A How-Not-to Guide for Arguing in Front of Your Kids
I like to think of myself as a recovering Drama Queen.
In moments of anger, I may seem quiet and possibly even under control, but in my head I am throwing fits, screaming and destroying people’s lives. In my head, I imagine every element of my revenge. I go over the steps in painstaking detail. I hatch late-night, ski-masked plans that involve bricks thrown through windows and leaflet smear campaigns. But, since I try to think of myself as a rational woman, I only indulge the queen in my imagination.
Except, I have to admit, she seeps out a bit when I fight with my husband. Especially when we first got married, I liked to slam doors and throw things. I would scream in a high-pitched, truly laughable scream. And I liked to walk out, dramatic exits that included speeding off in the car only to find myself headed nowhere, trying to calculate how many minutes I had to be gone in order to prove my point.
During the first years of our marriage, one of the biggest obstacles I dealt with was learning how to fight. It was a long process trying to figure out what you can say and what you can never say. The first lesson my husband and I learned: Do not bring up the word “divorce” no matter how intensely you are trying to demonstrate the importance of your point. Lesson number two: If you actually want to resolve a fight, you must swallow your pride every painful minute of an argument and listen to what the other person is trying to tell you — instead of just thinking of your next line of defense. After some long nights of fighting and making up and fighting again, my husband and I found a way to resolve disagreements together without escalating them to 11 and hurting each other even more. The Queen had been slain. Or so I thought. Then we had kids.
In order to keep newly sober addicts from falling off the wagon, recovery groups like AA teach the rule of HALT. It instructs you to avoid getting too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired, four things that happen all at once when you have children. The stress levels get higher, the sleep hours get lower, and a Drama Queen may get re-released into the wild. This wasn’t necessarily a big problem with our first child’s infancy or maybe even first year. But as our son got older and more aware, I felt real crappy yelling and throwing things in front of his sweet, frightened face. And I could never walk out and leave him. This had always been my favorite trick when we were childless. But it would have terrified him.
During one heated argument with my husband, I tried walking out, but took my son with me. I scrambled angrily getting him dressed, finding his sippy cup, and shoving a few snacks into a bag. Twenty minutes later I finally buckled him into the car seat. Then I had to quickly rush back into the house to throw a plastic baby pool at my husband’s head.
Until he got the pool thrown at his face, I think my husband thought I was just happily taking our son to the park. It was not exactly the dramatic exit I desired. So I had to ask myself, how does a recovering Drama Queen resolve conflicts (while borderline insane from exhaustion) without yelling, screaming, leaving or inflicting days of the silent treatment?
“Well you have to start being an adult about it,” my one unhelpful friend suggested. “Humph,” I pouted, crossing my arms. So what exactly does that mean for the Queen?
Before kids, my husband and I could have an argument the moment something happened. We could stay up all night discussing it. Now we have to wait until the kids go to sleep, and then we spend our precious free time arguing. Before, we could scream and holler and get all our anger out immediately. Now, we swallow all that anger and stored it up for later. I fume while cheerfully singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with the kids in the bath. I seeth as I impersonate each animal in The Bear Snores On with a happy voice and a smile. And then, when I finally get a break and have time to talk, it seems like such a waste to spend it fighting. Isn’t it better to just bottle it up and with each passing disagreement become a little more bitter? It at least provides me with time to sit on the couch and watch, in a cross-eyed stupor, whatever is new on my DVR.
Even in my sleep-deprived state I knew this was not the answer. Is this how people wake up in 10 years and say “It’s like we’re just roommates?” But between late night fighting and faking peace, I was unable to figure out what was the healthy in-between. I knew there was something important about being able to relax together at night, something we needed. Becoming emotionally shut down wasn’t the answer.
Then, like so many times in life, an age old cliché suddenly became very meaningful. Don’t sweat the small stuff. If I wanted to actually be happy at night I had to start letting some things go. I started using the rule: Will this matter in five weeks, five months, five years? If it doesn’t matter then I have to drop it. For a Drama Queen that means shutting up both my mouth and my brain, which I’m not good at. Many nights, like giving a command to the dog, I have to tell myself, “Drop it.”
Sometimes I think the petty arguing is really a cry for help: “Pay attention to me, listen to me, look at me like you used to!” We stopped having fun together, just the two of us as adults. We spend all of our time together as Mama and Dada. I read a study that said doing novel things with your partner produces the same chemicals in your brain that you produced when you were first in love. Doing new things together is a way to keep the love alive. So my husband and I are making an effort to go do something new together, like take a night off and ride roller coasters. OK, maybe we just talk about doing that while we play Scrabble, but we are trying to have fun together again. More fun, and don’t sweat the small stuff: For now … the Queen is appeased.