Most parents desire to leave a legacy to their children. They care about their children’s future. They hope their children will be successful and happy, and most parents work very hard to make that hope a reality. Some make heroic sacrifices to help their children get an education. Many sacrifice their own needs to set aside financial assets to leave to their children. What about you? Have you thought about your legacy?
The famous American industrialist J. Paul Getty (1892–1976) was once the richest living American, dying with assets estimated at more than $2 billion (roughly $9 billion in current U.S. dollars). Still, Getty knew there was something missing. He famously pondered, “How and why is it that I have been able to build my own automobile, drill oil wells, run an aircraft plant, build and head a business empire—yet remain unable to maintain even one satisfactory marital relationship?” (As I See It: The Autobiography of J. Paul Getty, 1976, p. 87).
There is nothing wrong with building a financial legacy for the next generation. In fact, we should. But there are other legacies that are even more important to leave behind—such as the knowledge of how to build a harmonious marriage, the foundation of a strong family. The good news is that you can give your children something Getty could never give his. A legacy of marital harmony is attainable and more than worth the effort—and it all starts with being mindful of our example.
Children watch their parents, and through them are constantly learning about life: Whom can I trust? How should I approach difficult issues? Where do I turn to for answers? Our own life decisions form a sort of roadmap for them. In our imagination, we assume our children will only mimic our harmless quirks—like how we walk or the inflection of our voice. But in real life, they also tend to mirror our weaknesses! That means they see the cracks in our character that may appear when we have a marital conflict: Are we quick to criticize? Are we always defending our opinion, no matter what? Are we often hurling thoughtless insults to elevate ourselves? If we are, we should not be surprised to see our children do the same.
Each of us is a work in progress. That means we will make occasional mistakes in how we handle disagreements. So, the question often arises: When parents argue, is it better for them to argue in private? Usually it is. However, some researchers believe that seeing parents work out minor disagreements positively can be helpful to children. “Seeing Mom and Dad emerge from… disagreements satisfied, without resentment, can yield big rewards for children, according to researchers and experts in conflict resolution” (“The Right Ways to Argue in Front of Your Children,” Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2019). If we handle conflict properly, our children can learn that it need not be disastrous. If we exercise care, they can see that arguments do not need to be wrecking balls.
When we handle difficult situations constructively, our children are reassured that their parents still love each other—and them—and they begin to believe that they, too, can be successful in their own relationships.
Some foolishly believe that conflict can be avoided completely. Even parents who are committed and faithful to one another will, from time to time, disagree. We each have our own unique perspectives and ideas, and no two people will agree exactly on how to handle every situation. There is bound to be occasional friction.
God purposefully designed men and women to be different. As a result, we can learn from one another—though doing so does take effort and practice. The Apostle Peter said, “Husbands… dwell with them [wives] with understanding” (1 Peter 3:7). Learning to love and understand another human being takes time, patience, and experience. The Apostle Paul explained that men and women must often learn different lessons in marriage: “Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5:33). Men and women are different, so it takes patience and care to learn to work together. But doing so yields good fruit in the marital relationship, and it lays down a path for children who are watching our every step.
When conflict happens, it is important for both parents to keep the big picture in mind. If they have vowed to God to bind their lives together and are faithfully striving to live up to those vows, their conscious commitment helps provide the cement to keep them united, even in the face of a storm. They love each other. They are loyal to one another. They have made a deliberate choice to “cleave” to one another (Genesis 2:24, KJV). Remembering that commitment gives them strength and resilience.
But how easy it is to forget that when we are in the middle of an argument! That’s why we sometimes say things we don’t really mean, even inflammatory words and insults. But ask yourself a question: Are we at liberty to speak whatever comes to mind just because we are emotionally upset? Not according to the Apostle Paul. He said that no matter what situation we are in, the standard is “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). And he said that we must avoid “hatred, contentions… outbursts of wrath,” but instead let God’s Spirit work in us to produce love and self-control (Galatians 5:20, 22–23).
When are we in more need of love and self-control than in the midst of an argument? That’s when behaving in a grown-up way is really tested, and that’s when we are modeling to our children how love and self-control work! When our mate hurts us, it’s not wrong to let him or her know. But we must express our hurt in a way that still shows we care for and respect our spouse. We must remember that if we don’t treat our mate right, even our prayers could be hindered (1 Peter 3:7). How we handle arguments is important!
Love and self-control help us focus not just on winning arguments, but on finding solutions. It helps us say, “You might be right.” Those four little words can have a powerful impact on the direction of an argument. And they can transform our own attitude. Usually, neither spouse is 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong. Are we teaching our children that we can back up and admit the part we have contributed to a problem? If so, that is a priceless legacy.
Good conflict resolution seems to be a dying art today. More and more people are quick to get angry at a boss, a spouse, or a co-worker—for almost any reason. Tensions are high and nerves are frayed. But God gives us the help we need to use conflicts as a springboard to understand each other better—and to develop a closer bond. As the Apostle Paul said, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Think about how you interact with your spouse in conflict. Keep the big picture, and live the way of love and self-control. Be patient with yourself and your mate. Conflict is inevitable, but doesn’t have to be destructive. The children are watching.