The question in my mind isn’t if you fight with your spouse; it is how to fight with your spouse. In my most recent post I posed the question, “Stop Fighting in Front of Your Kids – Parenting Myth?” Please head back to read that post if you haven’t yet, but I made the argument that it is OK to fight in front of your kids. I proposed that the two most important factors when it comes to fighting with your spouse are how you fight and how you make-up. This models to our kids how to maturely talk through disagreements but also teaches about forgiveness and reconciliation when we mess up, which we will.
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How to Fight with Your Spouse
- “Model What You Are Teaching Your Kids – Parenting can often be a mirror into the areas we need to work on in our own lives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve snapped at my kids, “HAVE PATIENCE!” When fighting with your spouse, remember those things you are teaching your children. I have to remind myself, like I teach my kids, “You are responsible for how you respond.” I work with my kids by reminding them of Luke 6:31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” My little ones are encouraged to use their words, talk with respect and listen to others. These are all things that can be modeled in conflict with your spouse.
- Watch Your Tone of Voice – Having disagreements does not need to escalate to yelling. I know it becomes frustrating when you are in conflict. Out of the famous love passage in 1 Corinthians 13, “patience,” is definitely one of the love traits I struggle with most. It’s easier to become big and loud to try and get your point across. However, as I am learning with kids, a calm and gentle voice is heard much louder than a yell. This is true with your spouse as well.
- Listen Well – Try and seek to understand before you seek to be understood. We should heed the advice of James 1:19, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” By listening well to your spouse and asking probing questions, you may begin to understand your spouse better. You also may discover that you are closer to agreement than originally thought. Whatever the case, by listening, your spouse feels heard, which can be a bigger testimony than coming to a perfect agreement.
- Determine if You Can Let it Go – You have heard it said, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” This is important in marriage. There are paramount things to bring up with your spouse, but you need to determine when something is a major or a minor. We can become nit-picky, dwelling on the smallest things. I know I can do this and have had to work on it. A phrase I use with my kids is, “We are going to be laid back about that.” Why shouldn’t this translate into our marriage also?
- Assume the Best in Your Spouse – In the book, “Highly Happy Marriages” by Shaunti Feldhahn, one of the chapters focuses on the fact that highly happy couples believe the best about their spouse. I remember our first marriage retreat with “A Weekend to Remember.” A key take away for both of us was, “Your spouse is not your enemy.” Entering into a marital clash with the viewpoint that the reason your spouse is bringing this up with you is that they love you and want to function well with you is helpful. They are not against you and don’t want to intentionally hurt you. They might have a different opinion than you. They may be hurting from something within the relationship, but they aren’t out to get you. This person walked down the aisle with you because they love you.
- Avoid these Pitfalls – John Gottman is the “country’s foremost relationship expert.” In his book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” he encourages couples to avoid certain pitfalls in marriage. I believe you should read this book with your spouse, but I’m going to very briefly share behaviors to avoid when it comes to fighting. Here are the pitfalls Gottman says to steer clear of: harsh start up, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling, sudden and overwhelming flood of emotion or criticism, and poor body language. There’s so much more in the book that expands on these ideas, but it’s a good check list to keep in mind as you are headed into an argument. Often times, we can pinpoint one of these actions that is our own “go-to.” Try and focus on fixing that personal pitfall so that hard discussions can be more productive than harmful.
- Express Feelings – It’s always better to approach a fight by expressing feelings vs. pointing fingers. Work on knowing yourself well and articulating your feelings in a way that can be received well. Starting a conversation with, “I felt disrespected when…” is much better than, “You were…” It is OK to feel angry, hurt, disrespected, 0r sad. It’s how we respond to those emotions that speaks to our character. Don’t label and name call by saying things like, “You are lazy.” Also avoid extremes like, “You never…” or “You always…” Those kind of statements are rarely true or helpful.
- Choose Timing Carefully – It is important to choose timing carefully when heading into a disagreement. Late at night is not a great time to start a hard conversation. Right when your spouse walks through the door or while he/she is at work is also poor timing. Men, especially, need time to get into the right mindset. If he is bombarded with something while his brain is in work-mode, it’s going to be hard to break through that barrier. You may need to allow some time to cool-off before a productive conversation can be had. Try and learn to communicate that rather than stonewall and walk away. It’s great to say something like, “I want to talk about this and figure it out, but I just need a bit of time to think, cool down and get my thoughts together so I don’t cause more harm.”
- Avoid the Spiral – A huge trap I can fall into is a negative spiral out of control. Women tend to have ideas all linked together in their brain. We can link this fight with other personality traits or negative situations that relate to our spouse. Stay on topic and try and steer clear of bombarding your spouse with everything they are doing or have done wrong in the relationship. A life verse for me that I often use when I want to spiral downward is, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” – Philippians 4:8
- Pray – Before going into a tough talk with your spouse, cover it with prayer. The truth is that, left to our own devices, we are going to mess it up. Prayer puts you into the right mindset, and it also lays the issues into the hands of a God who is bigger and has the strength, knowledge and concern to walk through the hard times with us – being our strength and guide as we rely on Him.
- Fighting Should NEVER Involve Violance – If you are your spouse struggle with a temper that turns violent, get help immediately.
How to Fight with Your Spouse in Front of Your Kids
As already acknowledged, I think it is fine to fight in front of your kids. Follow the guidelines above for a more positive approach and resolution to conflict. However, there are things I want you to keep in mind when fighting in front of your kids.
There are definitely times not to fight in front of your children. Certain topics should be avoided because of how they might make the child feel or because they are not age appropriate.
One such situation is if the argument involves the children. We do not want our kids placing blame on themselves for the hurt they see in the marriage relationship.
Another fight I would avoid having in front of the kids is when there is an issue with the grandparents or other family members. We don’t want our kids to develop negative feelings toward the people they love because of our own brokenness.
I would avoid fighting over marital issues involving sexuality or moral perversion. We want to keep things age appropriate.
More Important than the Fight
Reconciliation and forgiveness is more important than the fight. Having children witness people who are broken together and then continue to forgive and to love is what helps them not only understand marriage better, but it gives a bigger picture about God. It also gives them the security in the love and forgiveness you have for them.
Often times parents will fight in front of their kids and then make-up in private. I would try and be intentional about modeling what it looks like to mend the relationship. I wrote an article called, “Why I Will Teach my Kids to Ask for Forgiveness” that should help clarify what forgiveness is and what it is not. This may help you as you move forward in choosing to forgive your spouse.
When you fight in front of your kids, sometimes it will not go well. You have all the tools I mentioned here, but we are sinful people who let our emotions overtake what we know to do to be a more effective communicator in conflict. When things have not gone well, I would encourage you to reconcile with your spouse using these general guidelines:
- Own It – We often want to point the finger, but in reconciliation, own your part. A good phrase we try and emphasize in our family is, “I am sorry for…” Try and take the time to reflect all the things that you contributed to a negative interaction and claim it. Often times I find that when I’m willing to say what I did wrong, my spouse will receive it better and then is able to see more clearly his contributions and apologize for those. Someone needs to take the first step.
- Ask for Forgiveness – It is one thing to say “I’m sorry.” It’s another to say, “Will you forgive me.” Make this part of your family experience.
- Grant Forgiveness – Forgiveness isn’t easy, but it is what we are called to do. After all, God forgives us over and over and over again as we sin. We are asked to do the same. By saying the words, “I forgive you,” it is the promise to free someone from the the debt of whatever offense they committed against you. It is foregoing the right to get even.
Hopefully you feel better equipped to fight fair with your spouse. Don’t avoid arguments, but go into disagreements with a plan so that you come out of it stronger as a couple rather than weaker.