What Kids Learn from Your Marriage

Healthy arguing

Love Lesson: Fight Right

Interestingly, you have another important chance to improve your children's lives whenever you and your husband aren't getting along. A recent study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry has found that as long as the fighting is fair, you don't have to do it behind closed doors. "Under certain circumstances, kids benefit from seeing their parents disagreeing," says study coauthor Patrick Davies, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, in New York. "If parents make progress toward resolving arguments, it may offer children a lesson on how you can come to a solution through compromise."

Dr. Lieberman takes this one step further: "Showing our children how to handle conflict effectively is one of the greatest gifts we can give them," she insists. "I have worked with numerous patients who grew up in homes where their parents never openly communicated differences. These kids 'learned' that you must always agree with your loved ones. So when they have disagreements later on in their own lives, they assume the relationship is ruined or that there's something wrong with them."

Once you've established the fair-fighting ground rules (no shouting, no walking away, no name-calling), it is critical for both parents to agree to the terms. Mastering the art of empathic listening ("You sound frustrated") works to smooth ruffled feathers and also shows respect. When you do this right, you reinforce the concept of unconditional love by showing that you can argue and still be okay.

Having a peanut gallery for a heated debate can also have a hidden advantage, I discovered recently. My husband and I were having one of those I'm-right-no-I'm-right discussions, and there was no end in sight. Our older daughter interrupted us with this nugget of wisdom: "Daddy, if you love Mommy why don't you just let her win? She can let you win next time." It was a great idea, and we told her so. Luckily for us, the modeling thing can go both ways.

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Parents magazine.

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