Study: Marital conflict affects kids; not all conflict has negative effects

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 4 2012 8:41 p.m. MDT

Lori Garcia and her husband resolve conflict positively in front of their two boys, ages 4 and 9, in order to give them a more realistic and healthy view of marriage.

Lori Garcia

It's a warm Southern California evening. Lori Garcia and her husband are fighting about laundry — again.

Volumes escalate, expressions get animated, eye rolls are exchanged and in a huff, they walk away from each other. The kids exchange quiet glances and stay out of their way. Moments later dad returns and performs his best hysterical mom impression for the kids that leaves even mom laughing as she folds her umpteenth load of laundry.

Not all marital conflict is bad, experts say. While destructive conflict between parents has long-lasting, negative effects on children, if handled constructively, children cultivate a sense of security and view conflict in a positive light, according to a new study published in the Journal of Child Development. As disagreement arises between parents, conflict can be grounds for vital teaching moments that give children the confidence to resolve conflict positively.

"No one has shown that these effects can be long-lasting. No one has ever shown anything over this span of time before," Mark Cummings, psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame and an author of the study, told the Deseret News. "Children are looking at the broader family picture. It matters to them how well the parents relate to each other."

Always watching

Cummings and his colleague, Andrew Adesman, examined 235 middle-class families living in the Midwest and Northeast U.S., assessing the level of marital conflict between the spouses of various children in kindergarten.

The researchers rated the degree of marital conflict as parents discussed a potentially contentious topic while being videotaped. Seven years later, the researchers followed up on the children, then seventh-graders.

Cummings and Adesman found that destructive marital conflict in the home was linked to emotional insecurity in later years, including depression, anxiety and even hostility in adolescence.

Kids know when there are disagreements and there are problems in families, even — especially — when parents withdraw or give the silent treatment, rather than yelling, Cummings told the Deseret News. "They know."

Judith P. Siegel, Ph.D., author of "What Children Learn From Their Parents' Marriage," agrees. Children are keen observers of their parents, Siegel wrote in her book. "They pay attention to when and how you disagree, notice how you and your partner react to each other and in countless ways form impressions about the rules of married life."

This may explain why constructive conflict, on the flip side, predicted sociability of children in domains outside the home, Cummings said. Kids who felt more secure about parents' marital relationship better related to other kids outside the home. They were more pro-social in school, more altruistic, helpful and kind to others.

What's important?

Nearly 22 percent of couples, however, said they fight and argue with each other a lot. Sixty percent reported to have only moderate levels of conflict, while 16 percent of couples reported to have little conflict, according to a study conducted at Florida State University and published in the Journal of Family Issues in 2011.

Back in California, Garcia, the mother of those two boys — ages 4 and 9 — and a blogger at mommyfriend.com, said she and her husband are continually finding ways to resolve conflict positively.

Respect for one another has been key, Garcia told the Deseret News. She and her husband have found that working things out in a way that both can express opposing views without disrespecting the other person allows them to devise solutions that resolve the problem smoothly and quickly.

Being realistic about the sacrifices necessary in marriage has helped Garcia delineate between what is important and what isn't. "When you're young, you're so passionate and dramatic about everything," Garcia said. "You get lost in a petty argument over the fact that he didn't listen when you asked him to grab orange juice at the store."

Garcia and her husband try to focus on reasonable solutions, rather than letting the problem fester. "I'll say, 'Look, you keep forgetting this and it's really irritating me. What can we do to resolve this? Do you need me to text you on the way to the grocery story? What can I do?' "

Embrace conflict

"No two people in the world, no matter how made for each other they feel, will ever agree about everything at all times," Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker, psychologist and marriage and family therapist in Massachusetts, wrote at PsychCentral. "It would be quite boring if they did."

Go after the issue, not each other, Hartwell-Walker wrote. Name-calling and "character assassination" create an added problem of hurt feelings. Defensiveness, too, can only escalate the fight.

Hartwell-Walker suggested finding points of agreement that help to gain common ground. Get curious, not defensive. Ask for more information, examples and details. There is usually a basis for a spouse's complaint. When complaint is equaled by curiosity, there is room for understanding, Hartwell-Walker wrote.

Other strategies include listening respectfully and talking softly. Listen, by acknowledging the feelings of the partner and showing focused attention and verbal assent, Hartwell-Walker wrote. Make concessions as well. Giving a little can make room for the other person to do the same. Finding a workable solution often involves a compromise that isn't always exactly 50/50. It's not about scorekeeping, Hartwell-Walker wrote. Finding a solution is often more important.

"Friendly fighting means working out differences that matter. It means engaging passionately about things we feel passionate about, without resorting to hurting one another," Hartwell-Walker wrote.

The status of a parental relationship — married, separated, divorced, etc. — is far less important than the quality of the relationship, Christine Carter, happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center and author of "Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents," wrote in an email to the Deseret News. "Conflict is the primary factor that determines relationship quality."

How you begin a conflict is important, Carter wrote on a blog for Greater Good. Start with an appreciation and an "I statement," such as "I appreciate how much time you are spending at work; I know you are putting in long hours for our family and I'm grateful for that. I want you to be able to relax at the end of the day. The problem is that I also want to relax; I felt angry and resentful tonight when you didn't help me clean up the kitchen."

The first three minutes of a conflict can determine how it will end — whether in suggested solutions, constructive resolutions or raging tempers released — in 96 percent of all cases, according to leading marriage and parent counselor, John Gottman.

Garcia and her husband don't see any harm in her children witnessing the squabbles between her and her husband. "That's reality," Garcia told the Deseret News. "If they can see mom and dad disagree, even while holding hands and then find a way to resolve it and be OK five minutes later, they will gain a more realistic and healthy view of marriage."

And they have, from what she has seen. Garcia often overhears her boys mimic phrases to one another during a conflict. "My older boy will say to his brother, 'You know what? Whatever. I need some space,'" Garcia said, laughing as she recalled saying the same thing to her husband the day before.

Email: rlowry@desnews.com

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