What is happening in your child’s body as they observe you and your partner fight it out over your latest trust issue? If it’s anything near the results taking place in your own body, they can actually taste the level of toxicity of the argument. As parents, we are hypervigilant about the level of toxins in our children’s food, playgrounds, and classrooms, but we can be selectively blind to the level of toxins passed on through our relationship.
At the most primitive level (where most of our life decisions take place), we have mixed instincts about the risks and rewards of our relationship. Recent findings from immunologist Ronald Glaser and clinical psychologist Jan Kiecolt-Glaser show that a skin blister can take one to two days longer to heal after a hostile dispute with one’s partner. Hostility actually weakens the immune systems of all those within its range. Combine this alarming knowledge with the results of over 150 years of study in the field of epidemiology, assuring us that married couples are much healthier and live longer than unmarried people. Somehow we reconcile our negative feelings with the greater hopes of a long and lasting union: “Sure the fights feel terrible but a divorce would definitely feel worse.”
With the arrival of children, the costs and benefits of a hostile relationship change entirely. Babies are not built with the long view in mind. You find that your words, your tone, your entrance and exits from stress are forming the very basis of these new beings’ identities. Not only that, but in the eyes of your children, you and your partner are one. Suddenly, now as a parent, your success is measured not by arguments won or lost but by the level of honesty and empathy applied even to your most difficult conflicts. Your children need to feel a loving and peaceful context for their life and they need it now, not later.
Yet with the magic of your first years as parents come the most strenuous challenges to your relationship. Negotiating your different parenting styles, assuming shared roles of leadership, transitioning away from the influence of grandparents, finding time to nurture your intimacy and connection, tasks like these require a full-court press of engagement that doesn’t take place without considerable stress and conflict. Change comes hard sometimes. Here are some new goals to focus on while building a less hostile relationship with your partner:
- Spend predictable time together
- Soften your communication style
- Know how to calm down/repair
- Accept and understand the influence of your partner
- Speak up for what you need
- Learn to care for yourself while yielding with love and compassion
Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ronald Glaser, et al. (1993). Negative Behavior During Marital Conflict Is Associated With Immunilogical Down-Regulation. Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol 55.
© Copyright 2011 by By Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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