My partner and I don't argue that often, but when we do we can't always avoid the presence of our children. How much they overhear or take in isn't entirely in our hands, but we're the ones responsible for making it right. Lately, our daughter's been eavesdropping rather frequently, making it nearly impossible to shield her from every disagreement. When I reflect on some of the ways I explain fights with my partner to my kid so she's not anxious, I'm sure I can do more.
I still remember hearing my parents argue, and I was younger than my daughter is now. Together, my parents' contradictory personalities were the equivalent to a volcanic eruption. When all was quiet after each and every disagreement, no one sat me down to explain how relationships works, or how conflict and resolution works. As a result, I've struggled in my adult relationships. How am I supposed to know the right way to argue (and make up) with someone I love, if I've only witnessed the wrong ways? Thankfully, my parents divorced, saving me from additional years of what can only be described as bad examples.
When I reflect back on those days, and how terrified the conflict made me feel, I can't help but connect it to what my daughter might feel now. While not the same situation by any means, kids don't need to understand what the argument is about. They just need to feel safe and secure in knowing their parents are OK together and as individuals. I never felt OK hearing my parents fight, but I'll be damn sure my kids do. Here are some ways I've explained arguments with my partner to them, so they don't grow up with similar anxieties.
By Reminding Her We Still Love Each Other
When I heard my parents fight, it didn't sound the way I thought two people who loved each other, but sometimes disagreed, should. It sounded more like hate or at the worst times, indifference. Every time there's a bigger, more obvious argument that my daughter catches, I've made it a point to take a minute to set her aside for a talk. Even though my partner and I don't yell or throw things, I'm sure my kids detect the anger in our voices when things get heated, more so my daughter because she's the oldest.
She's 10, intelligent, and feels deeply, so I don't expect her to pretend she doesn't hear when her dad and I argue. But she also carries a lot of anxiety (also just as I did), so at the end of every fight, I explain to her that even when couples don't agree on something, even when they're angry or their voices rise, that doesn't mean they've stopped loving each other. It's not always easy to convey, but the fact that her dad and I are still together after 13 years, hopefully, shows that we're hellbent on making our relationship work — no matter our differences.
By Explaining That All Couples Disagree Sometimes
It took a long time for me to understand that arguments are a normal part of relationships because, again, no one told or showed me otherwise. Because the end result of my parents' fights were divorce, it's easy for me to believe every fight is the demise of my own marriage.
When I catch my kids listening in on whatever my partner and I are fighting about, I tell them it's normal. Being with someone you love doesn't mean you'll always agree on everything. If we did, life would be boring. Aside from that, we'd never grow outside of our own perspectives. Disagreements are a healthy part of any relationship. We're not physically or emotionally abusive, and most arguments are really all the little, nit picky things that have added up through a day so I'm sure to show my daughter (and my son), we'll be OK.
By Asking The Right Questions About What She Heard
Sometimes, I don't know exactly what pieces of an argument my daughter's overheard and I don't want to tell her more than she needs to know. If she seems particularly bothered, I dig a little deeper by asking why she's upset, how hearing us made her feel, and what would help her feel less anxious about it.
On a few occasions, my partner and I have argued not knowing my daughter heard. It's only long after we notice something's bothering her do we probe until she confesses. We never want her to feel like a fight is the end of our family, so it's important to get to the bottom of what we can do to comfort her after any disagreement.
By Showing Her How Conflict Resolution Works
Again, it took me a long time to figure out coping mechanisms in my adult years. I didn't have the tools to settle any conflicts throughout my life, which resulted in unhealthy relationship habits such as avoidance, passive aggressiveness, and even picking fights the same way my parents had. It's hard to unlearn those things, but in having children who mirror my words and actions, I've gradually learned the right ways to deal with conflict and disagreements within my relationship.
My partner, who's naturally passive, avoids conflict at all costs. We've been to therapy to address this very thing, as it's affected the way we fight and communicate. Conflict resolution is something we practice now, in the presence of our children, so they see that everything can be worked out.
By Reassuring Her We'll Be OK
Sometimes there isn't much my partner and I can tell our daughter that will erase her anxiety due to a fight she's accidentally (or purposefully) overheard. I try to put myself in her shoes. If my parents had come to me to explain why they fought so much, would it have reassured me? I don't know and, sadly, I never will. All I have is the present and how I choose to handle similar topics with my own children.
If we've tried explaining why couples fight, healthy ways to fix problems, and we've comforted her to the best of our ability and she's still upset, we gently remind her with a hug that no matter what we're fighting about, it'll pass. In fact, that's the most honest thing I can tell her. We're OK, and we always will be.