Every Monday, I teach a creative writing class to 12 students: 11 females and 1 male who range in age from 13 to 25. We follow a method I made up that involves a question and answer system that helps everyone focus their imagination and results in highly creative collaborative stories.
I may be the teacher, but often, it’s me who’s doing the learning. Like last week, when a teenage girl with Down syndrome said something to me that is arguably the best relationship advice I’ve ever heard.
The girls in the class adore a good love story. They get caught up in ideas about damsels in distress, dashing princes who sweep beautiful heroines off their feet and villains who try to thwart star-crossed lovers. When some of the girls were riffing on an idea about a sorcerer who had a magic love potion, a girl with Down syndrome said this (verbatim):
Here’s the thing about falling in love. Sometimes, love can get broken. When love gets broken you fight. You should never fight with someone you love because you are only fighting about your OWN life. And you should never fight in front of your children because it will hurt their feelings. You should remember that we are only a family in YOUR heart.
She put such an emphasis on the word “OWN” that her meaning was clear … when we fight with people we love, all we’re doing is trying to assert our OWN needs over theirs, or over the best interests of us as couples. I thought about all the times Alan and I have gotten in fights. Was she right? Is every fight we have the same one, and all we’re doing is trying to satisfy our own self-interests, at the expense of each other and of our family? And her comment about being a family in “YOUR” heart … to my ear, she was speaking to all parents.
She was saying, “We can’t be a family if our parents are only thinking about their OWN needs.” My interpretation of her words is that the only way children can feel safe in their families is if they know that family comes first in their parents’ hearts.
I made the mistake of sharing this with Alan and wouldn’t you know it, we got into an argument a few days later. Alan jokingly said, “Quit fighting about your OWN life,” and I said, “I’m not fighting about my OWN life. I’m fighting about why I don’t agree with your home repair timeline.” But then I stopped and thought about my student’s words and realized she was right. I wasn’t fighting about when we should repaint our den. I was fighting because I wanted my own priority list to be more important than Alan’s priority list. I wanted my own ideas to prevail … and Alan wanted his to be the winner.
I also thought about how many times Alan and I argued (heatedly) in front of our children. Dr. Phil says that when you argue in front of your children, you fundamentally change who they are and I never understood what he meant by that.
Now, I do. Children need to know that their parents put the unity and solidity of their family ahead of every other priority, even ahead of their OWN needs and wants. When we argue in front of them, we’re telling our children that their family isn’t secure, even if we have no intention of splitting up or even if the argument isn’t really serious. It may not seem serious to us, but according to my student, when kids hear us fighting, they think we are putting our OWN life in front of our life as a family.
Most of the time, I argue with my husband because of my insatiable need to be right. I can’t stand being wrong. Which sucks on the frequent occasions when I am wrong. And Alan, if you’re reading this, yes…I know I’m sometimes wrong but I will always be reluctant to admit it.
Just to be clear…husbands are almost always wrong. Just saying.
You know that old joke: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no woman around to see it … is her husband still wrong?
Ladies, stick with me on this one…I may be wrong but that still doesn’t mean that Alan is right!
I’m totally just kidding.
My kids are grown ups now so the damage from our fighting has been done. But I still have a chance to change my behavior to be more in line with my student’s advice. I can show my children how to better manage a relationship when they choose a mate. Someday, I can show my future grandchildren that my own life isn’t nearly as important as the life of my family. I can learn from my student’s astute observation how to be a better partner to Alan. And Alan can learn this, too.
See what I mean about having to be right?
But Alan totally needs to learn this lesson, too.
I know, I know … I’m working on it!