My husband and I walked into each of our kid’s rooms together to tuck them in and give goodnight kisses but found them cuddled together in one room. They’d heard us arguing.
Red-faced and puffy-eyed, I kissed their precious little faces, snuggling into their necks until they laughed – an attempt to diffuse the tension I knew they picked up on. As I left the room, I heard my husband start to explain, “You probably heard Mom and I arguing. Everything is okay. We love each other, but sometimes being a grown-up means you might have to have difficult talks with other grown-ups.” In that moment, I was so grateful to have a partner who gets it, one who understands that it is necessary to not only address the elephant in the room but to also acknowledge it even exists.
Perma-Sunshine and Rainbows are a Fairly Tale
When I was younger, I was blindly naïve. I’d never considered that partnership – marriage – actually required work, and sometimes that work wasn’t packaged with a pretty little bow. My father worked as a riverboat captain for the entirety of my adolescence, so he was only home every other month. When he was home, I never saw my parents argue, and it wasn’t because they didn’t but because they did it privately. I can understand that mindset. Why expose your child to conflict that doesn’t involve them if you can help it?
In my case, being shielded from the less-than-pleasant parts of marriage left me woefully unprepared to do the heavy lifting that is integral to a healthy partnership. As my friends and I grew older and our talks turned to more serious topics, I realized that having a great marriage doesn’t mean that you and your partner always agree. Every single one of us had felt at one time or another that arguing with your significant other meant that you were failing at the marriage game, and none of us were in completely conflict-free relationships. What none of us had realized was that a healthy and successful marriage isn’t a never-ending series of peaks; that’s just unrealistic – a fairy tale designed to set you up for failure.
The true hallmark of a functional marriage is how you and your partner navigate the valleys of your relationship. Conflict is a real and necessary part of life. My husband and I choose not to hide behind closed doors when we argue, however controversial that may be. Instead, we hash out our disagreements in the open, but we also RESOLVE them in the same way. For us, it’s important for our kids to see and learn healthy conflict resolution, for us to model what that looks like, so that one day they are equipped to resolve their own conflicts instead of viewing a reality of life as a failure. As long as your arguments aren’t toxic or harmful (think: name-calling, physical abuse, threatening abandonment), then I don’t believe there’s any reason to hide them behind closed doors.
Address the Elephant
The night of that argument, my husband and I could have made several different choices. We could have a) disagreed privately or b) gone into their rooms and pretended like we hadn’t been arguing at all. Honestly, even if you hide it, your kids are able to read your energy, and they will still know that something is awry. They are perceptive little suckers, after all. I don’t want to be responsible for teaching my kids a false narrative- that happy marriages are free of conflict – or WORSE, that feelings and emotions are meant to be suppressed or hidden away.
So point out that elephant. Paint it in technicolor. Give it a name, and then give the kids the tools they need to have real, healthy, and whole relationships. Just don’t pretend that the mammoth beast parked right in your living room isn’t even there. We owe our kids that much.