My husband and I got into a heated argument last weekend. We got through it OK and even made some progress in understanding. But I looked up and saw our 6-year-old daughter looking at us. Should kids see their parents fight? Frankly, I don’t know how it could be avoided.
— T.Q., Cleveland
Let me begin with a fierce prejudice: Great love affairs require, every so often, a real donnybrook. Let’s rock. Get it on. A rumble. Volume. Passion. Tears. Now, do this too often, and you’ll destroy your love. Erode your bond. But, every now and again — oh, what, every eight to 24 months or so — a heated argument actually feeds a great love affair.
Painful? Yes. Unpleasant? Decidedly so. But passionate anger is an inevitable consequence of letting another human being become that important to you. Again: Every now and then, around issues that really matter, heated arguments can be cleansing. Sometimes, volume and ferocity are the only ways to crack open the rigid shell of ego, oblivion and interpersonal inertia.
In the right proportion, anger is a vital movement of intimacy. Trust.
In and around the Big Arguments (again, ideally rare), there are the everyday negotiations of respect that any cohabitant human beings would encounter. The adjustments of behavior, mood and word choice that are a natural part of two people with an investment in the peace and happiness of the other.
There are the occasional and minor human moments of inconsideration, forgetful selfishness and otherwise normal, "Geez, I’m tired and grouchy and irritable and why doesn’t someone tell me just to go to bed." My grandmother’s word for this was "pissy." As in, "I’m just in a pissy mood."
So, what about our children? What should children be allowed to see? What should we do if they happen to see or overhear our conflict — large or small?
You might laugh, but the rules about children and marital conflict are virtually identical to the rules about children and marital sex.
Children should see their parents’ courtship, flirtation and reflections of desire. Children should regularly be inconvenienced by the parents’ "date night." Children should become adults with myriad memories of walking in on their parents making out in the kitchen, snuggling on couches, nuzzling necks, hands contentedly patting butts.
Evident and regular marital affection is good for kids to see. It makes kids feel secure, even as it often provokes their jealousy and clamoring for parental attention. Stand strong: "Honey, no story tonight. I’m gonna cuddle with your dad and watch a movie."
But, sensible parents are cognizant of a child’s proximity when it comes to sex. They close doors. They restrain and contain sounds. Why? Sex is just so primal. It looks and sounds like violence, aggression. Like someone being hurt. Developmentally, way too much for a child to absorb and integrate.
Same with marital conflict. It’s good for kids to witness some degree of marital conflict. To witness and normalize regular cycles of human mood and temperament. To see their parents not overreacting to conflict, but facing it and working hard to resolve it.
Children need to see that anger does not dislodge love; rather, anger calls out the very best of love.
But, when comes the time for the Big Argument, if humanly possible, secure the scene. Meaning, do whatever you have to so that your children are out of sight and out of earshot. I mean bolt out the front door and run away if that’s the only alternative to unloading on your mate in front of your children. Like sex, this kind of anger is just so primal. So raw. So real. Way more than a child can absorb and integrate.
So, you’re looking for a balance. Enough to teach them what it takes to nurture a great love affair. But not so much we traumatize them.
But what if we’re discovered and witnessed by our children in either kind of passion?
Don’t panic. It doesn’t mean their lives are damaged or made forever neurotic. But the onus then falls on parents to debrief their children. To apologize for the unchecked display. To assure them that no one was being hurt, nor intending to hurt. This is just what mommies and daddies do.
Good parents teach their children of love’s passion — its joys and its sufferings. Its necessary bridles and required boundaries.
Originally published in View News, April 7, 2009.