FIGHTING FAIR IN FRONT OF THE KIDS
BY NANCY VAN PELT, CFLE, CHE
FIGHTING FAIR IN FRONT OF THE KIDS
"We had a blowup over finances the other night after supper," sighed a battle-weary wife of
fourteen years. "Brad got louder and louder and threatened to leave us with no money if I didn't stop
spending. He has never hit me, but he is so big and so loud I get scared. Brad browbeats me with
his powerful logical mind and I get flashbacks to my childhood. I could hear my mother belittling my
father to get even for browbeating her. Then I attacked Brad about a stupid decision he'd made. I
knew I was reliving something from my past but was unable to stop. When I refused to do what he
wanted he accused me of being an emotional crybaby. By now I am crying and Brad storms off to
the bedroom slamming the door.
We really love each other but we fight so much. I can only imagine what this is doing to the
kids. Our six-year-old still sucks his thumb. The teacher has talked with me repeatedly about the
middle child who is having trouble concentrating on his work at school. And the oldest child seems
to carry a chip on his shoulder and is getting in a lot of fights. Is this related to what's happening at
home between Brad and me? I don't want to fight with Brad or harm our kids. Can you help us?"
What couple hasn't argued in front of their children and then wondered about the detrimental
effects? Parents have to one degree or another been taught they should model positive behavior at
all times. But is this realistic? Mom and Dad frequently have very differing views on money,
children, recreation, in-laws, roles, religion, politics and sex. How often can "hot topics" be handled
through quiet and peaceful negotiation without arguing--in real life, that is?
Many psychologists now consider occasional conflict a sign of a healthy, fulfilling relationship.
It shows warmth and caring. George R. Bach and Peter Wyden, in their
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classic THE INTIMATE ENEMY; HOW TO FIGHT FAIR IN LOVE AND MARRIAGE, comment: "We
have discovered that couples who fight together are couples who stay together--Provided they know
how to fight properly."
In any close relationship, feelings will be aroused. We can't get around it except through total
indifference. Our feelings cannot be turned off and on. Persons who enter the state of matrimony
cannot avoid each other. Marriage calls for constant interaction. All feelings aroused by your
partner connect you to him or her, whether they are positive feelings of joy and pride or negative
feelings such as disappointment and anger.
Suppressing, repressing or inappropriately expressing anger are all destructive and immature
methods of handling anger and conflict in marriage, yet many people know no other method. And
the refusal to deal with the presence of anger constructively can create some major health problems:
ulcers, headaches, anxiety attacks, and depression, to name a few. When anger is denied or
mishandled it will come out indirectly. And remember, when you cut off one feeling, you cut off all
feelings. If you turn off anger you will also turn off love, happiness, joy, and sexual feelings.
Being aware of your anger responses is not sinful but healthy. All of our emotions were
planted in us by our Creator. Anger is a Creator-given emotion. Scripture instructs us not to
suppress, express, or repress anger, but rather to process it. Paul describes processed anger when
he says, "When angry, do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26 Amplified). According to this verse you will be
aware you are angry, but you will be in control of your temper and not allow it to get out of hand.
Justifiable anger is approved by God when kept under control and directed toward eradication
of sin. Healthy anger fires us up to fight for truth rather than allowing us to remain indifferent. When
others are hurt or victimized unfairly, taken advantage of, or are suffering needlessly, we become
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angry over the conditions that permitted it. Aroused angry feeling can motivate us to change or
How does processed anger work? You recognize that anger is building inside and bring it out
into the open where you can deal with it. Processing your feelings before they get out of control is a
mature and safe response when tension mounts. And when children observe you handling your
anger in this method they will tend to copy your methods--whether they be constructive or destructive.
Processing anger is tricky because usually by the time we are willing to admit we are angry,
we have sent some obvious nonverbal anger signals that we are irritated. The closer we move to the
boiling point, the less rational we will be. Common sense and rational thinking exit when anger takes
over--very destructive for children to observe.
Dan and Bette are caught in a useless and unproductive web of arguing. Bette suggests that
Dan might like to tackle the lawn. Dan reacts, "I can figure out when to mow the lawn. You sound
just like my mother. Get off my back." After stinging remarks like these, Bette fights tears while
wildly groping for a comeback. The original issue gets lost as feelings mount and irrelevant issues
are introduced. The fight is on!
Yes, it's risky to fight--especially in front of children. But learning how to fight fair might be the
most important communication skill you will ever learn or teach your children. Fighting between two
people who really care about one another does not have to be destructive. It can be a highly
constructive experience. It means that you care about each other so much you will negotiate and
deal with a problem until you find a mutually satisfying solution, a great asset for children's security.
Fighting is okay--even for Christians. The measure of whether fighting is acceptable for a
Christian boils down to the methods and style used during combat and the end result.
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THE SHARE-CARE PLAN; PASSPORT TO INTIMACY
A constructive method of handling the day-to-day issues that arise from close living is needed.
Negotiation is well and good for the really Big Stuff--major issues--but what is really needed is a plan
for handling day-to-day conflicts.
The share-care plan can easily be put into play by either partner when irritation or anger
surfaces and a quick resolution is needed. There are three steps to the share-care plan:
(l) PARAPHRASE. Paraphrasing is responding to the content in a verbal message. Through
paraphrasing, you clarify the message for accuracy and convey to your partner that he has been
heard. Paraphrasing responses sound something like this:
"From what I'm hearing, you are saying. . . ."
"It sounds to me like you are. . . ."
"I hear you to mean that. . . ."
In paraphrasing you work at understanding the information shared and send it back,
sometimes in question form, for verification.
(2) VALIDATION. In step 2 you validate or confirm your partners feelings.
"It makes sense to me that you feel. . . ."
"I can see that you feel. . . ."
"I understand. You really feel. . . ."
This immediately defuses your partner's need to be defensive and shows you not only heard
the problem correctly but that you understand the feelings involved as well.
(3) EMPATHY. The third step is to accept your partner's feelings through empathy.
"I can imagine you must feel. . . ."
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"I hear your frustration over this and sense you feel. . ."
Let's put these three steps to use in a real life situation:
June: I was really upset when you suggested inviting your relatives for my birthday but never
mentioned inviting my family. This made me feel like my family was not wanted.
Rick: (Paraphrase) If I hear you correctly, you are upset because you feel I prefer having my
family over for your birthday rather than yours.
June: Exactly. (Verification) I like your family, but I resent it when you leave my family off a
guest list, especially when it's my birthday. I think my wishes should be considered and my family
should be invited too.
Rick: (Validation) You sound as if you have some resentful feelings about this matter that
you've been storing up for a while.
June: You bet. (Verification) Furthermore, I feel. . . .
Rick: (Empathy) I can imagine how hurt you must feel over this situation and accept your
feelings as valid.
We have no solution yet, but Rick has a clearer picture of June's feelings. When June has no
more feelings to express, Rick can accept her feelings as valid and they can move to apology and
Rick: (apology and resolution) I am sorry for upsetting you by not including your family as
often as mine. Sometimes I feel your family has never accepted me, and I'm not comfortable around
them. In the future, I'll try to be more aware of your feelings and include your family more. Please
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Another problem surfaced for June and Rick during their dialogue. If June was listening she
heard Rick say he felt her family has never accepted him and that he wasn't comfortable around
them. As a caring partner, June will pick up on this and "shift gears."
June: (care message) I accept your apology. If I heard you correctly, you feel unaccepted
around my family. I'm concerned about your feelings and would like to discuss this with you.
Rick: You probably won't understand, but I feel all thumbs around your dad. I feel as if I can't
do anything right."
Now it is June's turn to paraphrase, validate and empathize.
The skills of The Share-Care Plan and Shifting Gears allows both partners the right and
privilege to clearly and completely state their views, feelings, and reasons without interruption,
judgements, or put downs. It is an orderly manner for airing any potentially troublesome problem.
It will not always result in an immediate solution, but each will know exactly where the other
stands. This may not sound like a giant accomplishment, but the number of couples who cannot
solve their problems because they do not know what the problem is, is legion. Such couples have
been so busy trying to prove who is right and who is wrong they never heard what the other was
saying, and consequently have never dealt with the real problem. Since the real problem is never
uncovered, they go on for years as adversaries.
Arguments left hanging in midair, unresolved, leave you feeling unsettled, misunderstood, and
churning. Once you learn a few basic rules and adhere to them, you'll no longer have to run from a
confrontation. You can meet it head-on, work through it, and strengthen the marital bond without
hurting the children.
Obviously there are some conflicts that should be handled outside the listening ears of
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children. Conflicts about sex, about people they may know, and arguments about the child him or
herself are some that could cause problems for the child as well as confusion. Fights where one or
both parties have lost control and refuse to abide by previously laid ground rules are also off limits.
It's not how much you fight, but HOW you fight that counts in the eyes of children. If you
handle your fights right, children can learn invaluable lessons in problem solving. They also learn that
parents can disagree and still love each other, that they can express hurt and angry feelings that do
not threaten the security of relationships--powerful lessons for children to learn.
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GUIDELINES FOR FAIR FIGHTS IN FRONT OF THE KIDS;
* SHOW RESPECT
You may not agree with your mate's position. You may be violently opposed. But you can still
respect his or her right to have the opinion. Here are some "no-nos"; no name-calling, no wild
threats of divorce or suicide, no remarks about in-laws or relatives, no put-downs concerning
appearance or intelligence, no physical violence, no yelling, and no interrupting.
* AVOID THE SILENT TREATMENT
. The emotional distance created when Mom and Dad are not speaking is scary to kids. The
atmosphere is stifling. It is better to get the issue out in the open.
* DON'T ALLOW THE KIDS TO DIVIDE AND CONQUER
If you allow this maneuver to succeed even once, the kids will play one of you against the other.
Result: everyone loses. Your children should not become go betweens.
* COOL OFF BEFORE LASHING OUT.
If really furious over an extremely touchy issue, cool off before trying to talk it over. Blind fury may
cause you to say hurtful things that cannot be recalled.
* STAY ON THE SUBJECT.
The more problems brought up at one time, the less likelihood that any will be solved. Make a
rule that additional problems cannot be brought up until the first one has been dealt with.
* AFTER THE CONFLICT, RE-ESTABLISH TOUCH.
A simple touch of the hand, a warm hug, or bodies "spooned" as you sleep could melt many
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hostilities. The closeness of a hug can go deeper than words. The bond may have been stretched
during the conflict, but touching one another reaffirms love and allows the children to see that their
family can survive conflict and love again.