When Couples Fight Through Kids

by Amy Begel
Family Therapist New York City

Two Parents Fighting Over Child In Divorce Concept

When Couples Fight Through the Kids

One of the most common themes from my family therapy practice is the way well-meaning parents often carry on their battles through their kids. First, let me say that this is something that happens with “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. One signal that underground marital 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.

Why does this happen? Usually it reflects a stalemate in the couples’ ability to resolve conflicts in their marriage. 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 or other factors, the marriage falls into a state of (often unrecognized) paralysis—fertile ground for problems with kids to occur.

A recent case from my office illustrates how this can happen. Here’s a quick snapshot: (Identifying data are changed)

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, mocking and belittling her. 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’ pattern of fighting, which involved her mother verbally attacking the father, and his withdrawal. It sounded like she was rooting for them to work it out. In fact, I think she was trying to help them by showing her dad how to fight.

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. 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 saw her as unwilling to compromise. And some mother-in-law problems added to the tensions. And 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. And it continues; sometimes the path feels rocky and challenging to the couple, but their persistence and underlying commitment to each other buffer the pain of change.

And 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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