If you and your partner are not getting along and it’s clear there’s some relationship problems that need to be addressed and if you are concerned that it may be impacting your children then this is written just for you.
Relationship problems occur in every partnership, it’s a part of life and expected, however, most of us don’t want our relationship issues to affect our children. The reality is that depending on the level of issues you have and your method of dealing with them, your children will know something is up and hiding it just creates confusion and at worst, misinterpretation that they are part of the cause of your issues. Some children are super sensitive to your moods whilst others seem oblivious. However, even the oblivious ones are picking up the unresolved energy and may act out more as a result, just when you don’t need it. The opposite of hiding it is letting it all out in front of them, and there’s many ways of traumatizing your little ones with this method too!
Relationship Problems involve the whole family
That’s the reality. Lets look how typical parent relationship problems play out:
- Avoid conflict like the plague – Most parents try to avoid having conflict in front of the children because we don’t want them to see how angry we are with each other. So we avoid talking, touching or being near each other whilst the conflict is occuring… we wait for the little ones to be in bed before we speak and express our hurt or worse, do not confront it at all. If we are avoiding conflict, touch is naturally absent for everyone in the family, we withdraw and go internally to start playing out the story about what the other person did wrong… we are lost to our children.. there is no present parent when both are in conflict and avoiding talking about it. Children in this scenario feel the energy of their parents sadness and hopelessness as it’s our actions, words and lack of availability make it clear that we are no longer available to them. The child internalises this and believes that they are some how part of the problem and you will either get the response of a child trying to make you happy again or one that acts out in confusion and anger.
- Aggressive Tit for Tat fight – Parents who can’t control their hurt and helplessness explode in front of their children. We share feelings in an uncontrolled, unfocused and confusing way in a desperate need to have the other parent change… we insist that they must change, that they are wrong and we are right. When we explode in conflict our children are often the witness to our uncontrollable side and it frightens them beyond measure. When this chaos persists over time, we create children who learn that chaos is normal and often will employ strategies to try and “fix” the problem so the chaos goes away. If they are unable to “fix” it, then helplessness and hopelessness sets in, a sure recipe for adult depression and anxiety.
- Chasing for a fight – A parent that has learned that if they use their aggressiveness against their partner, that the partner will back down and they will get their way. The power over scenario is common in families where one is the avoider (the runner) of conflict and the other is the pursuer of conflict. Generally the aggressive parent will display their power over tactics regardless of whether the children are observing or not, so big is their need to be right and have their way. The passive parent relinquishes control begrudgingly and will often try and rebalanced the relationship by being underhanded in their behaviour (revenge is best serve cold) or disloyal to that parent (bitching behind their back). The child observes the behaviour of both parents and learns that power over tactics work in getting your way and will either begin to use the same tactics with the passive parent or, out of unconscious loyalty, will try and protect the passive parent and sooth the angry parent. So the child takes on the role of negotiator and steps in to resolve conflicts by offering solutions quickly to avoid feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of this chaos. When this doesn’t work, they are left in a state of helplessness and will often act out or withdraw.
Recognise any of these scenarios in your house or perhaps in your own upbringing? Pretty confronting when you realise that each of these scenarios has significant impact on your children. So is their a better way to fight? A better way to resolve parental issues?
3 Steps to managing conflict between parents
1. Recognise your pattern of dealing with conflict and talk about it with your partner
If you’re an avoider, aggressor or a combination of both (avoid and then explode uncontrollably), the first step to changing that is being aware of it, owning up to it and being honest about it. Discuss your default behaviour around conflict with your partner. Be willing to listen to them and to understand their method of dealing too. Ask yourself and ask them, is this really working for us? Is there a better way of dealing with conflict? How can we deal with our relationship problems in a way that supports both of us and takes the burden off our children? Discuss this in detail so that you both get to a stage where you’re prepared to do something different. It’s only through awareness of what you are doing and how it effects others do we find the courage to try something new.
2. Commit to a healthier way of resolving conflict
The research shows that avoiding conflict is just as harmful as letting get out of hand in front of your children. The reality is that conflict is inevitable and normal. It’s really down to how we handle it that makes a difference. Children need to know that relationship problems are normal and they need the tools to deal with it effectively. Guess where they learn how to deal with conflict? Yes… your actions speak louder than words. The actions after your conflict has blown up are more important than how you acted during the conflict too! Here are some essential ingredients to concluding your conflict:
- Talk in front of your children – work out your differences with them as witnesses. Ensure you’re calm and ready to listen to the other parent. Allow your children to be part of the conversation but be clear that the burden of resolving it lays with you, the parents, and not them. Acknowledge your children’s feeling about seeing you fight.
- Celebrate and acknowledge your differences – show your children that it’s OK that you both think differently and want different things. Help them to understand that often our conflict is a result of different competing needs and how we get them met.
- Include touch as part of the closure – ensure the children understand the conflict is now over by witnessing you both touch, embrace and express your love again. Your actions speak louder than words… so kiss and make up!
- Be loyal to your partner – do not speak about your partner negatively in front of your children and preferably not at all. It serves no purpose to bitch other than to generate more resentful energy to fight harder next time. No one wins in a fight, just remember that! Even if you win, you lose… you lose respect, love and connection from your partner and your children lose by being witness to your resentful and angry behaviour.
- Identify and express gratitude – even if the situation has not resolved completely, this is the person you are in a love relationship with, so there is plenty to be grateful for. Express it and share it with everyone in your family. It’s often when we express gratitude that we are able to see that there’s more than one side to a story, more than one way to resolve and issue.
3. Get help before it’s too late!
If you can’t get to the stage of resolving your relationship problems and concluding them in a healthy way then this indicates some underlying issues that need to be addressed. As a counsellor and parenting coach I really want to implore you, on behalf of your children, to do this earlier rather than later. Many parents leave it too late, when total disillusionment hits and you’ve turned your relationship into an acquaintance-ship (someone you barely know). When you let it slide that far down, the climb out of all that hurt, pain and helplessness is one all mighty battle and not for the faint hearted. Are relationships at that stage recoverable? Yes, if you’re both committed to it. If one is not, then you have no choice but to walk away with the lasting unconscious beliefs around what is love imbedded into your children’s minds and it’s not good…
If we want our children to grow up happy and have healthy relationships we need to show them how it’s done.