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If You Have to Fight, at Least Be Fair About It


Most couples, unless they come from the silent, freeze-out school of arguing, can't help but fight in front of their children.

Ideally, some think, parents should stuff it for later when they can discuss it privately. But in real life, flash points almost always occur in the midst of a crisis or family outing, the store or the car--someplace submarine-like where there's no possible escape.

One mother, married for 17 years, said she and her husband now have blowout fights only about twice a year. But then, the old wounds open up, familiar complaints rush out, the air is electric for days. And the kids see it all.

The last one was a "soul wrencher," she said. After a Saturday of activities, he was tired and wanted to go home. She wanted the family to see a sculpture garden.

As they wandered around in search of the garden, the kids began to whine. "It's your mother," he told them. Then the kids began to beg to go home.

Then, she blew up, she said, because she was instantly struck by the thought: "I'm married to this person and we have nothing in common."

Many kids today think "divorce" when they hear their parents fight, and parents of extremely sensitive children should indeed try to curb their public fights, said New York therapist Ron Taffel, co-author of "Why Parents Disagree" (Morrow, 1994). But many children, he said, can weather the storms and even come out ahead if couples ultimately resolve their conflicts and fight fairly. A therapist for 25 years, Taffel has developed some general guidelines for parents who fight:

* Watch the tone. "Kids react more to tone than they do to words, so it's really important that the tone of your fight is not one that contains too much derision, contempt and hatred."

* Don't name-call. "You're a liar," or "You're irresponsible," is worse than saying, "I don't agree," or "I can't stand that you think that."

* Fight fairly, not to win. Taffel said there can be serious, long-term consequences if one parent is a consistent loser in fights. Children invariably identify with the loser, regardless of gender, he said. Sometimes they appear to mimic the more powerful parent and join in criticizing the weaker, but even then, they have formed a secret alliance with the loser. "Because those kids feel bad about themselves for doing that, they end up causing themselves a lot of trouble. They end up being picked on, they act up in school and develop all kinds of symptoms," he said.

* Avoid a "ledger list" of old complaints. Not only do children find it troubling, they also tend to pick it up as a style of arguing.

* Conclude the fight. "Children are people of action. They don't really understand a circular, never-ending debate. It makes them depressed, antsy or contemptuous when they get older," Taffel said.

* Hug, kiss and make up. Watching parents make up lets children know the relationship has survived.

In real life, anger rarely falls neatly into a beginning, middle and end. The last fight of the couple mentioned above, like the others, didn't resolve itself for several tense days. She refused to make dinner for two days. Then, she said, "He made me coffee one morning. On a napkin, he wrote, 'I love you' with a marker pen." It wasn't quite enough, so finally, she said she bought herself some perfume and flowers and said she felt better.

Usually, they slowly drift back to talking. Then hugging and kissing.

Meanwhile, she said she keeps her kids posted. "I say, 'We're fighting now. It's better now. Now we've made up.' "

No matter how parents fight, children will emulate them, Taffel said. "The way you fight with your spouse is the way your grandchildren will be watching their grandchildren fight. If parents can learn to resolve their fights in some basically fair way, they have given their children a present, a gift, to be able to carry on to their relationships in the future."

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