Is Chronic Conflict Ruining Your Marriage…and Your Kids?
However, living in a state of constant conflict is another matter altogether. Living this way can be a very painful experience for everyone involved, often increasing stress, anxiety, and depression.
What is chronic conflict?
Chronic conflicts are those arguments that persist over time and consistently recur. It’s like they never go away. A fight may end in terms of the yelling and screaming, and it seems like things are good for a while, but then something festers, and there they are again.
Not only is this incredibly frustrating for both parties when issues never get resolved, but the constant bickering and boiling resentments can eventually lead to the slippery slope of divorce.
And let’s not forget how this seeps into your children’s lives.
Even with the best intentions to not argue in front of the kids or bad-mouthing your spouse in front of them, our kids are sponges, and they pick up not only on what we say but also on all of what you’re not saying and your mood, and your body language as well. They intuitively know what threatening gestures look like.
The volume of a fight doesn’t have to be necessarily loud for our kids to detect something is very wrong. Our children also pick up on the tone of words during “quiet fights.”
So how do you navigate through your conflicts without permanently damaging your marriage…and your kids? First, let’s look at the impact of exposure to chronic conflict.
How is it harmful to our children?
In a perfect world, we would all handle our disagreements in a mature fashion that doesn’t devolve into accusations, name calling, and “remember that one time when you…,” right? Nor would we be hitting below the belt and say things that we know will be incredibly hurtful such as threatening divorce or saying that we wished we’d married somebody else.
Instead, we would use appropriate communication skills where everyone feels heard and differences of opinions would be respected. But my guess is that if you’re reading this blog post, you’re wanting some help with all of this.
We all know that ongoing, unresolved, chronic conflict between parents, whether living together or separated, has a negative impact on the current and future mental health of children. What they see and what they live with is their normal.
Here’s how the trauma of constant exposure to anger can affect your child:
Impacts on their mental health
Research shows that kids are very resilient and highly adaptive and can usually cope with difficult yet normal situations like separation and divorce. However, what severely impacts kids are continued, ongoing, bitter conflicts between parents, married or not.
The longer the conflict continues and the greater the ongoing tension is between parents, the greater likelihood that psychological difficulties will be for children. These include emotional and behavioral problems (that very likely will show up in school), low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, cognitive impairment, and sleep issues to name a few.
Not Feeling Safe
Chronic conflict between parents can create a climate of chaos, tension, and anxiety. Families thrive on predictability, continuity, and a feeling of safety. In some cases, kids may worry about their own safety or the safety of another parent, particularly where arguments get loud or lead to aggression and domestic violence.
Remember, kids have a powerful imagination. Even if the “D” word (divorce) hasn’t been mentioned, many kids may fixate on that fear of the unknown or unpredictability of what that may mean for them and their interpretation of family.
Plus, they may be worried about having to choose sides or feel compelled to defend one parent over the other. Kids most likely will want to please both parents, and kids feeling in between both parents strongly tends to create a world of anxiety for them.
Parental role modeling
As I previously mentioned, the environment that they live in where arguing is perpetual (parents are yelling), tensions are high (doors are slammed), or maybe tensions are silent (full of eye rolls, sighs, and walking out of the room)…that’s their normal.
And not what we really want for our children. Why? Because, not only does this create suffering for them now, but even more importantly, this toxic environment of anger is setting the bar for what their own future relationships look like. In other words, your behavior is showing what relationships and marriage look like. Is this healthy for them?
If you have taken the time to read this, then I am guessing that this is not the standard that you want to set for your child?
Your parenting & relationship quality decreases
With all that is going on are you really being a version of your best self with your kid? Are you happy, fully self-expressed, and freely sharing joy with your child?
Perhaps your parenting skills aren’t what you might want them to be. Is it possible that because you’re focused on what’s going on with you and your partner, you’re not spending a lot of fun time with your child? Totally understandable.
And as mentioned before, kids are resilient, but the current level of conflict between you and your partner may be testing their coping abilities at home or at school. Maybe that could be motivation enough to make some changes for the sake of your child and certainly for the long-term benefit of your marriage.
What can you do about it?
Good news!! Successful couples learn how to give their relationship a fighting chance by resolving their disagreements and then letting them go. They focus on the issues at hand and move forward rather than attacking the person and holding on to resentments and regrets. In fact, overcoming tough challenges may be what brings a couple closer together in the end.
Make better communication a major priority
Communication is almost always something that couples can work on together. Communication goes both ways – listening and speaking. Listening isn’t just the absence of speaking.
One of the listening practices that I encourage couples to do is reflective listening. Reflective listening is a communication strategy involving two key steps: seeking to understand the speaker’s idea, then repeating back to your partner what you heard them say.
They can then confirm that you’ve got it right or perhaps not quite right. Now they can rephrase it so that you can more fully understand. It takes a bit of work, but the benefits can be tremendous in terms of helping to reduce misunderstandings and unwanted conflicts that seem to never go away.
Reflective listening accomplishes two things: It sends the message to your partner that you are listening and that you are actually hearing what they are saying. This helps to confirm that you have heard and understood them correctly.
On the speaking side of things, it’s important to develop some self-awareness, particularly one’s words, tone of voice, and body language. It’s not just what you say but how you say it that makes all the difference in the world to your partner.
Get to the heart of the matter
We know that our emotions often speak louder than words. Oftentimes, underneath all this anger and frustration, there are more primary emotions (sadness, fear, and hurt) that are important to connect with and move through. Our children need to be comforted and made to feel safe.
Protect your child
Don’t argue in front of the kids
Fighting in front of your child(ren) can have a negative impact on them. They should not witness verbal arguments, put-downs, harsh criticisms, threats, or intimidations.
They will pick up on these verbal cues if they continue. It can be a cold wake-up call when your child starts speaking like you or your partner.
Also, keep in mind that phone calls and texts can also become hostile or riddled with conflict. So mind your words but also your facial expressions. That may take some serious restraint on your part, but it is imperative.
Here are some time-proven techniques to help keep your children out of the crossfire:
- Don’t speak poorly of your partner or spouse in front of the kids.
- Don’t let your kids take sides.
- Talk to them and have them express their emotions
- Observe how your children are responding
- Ask yourself the following question: “If I were my child right now, what might I be feeling?”
Children should not see violence of any kind.
If your contentions have gotten to that point, you should seek help immediately.
I hope this article was helpful for you, your partner, and ultimately for your child(ren) as well. As a parent myself, I truly understand the impact that conflict can have on our kids. If you would like support to help you navigate through your own particular situation, please feel free to contact me, as I am happy to offer you a free 15-minute phone consultation.