Elizabeth Scalia linked my comments about arguing in front of children with a very insightful comment of her own. She writes,
I’m not sure about the wisdom of “don’t argue in front of the kids.” I have a friend whose parents never argued in front of her and her sisters and they shocked and inconsolable when out of the blue the parents announced they were divorcing. Is it a bad thing for kids to see parents fighting, making up, restoring? Our parents argued in front of us; we’ve argued in front of our kids. I think the take-away is, “life involves passionate engagement, understanding, compromise, forgiveness.”
I’m glad she mentioned this because she’s absolutely right–although it takes my comments in a different direction than I intended. Oddly, I talk to a lot of men and women who are in emotionally abusive relationships who have no idea how they got there because, “I wasn’t raised like this. Mom and Dad NEVER fought–at least not in front of us.” More often than not, these individuals came to be in an emotionally abusive relationship exactly because of what Elizabeth points out; they were not raised in an environment that taught them what healthy conflict looked like and what was and was not tolerable so they have no real problem-solving or boundary-setting skills.
My wife and I work out disagreements in front of the kids all the time. That can be a very healthy thing if you’re prudent about the subject matter and try your best to be basically respectful to one another.
My article was about a very different kind of argument. By the time people come to me, they are often in the habit of being pretty cruel to one another. The kinds of arguments I hear in session have about as much in common with the arguments described above as nuclear warfare has in common with a handshake. My point is that if a husband and wife are being consistently cruel to one another, hiding it behind closed doors is not the answer. Getting new and healthier problem-solving skills is. Your kids SHOULD be able to be present for the majority of your disagreements with each other, but that presumes you know how to talk to each other in a way you wouldn’t mind your children repeating.
I really like the way Elizabeth put it. I think it is terrific to model a marriage that “…involves passionate engagement, understanding, compromise, forgiveness.” That’s the best kind of arguing, but unfortunately, that’s a world away from the way many–even most–couples argue. And if your arguing style feels more hurtful than helpful, cruel than compassionate, persecutorial than proactive, then the answer is not simply keeping it behind closed doors and pretending the kids won’t know. The answer is learning to do better.