Splitsville: The First Rule Of Fight Club Is Not In Front Of The Kids

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Welcome to Splitsville. This weekly column will focus on parenting after a divorce, break-up or one-night stand that didn’t end like a Katherine Heigl movie.

The second rule of fight club is: not in front of the kids.

Let’s all say this together, “We will not fight in front of our kids.”

I’ve always thought that it was healthy for children to see their parents have an argument. Not a huge, passionate screaming match, but a simple disagreement that can be worked through. The parents talk it out, then kiss and make up. The children get to see that confrontation is not the end of the world, that arguments can be discussed logically and that you can still love each other, even when you disagree. Really, I think that small arguments in front of children can turn into teachable moments that will help your children deal with conflict later in life. Obviously, I’m talking about small misunderstandings and disagreements here, not yelling, cursing or any type of violence. Those are completely inappropriate.

Arguments are fine, except in the case of separated parents. For those of us that split from our children’s other parent, I think that it’s completely different. The entire dynamic changes. You aren’t going to kiss and make up once an argument is done. You’re going to retreat to your separate households. Your child will ask questions to each parent, trying to understand what happened. The parents won’t be able to coordinate their answers or work out a resolution, so the situation will continue to deteriorate. Separated parents fighting in front of their children is a recipe for disaster, right?

In theory, I think that most divorced and never-been-married couples realize how detrimental fighting in front of the their kids can be. At least, that’s what I assumed. But stories like Anthony Morelli and his ex-wife, where the ex-husband blogged every mean thought he ever had about his ex-wife, then the wife showed her children said blog, then the father dragged the whole mess into the media… these stories are exhausting and impossible to understand. More than anything, they are terrible for the children involved in them. While that example is extreme, I didn’t have to look far to find more parents who were completely comfortable trash-talking their ex in front of their children. Another mom at my daughter’s dance studio told me, “My ex is a loser. I want my daughter to be aware of that, so she doesn’t get her heart broken, too.” A man that I work with said, “I know that my ex talks bad about me. I’m just trying to give my son both sides of the story. If he only listens to his mother, he’ll hate me.”

We’re all jockeying for position in our children’s hierarchy of relationships. We want to be the one they are closest with, share the most with and count on first. But in our quest to one-up our ex’s, it hurts our children more than it helps. Perpetuating a combative relationship with your ex only reinforces your separation for your children. It encourages them to manipulate and pit the two of you against each other. That type of behavior from children is a learned behavior. They do it because its effective. In a traditional home, the parents would talk to one another and figure out what’s going on. In separated households that are constantly bickering, communication breaks down.

I understand the need to share our frustrations, protect our kids’ hearts and provide an alternative viewpoint, but none of that is worth hurting your child. And every time separated parents argue in front of their kids, they hurt their children. Every time a single dad allows his family and friends to insult his children’s mother, he makes life more difficult for his kids. Every time a mother stands by while her new husband puts down her kid’s father, she’s setting the stage for bigger problems later on.

Refusing to argue or insult in front of our children is important. It’s one of the biggest commitments that separated parents have to make. It helps their communication, it helps their children and it helps their piece of mind. Arguments are going to happen. I mean, you broke up for a reason. But they don’t need to happen when your children are present and they don’t need to seep into your conversations with your kids. Whenever you get tempted to break that commitment, please repeat, “The first rule of fight club is: not in front of the kids.”