The best and worst ways to disagree with your partner in front of the kids

JANUARY 4, 2016 By Tamar Chansky

“You never stick up for yourself with other people. Don’t be a wimp. Why didn’t you talk to that teacher like I told you to? No wonder the children don’t respect you!”

Yikes.

Ouch.

Wow.

I overheard this unfortunate comment — made by a wife to her husband with their two kids present — at a restaurant where my family was enjoying a quick meal. Crunching on my salad, part of me was trying to mind my own business, and another part was tempted to go over and intervene.

Should I dive in to protect the husband from the unnecessary wrath of his wife? Do a side bar with the wife to help her think again a little bit differently about what she was really trying to say? Or shield the kids from the sniping?

Except, I was in a restaurant and not in my office. So here I am writing a blog about it all.

We all try not to fight in front of the kids. But what was it that really set off my relationship-trouble-alarm across a crowded restaurant? Disdain. Disrespect. Eye-rolling.

Relationship guru and psychologist Dr. John Gottman says if he watches just 15 minutes of interaction between a couple he can predict with 90 percent accuracy if the relationship is going to make it 15 years down the road. The clincher? Contempt.

So the more fine-print version of “don’t fight in front of the kids” is don’t have contempt for your partner.

Does this mean that good couples never ever feel even a drop of disdain? Of course not, but remembering that no matter how much we may not like what our partners are saying or doing, unless they are doing harm, they are entitled to it. Entitled to what? To their existence and all of the opinions, feelings and ideas that flow from it. It’s exactly what you would want in return.

When you bring something to your spouse’s attention, you have to decide what your purpose is — to improve your relationship or to make your partner feel bad. Of course we all may get a knee jerk temptation to go with option two from time to time, but if we gave ourselves just two more seconds to think about it — why would we want to hurt the ones we love? We don’t but we may not know what else to do.

While we know that we can’t always put things on hold for later, we can try to control our anger so that kids are seeing constructive conflict. What does this mean? Fighting fair. Kids know when things cross a line and it shakes their foundation. If parents are crossing the line, who is going to make sure they stay safe? Kids feel safe and secure when they see conflict resolve — conflict isn’t the problem, it’s how you do it.

An interesting and somewhat astonishing thing happens in a good disagreement: people feel even closer after it’s over than they did before it started. Why? Because when it’s done best, an argument born from misunderstanding leads to greater or deeper understanding. What a good thing for kids to learn now!

But meanwhile, back at the restaurant. I couldn’t inject myself in the situation, but I could lean in and continue my eavesdropping. In response to the wife’s comment, the husband made a face as if to say, “What are you doing?!” “Why are you saying this in front of the kids?”

Nobody wants to be that couple. Most likely, not even that couple wants to be that couple. So what to do? Learn to disagree differently. Not only will this be good for your relationship, it will be good for your kids, too. Protecting your spouse from negative jabs is how you protect your kids, too.

Here are five ways to get you started.

  1. Think complaint not criticism. Complaints are specific concerns about what a person is doing, whereas criticisms are global attacks. Avoid character assassination. In other words, talk about the behavior, not about the person.
  2. Explain yourself. Rather than focus on what the person is doing “wrong,” talk about why it bothers you or matters to you. ‘I’ statements work best. “I get overwhelmed when you don’t stick up for the kids, I feel like everything is going to fall on me. That stresses me out.”
  3. Avoid absolutes. Keep it small and specific. Rather than saying you “never” or you “always,” which only leads to defensiveness, stick with the situation at hand and describe what you’d like to see happening right now, or what’s bothering you about the situation in front of you.
  4. Flip it around to the positive. Rather than using a name to denigrate your spouse, flip it around to the opposite of the name. Rather than calling your partner weak, talk about what you’d like to see: “I’d really like it if you would speak up more for yourself. I think it would help you and it would help me too.”
  5. Clean up what you mess up. Littering is not good. We know this. If you do say something not nice, clean it up. Say you’re sorry. This will be good for your marriage and good for your kids to see.

Make it a policy to keep contempt out of the picture — whether the kids are there or not.

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