My husband and I have been married for five years and we just had a baby son. He doesn’t sleep through the night yet and things at our house are…tense. It’s hard for us to work through our problems because the baby is always there. Even when he is asleep, it’s usually in someone’s arms and then we don’t want to talk at all for fear of waking him up.
The only chance we really have to talk about things is when he is awake and eating or playing, but that feels weird, too. I guess I’m wondering if my husband and I should have disagreements in front of our 2.5-month-old son? Should he also see us resolve problems?
No Alone Time
Dear No Alone Time,
When I first read your question, I was skimming to the punch line and when I got there, I assumed your son was 2.5 years old. I had to read it again to catch on to the fact that your son is only 2.5 months old. So first I want to say, wow, you are ahead of the curve.
When my kids were that little, I wouldn’t have thought twice about arguing in front of them. Excuse my very scientific language here, but a 10-week-old baby is like an adorable little blob of nothing. Sure, you might be able to frighten him if you were really yelling at each other, but I don’t think he’s in any danger of being even temporarily damaged by a tense conversation or petty passive-aggression. I would totally go for it, guilt-free.
And, for the record, I was going to encourage you to go for it anyway, even when I thought your son was almost 3. I like that you said “disagreements” in your question and not “fights.” Those are very different things. The word “fight” suggests that you’re battling each other. When a fight resolves, there is necessarily a winner and a loser.
Disagreements are different. When two people disagree, they can be on the same side, fighting, as it were, for the same outcome, just approaching it from two different angles. When you disagree, the goal isn’t always to “win,” sometimes it’s just to understand each other better, work something out together, and get to where you want to be—regardless of which path you take.
I think these are awesome skills for a pre-schooler to learn. I mean, sure, it would be great if our children could spend their lives inside magical bubbles where there is no conflict, but they will never, ever, live in that universe. They live in this universe—the same one we do—where there are disagreements, and fights, hair-pulling and war. Conflict is going to find them, one way or another, and wouldn’t it be great if they had the skills to face it productively when it did?
I think a lot of us who entered adult relationship as bad-arguers didn’t do so because our parents were bad-arguers, but because we never got to see people argue. We saw grown-up arguments on sitcoms, but in real life, adult conflicts are rarely resolved in a tidy 22-minute storyline that makes everyone better people. Real life conflicts are sticky, stubborn things. They don’t always resolve cleanly; they don’t always resolve at all.
I think modeling for your son how to work through conflicts would be a tremendous gift. And there’s no reason not to start now, while your son is an adorable little blob of nothing. It’s a good idea to have positive habits already in place as he grows into his sentience.
This practice will have another side benefit, too. If you and your husband routinely address disagreements in front of your son, you’ll have to make sure you’re always on your best conflict-resolution behavior. No yelling, no name-calling, no dredging up past infractions just to make each other feel crappy.
You’ll have to remember that you’re doing two very important things at the same time: You’re working things out with your husband, and you’re teaching your son what it looks like to have a grown-up argument. That’s a lesson, good or bad, that will stick with him for the long haul. He will learn what you teach him. Teach him well.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of “Why We Never Talk About Sugar.” Her work has appeared widely in print and online. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch