealt with in their original families, the message that gives the most promise is the person who will smile and tell me that in their childhood, their parents could argue fiercely and vehemently, but that the repair was always seen in the hugs and laughter fondly remembered as the most prominent part of their parents relationship. This will be the internal model of couple conflict that children can carry into adult life.
The family that plays together, stays together, and the family that doesn’t shy away from problems, but gives each other time and consideration will allow their children to grow and develop a stronger emotional vocabulary