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You’re Going to Fight in Your Marriage. Here’s How to Make it Productive.

Productive for both your marriage and your children's social development.

In the Parenting Reddit, there’s a rich, archived subreddit titled “Parents who stayed together for the kids, how’d that work out for you? (and for the kids?) [serious].” While Reddit is usually a jokester’s paradise, this particular thread is deep and thoughtful, more of an advice column from those who are looking back through the lens of experience. There’s discourse between parents who’ve found therapy to help a strained marriage and there are confessions of those who tired of battling and gave up, told from the perspective of partners and children of tense households.

“I’ve found that the worst times were when they did not communicate with each other,” user ghenne04 wrote. “Someone would be mad about something, bothered by something, unhappy about something, and would not talk it through with the other person. My dad would just simmer until he blew up in a rage, and my mom would sulk into depression and say everything was fine.'”

“At one point, my mom was so mad at my dad she tore up their marriage license and flushed it,” wrote another user, Ktlyn41. But, “[a]fter ten years of this they looked at each other and realized that they needed to fix this. They went to counseling and got help.”

Comb through these posts and you’ll notice a common theme: However frayed the dynamics, however close to the edge of divorce they stood, those who stuck it out through the worst survived and even thrived into their twilight years. It’s not about whether they fought; it’s how they did it — or learned how to do it correctly.

Fights happen. Big, real, I wanna-tear-my-hair-out spats can be a regular occurrence in a relationship. But working through them and staying together for the kids is, without a doubt, always the right move, says E. Mark Cummings, a professor of psychology and head of the Family Studies Center at Notre Dame. Learn how to handle conflict properly and your marriage — and your kids’ social development — will benefit. 

“Conflict is very much normal in relationships and marriages, and constructive conflict is good,” says Cummings. Disagreeing about everyday problems, he adds, is completely normal. And, even those couples who say that they “never fight” — always have conflict. As a society, Cummings adds, we’re prone to thinking about conflict as a negative thing. “But it’s actually really healthy.”

What’s key, says Cummings, is that the conflict is constructive and works towards a solution. By constructive, he means a conflict that involves no yelling, and shows respect. And while it can get heated and awkward and perhaps even passive-aggressive, it ultimately arrives at a compromise or solution that allows the couple to move forward.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Conflict is necessary for a marriage to thrive, and being able to discuss your disagreement openly is much more psychologically preferable to shutting it in. “There’s this misconception that not talking about [conflict] is actually beneficial,” Cummings says. “But it’s wrong. It’s actually not okay if you haven’t worked things out.”

And there’s another benefit to proper conflict: When a child witnesses their parents duke it out and arrive at an agreement, it’s vital for their social development.

Here’s why: Kids are smart and most have a surprisingly adept and sophisticated sense of what’s wrong and right with their little worlds. Most are more than capable of feeling the tectonic shift within a couple’s relationship when they’re fighting. And sure, Cummings admits, arguments make them feel uncomfortable. But observing an argument can be a valuable experience for kids.

“They look for meaning in a conflict in figuring out how parents feel about each other,” Cummings explains. “Children care about parental happiness and want to feel secure that their parents will protect them. If parents are working things out with verbal and physical affection, then this is positive — and makes kids breathe a huge sigh of relief that their emotional connection with their parents remains strong.

This doesn’t mean you have to solve the conflict once and for all, Cummings stresses: Just that you’re actively working to find a solution. And the silent treatment? Cummings cautions against that as well. “Kids find that when parents just stop talking it’s actually more upsetting than if they just continued to fight,” he said.

Now, of course, yelling and screaming is counterproductive. Cummings points to the catharsis hypothesis, which suggests that people in a conflict should be able to scream and “let it all out.” The theory is that being able to vocally express your anger and frustration by screeching your vocal cords into oblivion is helpful in wrenching your negative emotions out. But Cummings says that’s a backward way to deal with conflict.

“Put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” he says. “How would you feel if someone came up to you and just screamed? You’re going to feel insulted and won’t just let it go, you’ll scream back.” A screaming match in front of the kids can be emotionally scarring and devastating — you and your spouse are teaching them that disrespecting each other and shouting horrible things, true or not, is a way to solve conflict.

Rather, Cummings suggests keeping voices as level as possible; if you need to go to a room during a heated moment, go for it, but remember that the kids are always watching and listening and discussing amongst themselves, too. The key is to maintain civility, remember, no matter what, that your spouse is a human being, and work through what the disagreement is and what it might represent. 

The psychological benefits of arguing in front of the kids extend beyond having a healthier marriage, Cummings says; kids are always learning. When they see that their parents are actively figuring out their problems and talking them through, even if they disagree, it helps to create a healthy foundation for their own relationships in the future — friendly and romantic. Kids, per Cummings, are copycats when it comes to mimicking how to handle conflict, and they often parrot that same behavior in daily life, not understanding what’s healthy or moral until much later — by which time, it might require a therapist to step in and sort out the way they handle conflict.

Cummings points out that psychology is also countering attachment theory — the prevailing parenting notion that mothers form the ultimate bond with their child — and its ignorance of the role of the father. Cummings’ own research has shown that children look up to not just their mom but their dad too for a sense of security. If a parental relationship is breaking down in front of their eyes and their own parents can’t handle a fight, it frightens children into thinking that their security with their parents — including their dad — is threatened.

Of course in extreme cases, divorce might be the only solution. If there is physical and/or emotional abuse, some long-standing issue within the couple’s own dynamic that shows that the relationship is beyond repair, a failure for couple’s therapy to help solve the issues within a marriage, or if a couple has tried to figure out what’s wrong but are on fundamentally separate footing, it might be time for the couple to call it quits in the best interest of their children. “When things get so out of hand that it’s hard to backtrack and your emotions and thoughts get all distorted, so you track negativity with your partner, then yes, the marriage should end, for your sake and the sake of your kids.”

Ultimately, per Cummings, “if you’re not feeling good about things one day, and you think, ‘We should get a divorce,’ well, that’s not helpful. Marriage has benefits for children and parents, and the threshold for not staying together should be high.” That’s an argument worth fighting for.