Research Reveals – Chapter Two

RR2.1: Marital Conflict and Children
Cummings and Davies have found that marital conflicts affect on children is not based on a one-time argument, but rather over a period of time. They wrote:

…However, the risk factor operates over time and insidiously, by altering family and child functioning over time.[i]

Arguments that are repaired satisfactorily and amicably with both parents being happy with the outcome actually have a positive impact on the children because it models for them how conflicts should be resolved. These are called constructive conflicts. However, the types of arguments that will have a much more negative impact on the children are those that are left unresolved over long periods of time, repeated heated and aggressive type of conflicts, and conflicts where one parent is being subjugated by the other. These are called destructive conflicts.

Unfortunately, sometimes we are not the best judge of whether our conflicts with our spouse are constructive or destructive. Often we lack the awareness to know how we come across to our children. As parents we tend to underestimate the effect of our conflicts with our spouse. Cummings and Davies’ research found that the children’s evaluation and response to a conflict is the best way to determine whether a conflict is constructive or destructive. Children’s responses include their emotional reactions as well as their coping mechanisms. So if a conflict is producing more positive responses than negative responses, then it is fair to classify it as constructive. If it is producing more negative responses than positive responses, then it would fall in the category of a destructive conflict. Based on this research, the following kinds of conflict have been found to be destructive.[ii]

  1. Physical aggression, involving swearing, insulting, throwing or smashing, or threatening to hit.
  2. Verbal hostility, which includes yelling as well as verbal threats.
  3. Non-verbal hostility, which includes withdrawal by husbands and/or wives, i.e., giving each other the silent treatment. This has been reported to have a negative effect on children’s behaviour and state of mind, including causing distress. One study showed that the children’s reactions to verbal conflict were similar to their reactions to non-verbal conflict. In fact, parents’ non-verbal reactions of fear caused more distress in the children than heated arguments.[iii]

One study showed that if apologies were accompanied by negative emotions, then it had a negative effect on the children.[iv] Another study found that children’s feelings of distress diminished when conflicts were resolved at an emotional level.[v] Another finding notes that conflicts which were not resolved but which were portrayed by parents to have been okay were found to have not been so beneficial to the children.[vi] Lastly, insecurity in children was caused equally by both a father and mother’s behaviour during conflict.[vii]

RR2.2: Affects of Marriage on a Child’s Well-Being
Marital conflicts diminish children’s school performances by undermining their capacity to sustain attention.31 When marital conflict increased, children’s emotional insecurity about inter-parental relations also increased and children’s sleep was disrupted.[viii] Sleep problems were related to children’s behavioural, emotional and academic problems.[ix] Marital conflicts also caused disruptions in the children’s peer relationships, physical ailments, internalizing problems (such as kids becoming anxious, depressed, introverted and withdrawn) and externalizing problems (such as kids acting out, delinquency).[x]

Children show responses to parental anger as early as 6 months old.[xi] Gottman says that the stress of living with parental conflict can affect the development of an infant’s autonomic nervous system, which, in turn, has an impact on the child’s ability to cope. While it is true that babies do not know the content of the parents’ arguments, they are able to sense that something is wrong.[xii]

Hetherington describes the first two years following a divorce as a time of serious disruptions to parent-child relationships. Divorce and conflicts leading up to a divorce can cause parents to be depressed, distracted and exhausted, which can prevent them from being effective disciplinarians.[xiii] Difficulty controlling and monitoring children’s behaviour is the most sustained parenting problem faced by divorced mothers.

Please refer to the introduction of our marriage book, I Choose Us, for more information about the effects of marriage on parenting.[xiv]

[i] Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (2010). Marital conflict and children: An emotional security perspective. New York: The Guilford Press. 28.

[ii] Ibid., 64–65.

[iii] Ibid., 65–66.

[iv] McCoy, K., Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (2009). Constructive and destructive marital conflict, emotional security and children’s prosocial behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50(3), 270–279.

[v] Goeke-Morey, M. C., Cummings, E. M., & Papp, L. M. (2007). Children and marital conflict resolution: Implications for emotional security and adjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(4), 74–753; Grych, J. H., & Fincham, F. D. (1990). Marital conflict and children’s adjustment: A cognitive-contextual framework. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 267–290; Cummings, E. M., Ballard, M., & El-Sheikh, M. (1991). Responses of children and adolescents to interadult anger as a function of gender, age, and mode of expression. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 37, 543–560.

[vi] Cummings, E. M., & Wilson, A. G. (1999). Contexts of marital conflict and children’s emotional security: Exploring the distinction between constructive and destructive conflict from the children’s perspective. In M. Cox, & J. Brooks-Gunn (Eds.), Formation, functioning, and stability of families (pp. 105–129). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; Winter, M. A., Davies, P. T., Hightower, A. D., & Meyer, S. (2006). Relations among family adversity, caregiver communications, and children’s family representations. Journal of Family Psychology, 20, 348–351.

[vii] El-Sheikh, M., Cummings, E. M., Kouros, C. D., Elmore-Staton, L., & Buckhalt, J. A. (2008). Marital psychology and physical aggression and children’s mental and physical health: Direct, meditated, and moderated effects. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 138–148.

[viii] Cummings & Davies (2010), Marital conflict and children, 89.

[ix] El-Sheikh, M., Buckhalt, J. A., Mize, J., & Acebo, C. (2006). Marital conflict and disruption of children’s sleep. Child Development, 77(1), 31-43.

[x] Cummings & Davies (2010), Marital conflict and children, 157.

[xi] Ibid., 180.

[xii] Gottman, J., & Declaire, J. (1998). Raising an emotionally intelligent child—The heart of parenting. New York: Simon & Schuster. 142.

[xiii] Hetherington, E. M. (1992). Coping with marital transitions: A family systems perspective. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 57(2-3), 1-14; Gottman & Declaire (1998), Raising an emotionally intelligent child, 141.

[xiv] Louis, J. P., & Louis, K. M. (2010). I choose us: A Christian perspective on building love connection in your marriage by breaking harmful cycles. Singapore: Louis Counselling & Training Services.