My parents are wonderful, but there’s one key area where they let me down in my development.
They never fought.
I’m pretty sure this is not because they never disagreed, but rather due to some sort of “Not in front of the children mentality. I understand that motive; seeing parents argue or even fight (I’m talking words, not domestic violence) can be very stressful on young brains.
However, by not ever fighting in front of me, I also never got to see them resolve a fight. I never saw the dance of love and anger, where you grudgingly give in to the needs or wants of a partner. Or the kind where you suddenly realize you’re both on the same side. I never got to see one parent apologize for saying something in the heat of the moment. I never got to see forgiveness. I never got to see reconciliation.
That messed me up. Big time.
Learning to Fight
What that meant was that I internalized: people who are in good, long-lasting relationships don’t fight. So what happened whenever my girlfriend and I had a fight?
We broke up.
I think we broke up (and got back together) over a hundred times just in the year and a half we dated in High School (my choir teacher, no joke, suggested my senior solo should be “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon). So naturally we got married right after high school, and separated and reunited probably a dozen or so times before finally calling it quits for real, two years and four kids later.
It took another decade for me to learn that real people in real love can have real arguments and it doesn’t mean the relationship is over. It was another decade or so before I began to learn how to have those conversations constructively.
That’s a long time, and a lot of heated voices, regretted words, and even tears and slammed doors on occasion. I’m still not perfect, by any means, but Natasha and I know now how to respect the feelings of anger without projecting them or internalizing them, how to talk about “contributions” rather than “blame”, and most of all, how to give each other (and sometimes even ourselves) space to cool down.
The Wisdom of A (Grown) Child
Like any adult with an awareness of his own screwed-uppedness, I was worried that I had passed this trait on to my children. But a conversation with my Eldest Daughter gave me hope. I was giving her a ride to work, and she mentioned that she hadn’t seen her boyfriend since the night before, when they fought.
“Yeah, it was just a misunderstanding,” she said. “The music was loud, and he couldn’t hear me explaining why we needed to leave, and so he was just upset.”
I began to offer the typical paternal advice (worse when the pater is a personal development blogger, lemme tellya) and she stopped me. “Nah, it’s cool, Dad,” she said.
“I talked with him this morning, and said ‘Hey, do you wanna fight? Or do you wanna take a break?’ He knows this is no big thing. So he said ‘Break,’ and I said ‘Cool’ and now I’m going to work. It’ll all be good by the time I get home.”
I was speechless. I don’t think she even realized how happy she made me. My daughter knows how to fight. Where I may have failed to teach her, I have succeeded as a cautionary tale.
If you don’t know how to have a constructive disagreement with your partner, it might be worth practicing (we’ll even give you a framework). In the meantime, though, just try to remember what it took me decades to learn: just because you’re arguing, doesn’t mean it’s over.
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