The Rules of Engagement: What to do when adult children fight with their spouse
BY BOB AND JUDITH WRIGHT
As grandparents, it can be upsetting and challenging when your child is fighting with their spouse. You may be wondering, “How can I help?” or “Where do I step in?” You may be worried about overstepping your boundaries (especially when it comes to the grandkids), or perhaps you’re frustrated over your daughter or son-in-law’s negative reactions to your influence or input. These awkward situations are endless.
When your children are arguing with their spouse or about the grandkids, it can be hard not to swoop in and try to fix things. You may see your son being overly harsh with your grandson, while your daughter-in-law is overly permissive. You may notice your daughter seems to favor or be more lenient toward one of her children over the other. You may even hear the couple vehemently exchanging blame and accusations. Let’s face it: these situations can leave most of us biting our lips and wringing our hands, wondering what we should do (or giving us a migraine every time they come to visit).
Tough stuff—but there’s good news: It’s never too late to mend or reenergize our relationships. Understanding how to help your children navigate their disagreements without mediating or interfering is the key to working through a rough patch and encouraging long term healthy family relationships.
A Family in Conflict…
Recently, my wife Judith and I worked with grandparents Todd and Cindy. * Their son Joe, * an artist, had a distinct lack of direction and a difficult time holding a steady income. His wife Monica, * a nurse, was initially drawn to his bohemian lifestyle and didn’t mind living paycheck to paycheck before they had children. Once their grandson was born, things changed. Suddenly, Joe’s lack of direction frustrated Monica, and her once easy-going personality changed to constantly on-edge and stressed out. They were often dueling over dollars and Joe would withdraw and vent to his mother about the pressure and stress he was feeling.
Todd and Cindy feared Joe and Monica were headed for divorce. Cindy complained about Monica’s constant nagging at Joe, and defended Joe saying, “She knew what his lifestyle was when she signed up.” Meanwhile, Todd could identify shades of himself in Joe, but worried about Joe’s lack of discipline with his son. While Joe was often permissive and happy-go-lucky, Monica’s parenting often seemed too harsh.
On a recent visit to the kids’ house, Cindy confronted Monica about being too hard on Joe and their boy. Harsh words were spoken and now both Joe and Monica seemed to be avoiding Todd and Cindy altogether. Cindy worried they wouldn’t get to see their grandson as much, creating emotional distance.
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree
As we talked further, Cindy revealed that she and Todd had the same kind of conflict in their marriage. She had been the disciplinarian, while Todd was the permissive parent, whom she resented for leaving her with what she called the “dirty work of discipline.”
It was important for Cindy and Todd to realize that their son was now taking the theme of their marriage into his own, and Cindy began to regret having been so hard on Monica, now empathizing with her. Cindy began to understand that she was hurt and angry with Todd and that they had never resolved their conflict. She was now in a position to wish Joe and Monica the best and to responsibly share the lessons in conflict resolution she hadn’t learned.
The Truth about Conflict
This family had a culture of unresolved conflict. They believed fighting was bad, and Monica was openly fighting for greater responsibility from Joe. Many of us are also of the fighting-is-bad mindset, so when we see conflict on the horizon, we avoid it altogether by shutting down when things heat up, or by taking sides, thereby throwing gas on an already out-of-control flame. While we understand that disagreements are inevitable, conflict can still make us really uncomfortable, due to either the unspoken tension or the screaming matches we later regret. Cindy and Todd never resolved their own differences, so they were stuck in their patterns until they were now confronted with the same issues anew.
They were learning that conflict can actually help us grow and change in a positive way, and that fighting doesn’t always have to mean a knock-down, drag-out situation that leaves everyone bloodied and bruised, feelings hurt and relationships damaged. Cindy realized she didn’t need to stay stoic and alone, just as Todd could’ve learned to be the bad guy once in a while.
By learning the Rules of Engagement, you’ll discover how to fight fair and how to make conflict productive, resulting in positive change, growing closer, and becoming more well-rounded people. We discuss seven rules of engagement in our book, The Heart of the Fight: A Couple’s Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer. But these seven simple rules aren’t only for couples—they can have a transformational effect on any tumultuous relationship.
What to Do When Your Adult Children Fight
Rule of Engagement #3 really is key, and it comes into play when we’re talking about grandparents dealing with their adult children and their grandchildren: No one gets more than 50% of the blame. It takes two to tango, so understanding that both sides have a role in any conflict can help you remain objective and grounded—and it helps you overcome picking sides.
It’s also not the role of a grandparent to mediate the conflict, which can be difficult for many of us. Just like you can’t jump in and “rescue” your daughter, son-in-law or grandchild, you can’t force your son or daughter to change his or her parenting style or work on their marriage. It just won’t work. However, you can always suggest that under your roof and when in your presence, everyone needs to follow the 50% rule rather than slinging mud or playing the blame game.
This is also a good time to follow Cindy and Todd’s example and reflect on your own marriage and past relationships. Ask yourself, “What do my kid’s marriage and parenting styles say about my own?” It’s not uncommon to see patterns from your marriage and parenting styles mirrored in those of your children.
On a deeper level, by examining the way you handle conflict in your own marriage and as a parent, you can better empathize with your children, model healthy conflict in your own partnership, and help them work through their marital and parenting challenges by example.
A Family on the Mend
By identifying these patterns and applying the rules of engagement, Todd and Cindy could see how they weren’t doing Joe any favors by swooping in and trying to “fix” things, and they certainly weren’t helping his marriage by undermining Monica. The situation was a two-way street, so no one should take on more than 50% of the blame. Not only was Cindy able to empathize a bit more deeply with Monica after she examined the parallels in her own marriage with Todd, she realized she had expected too little of her spouse and that Monica was, in fact, dealing with uncomfortable situations she had avoided.
Each of us must write our own job description as grandparents; however, we are in a position to be able to offer a sense of understanding as our adult children find their own path to success and happiness. It isn’t about pointing fingers at who’s to blame, but rather, it’s about working toward an ideal outcome, honoring both sides of the conflict. Even though our children and grandchildren’s conflicts can act as a mirror for our relationships, we must first resolve our own conflicts and focus on our personal development, so we’re better equipped to support our kids as they find their own footing.
Join us next time, when we discuss more on the rules of engagement, and how you can use conflict to positively engage, ignite your relationships, and live your best life!
*Names & life details changed.
About the authors
Dr. Judith Wright and Dr. Bob Wright, are a husband/wife duo and Chicago-based relationship counselors. They are award-winning authors and trainers and have appeared on numerous TV and radio programs including ABC’s 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, the Today Show, the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Marie Claire, Better Homes and Gardens, and Vanity Fair. They are the co-authors of The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring