Avoiding Conflict

Avoiding facing marital problems

Some married people avoid expressing their unhappiness to “keep peace.” Although well intentioned, this concealing of your feelings and pain from your spouse month after month causes serious harm to your marriage. The quiet one is denying the truth, pretending to be happier than he/she is, minimizing the marital problems, endangering his/her own health, avoiding a vital task merely because it is stressful, trying to play it safe, acting uncaringly and hostilely towards his/her spouse, and reneging on his/her sacred vows to preserve the marriage. This is kind of keeping the peace is the kind of behaviour that causes problems. Honest openness is needed to maintain a marriage.

Some writers, e.g. Cole & Laibson (1982), believe that the hiding of disagreements between husband and wife also gives children a distorted view of marriage and deprives the children of the chance to learn how to handle conflict. We need to realize that (1) all thinking people disagree occasionally and (2) anger doesn’t have to destroy love. Many happy couples fight verbally or argue. Cole and Laibson think parents should “fight” (disagree or argue but not get verbally or physically abusive) in front of the kids and especially show the children that arguments can and should lead to workable solutions. Children shouldn’t witness certain arguments, however, such as about sex, child-rearing, money, relatives, or divorce, nor should the children become involved in the argument if it is just between the parents. Always assure the children that they aren’t causing the marital problems. No parent should ever involve a child as an emotional substitute for the spouse, an ally against the other parent, or as a pawn in the marital wars. Two psychologists have written a book on how to conduct effective, beneficial family fights (Rubin & Rubin, 1988). If you can’t follow these rules and the arguments become vicious, name-calling, destructive battles, both partners should get counselling.

Judith Siegel’s new book, “What Children Learn from Their Parents’ Marriage,” may help frightened or irritable or distant spouses uncover the source of their emotions. Her point is that, as young children, we observe closely the interactions between Mom and Dad. Those experiences form a lasting basis for our expectations and fears of marriage and intimacy. Unfortunately, many children accurately see unhealthy relationships between their parents… plus, and causing even more problems, the child him/herself probably has distorted perceptions of the parents’interactions and many children go beyond mere misperceptions into gross distortions and horrible fantasies about their parents’ relationship, e.g. possibly imagining that the angry spats of their parents could turn into dangerous out-of-control rages, making the child very afraid of having disagreements with anyone (as a child or later as a spouse/lover).

As Freud observed, we are, for unclear reasons, prone to repeat the disturbing problems we observed or experienced in the past–presumably so we can try to find a way to resolve the troubling situation. However, if we come to realize what we are doing, for instance, carrying our distorted fears as a child into our own marriage, maybe we could find a way to avoid this “repetition neurosis.” Siegel’s book should, at least, help some people review their childhood experiences of their parents’ marriage and, hopefully, find the childhood origins of their current difficulties with intimacy. Siegel’s basic purpose, however, is to help parents realize that their children are not only affected by the child’s relationship with each of them as individuals but also deeply affected by the way they see Mom and Dad relating.

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