After all these years, I'm not sure why my parents got married.

They married outside of their faiths and had such disparate interests that it is a wonder their marriage lasted for 54 years until my father's death in 1999.

My parents fought a lot. I have no worse childhood memory than that of my parents in the dining room, shouting at each other at the top of their lungs. A few times, my mother threatened to leave, reaching the point where she actually had her suitcase out and was packing to go back to New York.

Those fights affected me for a long time, and it recently occurred to me that it may not be clear to parents that their children see and hear so much of what goes on between Mom and Dad, even the stuff behind closed doors.

Those parental exchanges can influence everything from children's performance in school to the success of their relationships later in life. What may seem like a little argument that couples have from time and time can be taken much differently by their kids.

Children are far more perceptive than most parents give them credit for, and they have long memories. Those little arguments, to a child, could be the source of some major anxiety that will manifest itself in a number of ways, none of which are beneficial.

It's not just the arguments and the obvious signs of trouble that kids notice. They also sense complacency and unhappiness, even when it is not expressed at the top of parental lungs.

Kids know when parents don't care. They see the decline in loving talk and the end of the little actions that say, "I care."

On the flip side, kids also know when parental relationships are solid. When they see Dad opening the car door for Mom, even after 15 years of marriage, when they see them kissing hello or goodbye each day, and when they hear the loving talk that sustains a good relationship, they become more secure in every aspect of their lives.

But those examples are superficial. What kids really need to see and hear comes from the heart of each parent.

Those couples who have lost that loving feeling may benefit from counseling. With an independent, objective mediator, couples can often discover the root of any challenges and receive direction on how to correct behavior. Counseling should be pursued, if for no other reason than to help ensure that their children are brought up in a secure environment.

Since I started writing about relationships a few weeks ago, some readers have emailed, pouring their hearts out to me, a total stranger. That tells me that there likely exists a communication breakdown in the relationship, these people should be expressing these emotions to their spouses.

Yes, the case could be made that after so many years of writing about families and relationships I am not really a stranger, but that is the smaller point. The larger point is that couples need to make loving talk and touching a habit — a habit that comes naturally. If it seems like work, counseling may be in order.

I will say this for my parents and their fights: They taught me how not to behave in a relationship. And while I do not recommend this as a parenting strategy, I do have a perspective that was useful in my marriage and from which I am now benefiting as I become closer to someone new and special in my life.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to smi161@aol.com.