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For Your Marriage

Josh and Stacey Noem have been married for almost 20 years and have three children in middle school and high school. They blog about parenting and their adventures as a family.

Fighting Bitterness with Family Fun

Oscar has it tough. He is five years older than his next oldest sibling, so we ask a lot out of him, and our expectations for his behavior are high. On top of all that, he will turn 13 in a month, and he is beginning to show his teenage colors.

Typically, when the kids get out of sorts with each other, and Stacey and I have to intervene, we turn to Oscar first. It may not be fair, but being older, we expect him to better know how to avoid conflicts with his siblings. Over time, though, he has started to get the feeling that we are picking on him, that we are looking at only his actions and letting his brother and sister off the hook. It has started to breed some bitterness in him.

And bitterness is a very dangerous thing in a teenager. They don’t need any help feeling like the world is against them.

For me in particular, I had begun to feel like the majority of the conversations I was having with Oscar were full of conflict. There was no lightness to the relationship, so I’ve been strategically working on building that relationship in other ways.

For example, he and I watched a sci-fi father-son movie together one evening recently. I’m also coaching his 7th grade basketball team. I try to make sure that we regularly connect over something substantial yet fun. That casts the whole relationship in a different light, and makes it much easier to confront him in moments when that is called for.

This is a lesson we learned in our study of good marriages, and we’ve found that it holds just as true in parenting as it does with spouses. There are two sets of behaviors in every significant relationship—“red” behaviors that erode the relationship and “green” behaviors that build it up.

Green, building behaviors create a feeling of oneness. The red, eroding behaviors usually come down to communication—in talking about problems, the two parties create even more problems. That is, the communication patterns in the relationship are counter-productive and the two parties cannot deal with problems without causing more feelings of distance.

The thing is that a relationship cannot have a high set of both red and green behaviors at the same time. Either the red is high and the green is low, or vice versa. With Oscar, we’ve been working to decrease the red, and increase the green. It takes a little work, but is very gratifying because it grows the relationship.

We bring this lens to bear on our marriage and our parenting quite often. When we find that a specific family relationship is tending high in red behaviors, we strategize about how to make sure that we are connecting and having fun together. Play has been an indispensable tool in our family for just this reason—it builds togetherness and establishes good memories with one another.

The results have been rather dramatic. I’ve seen the climate of a relationship (spousal or parental) change within a few days. Things with Oscar have been going much better—he’s making jokes, and is being candid and forthcoming about what he’s experiencing in his day.

When there is conflict, it feels good to get to the bottom of things, but there has to be a life-giving connection that fills the rest of the relationship. Otherwise, it just feels like work, all the time. The family that plays together stays together.