When we need something, it is easy to look at our partner as the enemy instead of as a teammate. How can we work together as one team fighting against the issues that come up this week? How can we give our partner the benefit of the doubt? How can we look for ways to find compromise when our needs are in conflict? How can we use conflict as an opportunity to better understand who we are and what we need? Are there ways that we can take responsibility for our part of the problem? In the Bringing Baby Home curriculum, John Gottman says that these questions can reduce our partner's potential defensiveness because we are kicking the problem around together. We are working together as a team instead of against one another.
According to the Gottmans' research, the way a conversation starts is likely the way that it will end. So if we start with criticism or contempt, we are likely to end with defensiveness or stonewalling. But if we start gently, we are more likely to have a productive conversation. Some keys to a gentle start-up include: expressing appreciation; making statements that start with "I", such as "I'm upset" or "I'm angry"; describing the facts of the situation; and clearly describing what we need. Check out this video from Julie Gottman to hear more.
I wanted to start our expressing needs challenge with a quick reminder that it’s really hard to think clearly or have empathy for our families when we are physically upset (Dr. Gottman calls it “flooded”). If we notice that our heart rates are high and our bodies are tense, we may need to start off by taking a good break. What is the nature of a good break? It is at least 20 minutes long. It is thinking about something else besides the argument. By the time the break is over, our bodies are physically relaxed, and our hearts and minds are calm.
When is it appropriate to fight in front of the kids? In John Medina's book Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded), he talks about "One of the greatest predictors of performance in school turns out to be the emotional stability of the home... Given that stress can powerfully affect learning, one might predict that children living in high-anxiety households would not perform as well academically as kids living in more nurturing households. That is exactly what studies show. Marital stress at home can negatively affect academic performance in almost every way measurable, and at nearly any age... Careful subsequent investigations showed that it was the presence of overt conflict, not divorce, that predicted grade failure.” (Brain Rule #4: Stressed Brains Don't Learn the Same Way, emphasis mine).
Therefore, we can consider ways to reduce how much we fight in front of the children, and how we teach them conflict management strategies. Some ideas:
- Having a regular time when we bring up conflicts when the children are out of earshot, so that conflicts don't build up over time.
- Looking for regular ways to express fondness and affection for one another, so that we can maintain the positive perspective.
- Taking breaks to calm down so that problems don't escalate.
- Focusing on keeping mealtimes positive, so that kids develop a positive association with eating.
If you think a certain topic may be upsetting to you or your partner, try to avoid talking about it in front of the kids. Wait to bring it up when you are alone.Starting at around age 4, we can have small disagreements in front of the children, but it is important that they see us physically make up at the end.