I often think that fighting, when it comes to couples, gets a bad rap. First, let me say that I myself am a peace-loving creature. I’m not an angry person by nature, and prefer harmony to conflict. That said, conflict, dissonance, tension, are all a part of deep and intimate relationships. I know this from personal experience, and from my office practice. I can’t tell you how many couples who show up in my office declaring they “never fought”, but now are reeling from an affair. Or they are struggling with a disturbed–or disturbing–child. In fact, behavioral problems in children often act as an indicator of marital problems swept under the rug.
At a certain point in my family therapy practice, I began to think about “conflict avoidance” as the root of all evil. Of course, I’m aware of how hyperbolic this sounds. But what I began thinking about is how the vast majority of couples and families I see never learned how to fight. They never developed the ability to both acknowledge and work through the tensions in their relationship. Conflict avoidance became the (mostly unconscious) modus operandi of these folks. And, rather ironically, the avoidance of the pain of conflict ended up causing far more pain down the line.
This is a rather deceptive problem: Low-level, chronic conflict avoidance can show up in “good people”, with seemingly “good” marriages. They may bicker but they don’t go far enough. Often, in fact, couples don’t even know they’re doing this. It’s one of those insidious patterns that gets started, almost unconsciously , and then has a life of its own.
Why does this happen? Usually it reflects an emotional stalemate in the couples’ relationship. Marriage, as we all know, is not for the faint-of-heart. One of the most important ingredients in a viable, intimate partnership, is the ability to look at oneself. The ability to be wrong, to change, to learn unexpected truths about oneself, is essential for the healthy growth of the couple. Sometimes, due to a partner’s ego, emotional brittleness, trauma, or other factors, the marriage falls into a state of (often unrecognized) paralysis—fertile ground for problems with kids to occur.
Indeed, one signal that underground relationship warfare may be afoot is when the child begins having “behavior problems” . Too often we jump to the conclusion that the problem is with the kid. Often, in fact, the problem is with the parents, and their unresolved/unacknowledged tensions.
A recent case from my office illustrates how fighting between a parent and child reflects hidden marital discord: Here’s a quick snapshot:
The Case: The couple, Frank and Mia, had been married for nearly fifteen years. They had two kids, a daughter, Bella, 13 and son William, 11. Frank, a well-respected innovator in graphic design, came across as a typical “nice guy”: Everyone loved him, he was the guy people came to for help, the “smoother-over” guy. By his own admission, he hated conflict. His wife Mia emigrated from Italy nearly twenty years earlier; she worked as a translator part-time, but spent most of her time raising the kids. They came to see me because Mia was locked in heated battle with her daughter; it felt to her that, most of the time, the daughter was winning. She was furious.
When I saw them, it was clear that this family had become really stuck. The mother treated her daughter like an adversary, responding to every trigger by going into battle mode. And the daughter, indeed, treated her mother rudely. Bella openly mocked and belittled her mother; she was right out of Central Casting, playing the role of ” Bad Teenager”. But beneath this drama, Bella was clearly longing for her mother’s love; Mia wouldn’t allow herself to “give in” as long as her daughter treated her rudely. Mia was raised in a traditional Italian home, where, she said, children showed respect to their parents, no matter what.
I asked Bella what she thought of her parents’ marriage. Wow. What an articulate, thoughtful young woman. She immediately dropped her provocative act and spoke openly about how she saw her parents’ marriage. That’s the good thing about having kids in the therapy setting; they are usually fantastic observers of the marital dynamic, and ready to offer their thoughts, when asked. Bella said she thought they “acted childish.” She described her parents’ relationship, where her mother often “picked on” her father, but he didn’t respond. Bella said, “I worry about both of them.” She thought her mother seemed “lonely” and her father was a “terrible fighter”. I guessed that maybe Bella was trying to show her father how to fight. These were subtle tensions, not visible in public: The couple maintained the outward appearance of calm; in fact, Mia and Frank said that they had a “good marriage”. “We are the envy of all our friends”< they said. In fact, the battleground just shifted to mother and daughter.
The father, Frank saw himself as a bystander, a referee between his wife and his daughter. But, truth be told, he mostly sided with his daughter. He did this indirectly, by not correcting his daughter’s rudeness, or by openly admonishing his wife for her behavior toward their daughter. Soon, the tensions between the couple emerged. In fact, shortly into the therapy, when the parents came in to the office alone, Mia sat down on my couch and said, “I’ve had an epiphany.” She paused. “I realize that a lot of my anger toward Bella is really meant for my husband.” Frank eyes widened.
The couple, to their credit, began to explore the long-standing—and unresolved—tensions between them. Though they said “we stopped openly fighting years ago”, the tensions simmered, spilling over into their parenting. Frank described how he saw his wife as “too strict” as a parent, and he saw it as his job to provide “flexibility” for the kids. But what really bothered him was what he perceived to be his wife’s rigidity with him. He said, “She doesn’t seem willing to compromise. She’s incredibly stubborn.” Frank cited one memorable example: Early in their marriage, Mia apparently had some regular run-ins with Frank’s mother which he greatly resented. Frank openly sided with his mother; he felt Mia was too harsh in her judgements. These early mother-in-law battles helped set the stage for future (subterranean) warfare.
For her part, Mia felt that Frank wasn’t parental enough with the kids; that he avoided conflict with them, just as he did with her. That’s what really bugged her; he wouldn’t fight with her, even when needed; this left her feeling uncared for, and unseen. She said, “My husband disappears. He goes away, not always physically, but emotionally.” Mia felt envious of the passion that he poured into his work; she felt he reserved the best of himself for his projects, and his students. As usual, both sides contained important truths. The crisis with their daughter provided an opening to explore these semi-buried tensions in their marriage. This couple took on the challenge, showing courage in how they took an honest look at themselves, and their relationship.
Exposing these conflicts which had remain hidden—or ignored—for many years allowed this Mia and Frank to unlock these destructive patterns. The healing process began. This family came intermittently for therapy for nearly a year, and the family atmosphere improved greatly.
While each family brings its own flavor, style and story to these sessions, aspects of these patterns are universal. A little known truth about family life is this: Our kids are mini-doctors. They closely observe the grown ups in their lives, feel the spoken and unspoken distress, and try to help.These little magical-thinkers seem to believe in their power to effect change; in my experience, they take their responsibilities seriously. Of course, lacking qualifications, their efforts usually backfire. But recognizing their cry for help is often a useful beginning.