Amy: 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 that 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 saw 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. 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 pride, 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, Jenna, 13 and son William, 11. Frank, a well-respected innovator in the tech industry, 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. Mother treated her daughter like an adversary, responding to every trigger by going into battle mode. And the daughter, indeed, treated her mother rudely. She mocked and belittled her. But beneath this drama, daughter Jenna was clearly longing for her mother’s love, but Mia couldn’t “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.

Daughter Jenna 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. She described her parents’ relationship, where her mother often “picked on” her father, but he didn’t respond. Their relationship maintained the outward appearance of calm; the couple thought that they had a “good marriage”.  Their friends openly envied their relationship. But in fact, the battleground just shifted to mother and daughter.

Enter 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, Mia had what she described as an “epiphany”: She realized that much of the anger that she directed toward her daughter was meant for her husband.

The couple, to their credit, began to explore the long-standing—and unresolved—tensions between them. Though they had stopped openly fighting years ago, the tensions simmered, spilling over into their parenting. Frank 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 often felt she didn’t seem willing to compromise. And some early mother-in-law problems added to the tensions.

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, which left her feeling uncared for, and unseen. And as usual, both sides contained important truths. The crisis with their daughter provided an invitation to explore these truths. This couple showed 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 couple 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.

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