Every married couple carries the same dark secret. It doesn’t matter how religious you are or what part of the world you were born… and it’s so bad that it makes sense we feel utterly embarrassed by it – the dark secret is everyone, at some point in marriage, acts like a complete terror against their spouse and betrays their own personal values in doing so.
Setting aside genuine abuse, marital fights are a common part of life. They aren’t good, they’re something we need to sort out, and there’s something most of us miss when talking about it – the effect it has on our children. Research universally shows the more couples fight the more serious damage is done. Academic performance takes a nose dive, anxiety and depression dramatically increase, developing friendships becomes more difficult, self-compassion is compromised leaving shocking levels of self-contempt, and the severity of our fights correlates with how likely our children will end up getting a divorce themselves. It’s unfair this universal secret of marriage we all carry should be so damaging. The good news is it doesn’t have to be.
In tackling this problem, it’s helpful to know children see themselves as the star of their own story. As the star, other character’s merely serve to develop the story but it’s the child’s own actions that push the narrative forward. From a developmental standpoint, this reduces life’s complexity. The simplicity of “I caused this” makes life more understandable for their evolving brains but it also creates a huge blind spot. It motivates them to take on all the blame for the events in their lives even if what happened was outside their control. This high level of responsibility taking includes our own marital mistakes.
Luckily, there’s another truism in our favor. Our kids trust us. By directly explaining after a fight, “Mommy and Daddy love each other and have worked things out. It’s not your fault we were fighting. It was our fault,” we remove the burden of self-esteem crippling guilt from their little shoulders. “It’s not your fault” functions as a protective tool that almost entirely eliminates the negative outcomes and even has a de-fragilizing effect enhancing our children’s resilience and sense of security. We might not be able to eliminate all marital fights but this strategy keeps those fights just between mom and dad.
Rabbi Yonasan Bender LCSW graduated from Hebrew University’s School of Social Work. He works with adults, couples, and children from his private therapy practice in Jerusalem. He holds several semichos from Rav Yitzchok Berkovits, shlita. To share your thoughts, experiences, questions, or a different perspective, you can reach Rabbi Yonasan Bender LCSW at 053-808-0435 and at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his website at www.jerusalemtherapy.org.