Have you ever wondered what happens to your kids when you fight with your partner? Have you ever asked them?
Well, I did today and I was surprised and it got me thinking.
My 15-year-old son Tsoof is now on holidays, so he and I go for a walk around the neighborhood together in the morning. He sometimes brings his guitar and we sing, much to the enjoyment of passersby, but other times, we talk. Today, he brought his guitar, but we talked anyway…
At first, I asked Tsoof, “When you and your friends talk about how annoying your parents are, what do you say?”
“Nothing”, he said, “I don’t think you’re annoying”.
“Isn’t there anything we do that bugs you in some way? After all, we’re not perfect”, I asked.
“Well, I really feel bad when you fight”, he admitted, “It makes me want to disappear”.
OK, OK, so the big secret is out. Life coaches or not, Ronit and I are sometimes under pressure too and when that happens, we argue, as we did recently, with our unfortunate kids being present. Being from a culture in which expressing how you feel might involve raising your voice and making theatrical gestures (to help emphasize your point), we dominated the family scene, which apparently troubled our kids.
“What exactly goes on in your mind when we argue?” I asked.
“I keep thinking you should just get to the point and agree already”, Tsoof said.
“How do you suggest we do that?”
“Just say what you want to say clearly and don’t get so upset”.
I explained to him that over 30 years of living together, people accumulate experiences that make it harder to communicate, like similar past frustrations, things we remember but do not mention in front of the kids.
“When you hear one of us saying something ‘simple’, the other one adds quite a lot to it and hears something very different. That way, some of our answers may not even make sense to you, but we think they are relevant in some way to the discussion”, I tried to explain.
“But it’s uncomfortable for the rest of us”, Tsoof said, “When you go off with your argument, what am I supposed to do? You just need to find a way to say what you want and agree quickly. There’s no need to argue so much”.
“What if we don’t know how? What if the whole point is that we’re trying to find a way to get through to each other, but it’s not working and we are getting frustrated?” I asked him.
“Oh”, he said, a new understanding appearing on his face.
I then realized that at 15 years of age, Tsoof still sees his parents as his pillars of strength – two perfect creatures that can do anything. When we struggle, he cannot fit it with his images of us. Perfect beings never fight. They just elegantly sort things out.
This was as surprising for me as it was for him. I sort of expected him to figure out by this age that his parents are not perfect, they are just human. He did not even consider trying to listen to our arguments and perhaps offer his perspective. Since we are perfect, he keeps expecting us to sort things out quickly. When we cannot, his discomfort just grows and grows.
So, point number one is
Kids have a perfect image of their parents.
When parents argue, their kids feel helpless and confused
During the rest of our walk, I explained some things to Tsoof about how arguments form, which I would like to share with you too. Understanding these things will give you the tools to prevent arguments, end them more quickly and generally have better control over your life.
The basic emotional needs
Every human being has 4 basic human needs: certainty, variety, significance and connection.
Certainty is the ability to trust the world around us. We get if from knowing the chair will support our weight when we sit down, our watch is telling the correct time and our home will be there for us at the end of a working day.
Variety is the level of interest and flow in our life. We get it from being busy enough to be excited, taking breaks to get out of the routine, meeting new people, changing jobs and buying new clothes.
Certainty and variety must be in balance. Being in the same job for 20 years may seem safe, but it is so boring you can lose your mind. Being completely out of control during whitewater rafting is thrilling, but very scary.
Significance is our sense of being unique, special and important. We get it from receiving personal attention, having a Platinum credit card in our wallet, being awarded an academic degree or being promoted to a managerial position.
Connection is our sense of belonging and being loved. We get it from physical contact, romantic dinners, singing in a choir, communicating on Facebook and sharing a meal with friends and/or family.
Significance and connection must also be in balance. Being so smart nobody understands you will make you feel very significant, but lonely. Being just like everybody else will make you feel very connected, but you may not be sure who you are among all those people.
Arguments are a battle to fulfill our needs. In fact, arguments only start when the participants are low on their need supplies.
Arguments are power struggles, in which each person sees the other one as trying to gain control, which then gives them certainty and significance. At the same time, both parties also gain variety and lose connection during the argument, because arguing breaks the routine and goes in unpredictable directions (it makes things different), but it is clearly about the parties’ lack of agreement (ability to connect) on a particular matter.
While you argue, what happens to your kids’ needs?
Well, your kids expect you to behave and you do not, so no certainty for them. They get some variety, but not as much as you do. They cannot help either side, which makes them feel disconnected (although this sometimes causes them to choose sides) and they are being ignored, so no significance for them.
In other words, when you argue, your kids lose big time!
But needs can be fulfilled in other ways. For example, talking about the things you do agree on first will give both sides a sense of certainty and connection, because things are good and in alignment for the most part. This creates a solid foundation for the rest of the discussion.
Telling your partner you respect their opinion and feelings will give them more certainty (“I’m OK”), more significance (“I’m respected”) and more connection (“I’m understood”). People often consider these things obvious, but they are not. Saying them aloud can diffuse the tension and improve the atmosphere greatly.
It is also very important for those little innocent bystanders.
Finally, instead of engaging in a power struggle, find a way to present the problem as a joint concern and aim the discussion at reaching a win-win solution, which will make everybody feel good. By now, I am sure you can see how this increases the certainty (“Surely, together we’ll come up with a good plan”), the connection (“It will be everyone’s plan”) and the significance (“And my needs will an important be part of it”).
When the focus is on doing anything you can to fulfill your needs by winning the argument, things get worse. You are robbing your partner and your kids of the things they need, but you are also robbing yourself of them. While your focus is on win-lose, you are also reinforcing an image of your partner as an enemy, which may gradually lead you to separate.
When the focus is on fulfilling everybody’s needs, that is exactly what happens and any agreement you reach will be productive and sustainable. While your focus is on win-win, you are also reinforcing an image of your partner as an ally, which may strengthen your relationship and build the confidence of everyone in the family.
So, point number two is
Arguments are attempts to fulfill your needs.
To avoid (or end) them, find other ways to get your needs fulfilled
To give this a whirl, spend a few seconds with your eyes closed in a quiet place and go over your last argument with your partner. Freeze the scene, look around at yourself, your partner and your kids and get a sense of what each person feels. Then, discover the emotional needs involved and work out a different approach to the whole thing.
Changing thought patterns is not easy in real life, so this “dry run” will give you a big head start, especially if you do it several times. Try different arguments, preferably ones that are typical in your home, perhaps with your kids as well (like “Clean your room right now!” or “Get off the @&$^*$ computer!”) and turn them around.
Good luck and happy times,