From the get go, this is a tough question to ask… There are so many variables to consider… What exactly do we mean by fighting? Does it matter what age the kids are? Do the kids even understand what you’re fighting about?
These are all important questions, but they are a little bit misguided. Those questions don’t really get to the root of the matter because they don’t address the actual problem – how you fight with your spouse.
This isn’t about what the kids can or can’t handle, it’s about the way you and your spouse resolve differences. Is it OK to fight in front of the kids?
In a word: no.
Is it ok to disagree in front of the kids? To speak to one another with respect even if you don’t see eye to eye? The answer is yes, but you have to “fight” effectively, or you risk putting your children at risk for emotional damage (and potentially teaching them some bad habits for the future).
You see, disagreeing isn’t the problem. We can’t expect to be on the exact same page as our spouses at every moment. At some point or another, one of you will do something that irritates the other, someone will forget something important, say something hurtful, or simply have a difference of opinion on an important matter.
When this happens though, how you proceed is critical – especially if you have kids around.
Even if the topic of debate has nothing to do with the kids, they’re still listening to how you’re talking to your spouse, paying attention to how angry you get, and watching to see if you make up.
If a disagreement is not handled maturely – and turns into a big fight, complete with slamming doors and shouting above each other – it can get pretty scary for a child. It’s noisy, it’s chaotic, and frankly, they might not understand what you’re arguing about at all. They do understand, however, that something’s wrong.
In these fearful moments, kids usually withdraw emotionally and physically, building barriers to healthy communication and relationship building. Alternatively, fighting parents can also make some children lash out – either in an attempt to distract the parents from fighting with each other, or to reclaim attention that is being taken up by the arguments.
Whether or not you’re aware of it, kids are learning from you pretty much all the time, and when you fight with your spouse, they are learning about how to deal with conflict. Whatever approach you take to the problem, they will absorb.
This means that arguing the “right” way is important, and so is explaining to your children that disagreements are normal, that they are not to blame, and that you and your spouse still love each other.
You can teach them how to disagree effectively, but more importantly, you are teaching them how to look past an isolated conflict and make up with the people they care about. To teach them this, though, you have to be able to do it yourself.
If you and your spouse are getting in to it, if tempers are flaring and you feel yourself getting worked up, stop and breathe for a moment. Take a few minutes to compose yourself, leave the room for a moment, or whatever it takes to let your nerves calm. Even outside of marital arguments, this is a good skill to have (and teach your kids).
Once you’ve settled, conduct your disagreement in a calm, civil way – even if your children are still in the same room (if they aren’t, you can bet that they’ll be listening as best they can). Show them that arguments don’t have to vicious, and that finding solutions is possible if people are willing to come together.
It’s unrealistic to think that you can avoid all arguments in the presence of your children. It’s equally unrealistic to think that they aren’t closely affected by your emotional state…
Keep your disagreements civil and work toward making up calmly. Your kids – and your marriage – will be better off for it.