Marital Conflict and Children: Fostering Resilient Families in the Good Times and the Bad

byDr. Alison Gardner

There are few experiences in life as painful as being a parent and finding oneself in the throes of intense marital unhappiness and persistent conflict. The difficult emotions and challenges that arise just in managing and trying to resolve a crisis in one’s marriage or long term partnership can test even the strongest of souls. But when there are children involved, loving parents’ added anxiety about their children’s pain and well being can be overwhelming.

Parents in these circumstances understandably fret about how their marital conflict will impact the children. Can they protect them from it, if so, how? Can they find a way to resolve the conflict? If not, is it better to stay in an unhappy marriage to prevent any risks to children inherent in having parents decide to divorce? Or, is it worse to expose children to the negative effects of living with possibly chronically unhappy, angry and/or stressed out parents. It can feel like a no win situation.

While every family situation is unique, research has provided us with some helpful roadmaps for fostering resilient families. The same principles that nurture happy children, healthy parent child relationships, and successful marriages are just as relevant and ever-important navigational tools when the road of life gets rocky.

First, let’s consider characteristics research has found to describe successful marriages and parent-child relationships.

John Gottman, a psychologist who has conducted decades of research on characteristics that are present in marriages that last and marriages headed for divorce, looked specifically at his data on married couples who were also parents. He was looking for traits associated with well being for the entire family and found a group of married parents who the researchers called “emotion coaches.” A number of attributes characterized the parents that fell into this group including an awareness of their own emotions as well as their children’s emotions. In addition, when the children of “emotion coaches” were experiencing negative emotions like anger, sadness or anxiety parents typically responded to their children’s emotional displays in the following manner:

  • They listened to their child’s feelings
  • Empathized (conveyed that they understood the child’s point of view and emotions)
  • Set limits if needed regarding negative behaviors
  • Offered their children guidance on coping with their negative emotions and solving the problems that generated them.

Interestingly, Gottman found that not only are the children of “emotion coaches” happier and more successful but the marriages of these couples are more successful too. The parents with the above characteristics tended to be in more satisfying and stable marriages, expressed more fondness for their partner, and viewed marriage as an undertaking worth working for despite the periodic pain and struggle.

Relatedly, Gottman discovered that couples that “turn towards” each other had a very high chance of being together in 5 years rather than divorced or heading in that direction. What does “turning towards” mean? Gottman describes it as receiving one’s partner’s attempts to engage, even in seemingly minor ways (e.g., responding to an offhanded comment on a newspaper article or meeting and holding their gaze from across the room when in a group.) Researchers of healthy parent-child relationships would describe the same “turning towards” behavior of parents to their children as sensitivity and openness to receiving a child’s cues. This type of parental care has been associated with overall well being for children in both the short and long term repeatedly over the years.

No one, neither adults nor children, can get along all the time. There will always be conflict and missed opportunities to connect because we are human. Whether it be between partners or parent and child, the effort invested in reconnecting after a falling out of any type or taking responsibility for one’s faults and making good faith efforts to make it right is worth its weight in gold, so to speak. In fact, it is an absolutely critical element in fostering healthy happy relationships.

Finally, whether it be between spouses or parent and child, the effort put into truly getting to know the other pays back in dividends, research suggests. This may look like partners being curious about the good and bad events of a given day along with taking the time to ask how the other experienced it, how it made them feel, and considering what it meant to them based on their personality, beliefs and values. Other examples include learning about meaningful life experiences like what a partner’s favorite book is and why, who their favorite childhood teacher was or even a most embarrassing moment.

So what about when the going gets rough?

Marital conflict is inevitable over time. Parents often wonder if they should try to protect their children from all conflict and negative emotions that can occur between them. Even if this was possible, it may not be as useful as modeling the “emotion coaching” techniques described above as a way of solving conflict with those we love. When parents can model listening to one another’s concerns, attempting to understand the other’s feelings and experience, conveying empathy for the other’s position, remaining respectful, and expressing optimism that a solution to the problem can be found together, they are giving their children a roadmap for successfully navigating conflict in their own current and future relationships.

Of course, in many situations, this may be easier said than done. Parents finding themselves in this unhappy circumstance may find more of Gottman’s researching findings useful. If at all possible, avoid frequent expressions of what Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Not only do the below behaviors lead to a dramatically increased chance of a relationship heading for divorce, but they also model destructive methods for handling conflict:

  1. CRITICISM of a partner’s personality in a blaming manner rather than just expressing discontent with a specific behavior or circumstance;
  2. CONTEMPT (feelings of disgust) that are actually aimed at insulting and psychologically hurting a partner;
  3. DEFENSIVENESS to the degree that one or both partners become completely unable to hear the position and feelings of the other;
  4. STONEWALLING where one or both partners not only don’t hear the other’s position but actually shut down completely, neither listening to the other nor attempting to express feelings or a point of view.

When marital conflict becomes insurmountable the following tips can be critically important for protecting children from the most damaging aspects of marital conflict and divorce:

  1. Never use the children as a weapon. Common examples are restricting access to seeing children out of anger or by saying critical and blaming things about the ex-partner such that it begins to alienate the child from the other parent. Children need the love and support of both parents during these major periods of loss and transition more than ever.
  2. Don’t let the children take on the responsibility of playing mediator between two adults. This is too big of a job for them and it is critically important for them to know they are not responsible for any of the conflict. Focus attention on supporting the child with their own painful emotions by letting them know it is OK to talk about their emotions and acknowledge how difficult the situation is for them.
  3. If conflicts are resolved, DO let kids know. Research shows that children are far more soothed and calmed by witnessing parents hug and make up, sincerely apologizing or reaching a compromise after witnessing an argument than by parents simply stopping the argument or giving a less than genuine obligatory apology.
  4. Sometimes it is impossible for the most well intended parents to remain emotionally available to all of the emotions children experience while they are going through intense turmoil as with separation and divorce. In these cases, do everything possible to foster and closely monitor other supportive adult relationships for children. For example team sports, coaches, teachers, counselors, aunts, uncles and grandparents can all provide the child with the support they require to cope with and work through their own feelings.
  5. Stay engaged as much as possible in the everyday details of children’s experiences. Are they anxious about a test, feeling rejected by a friend, or just needing a hug. Staying attuned to these daily ups and downs will provide essential emotional support for children in a great time of need.

If you are interested in reading more in depth about the ideas described in this article I recommend picking up the book by John Gottman entitled, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting.