Marital Relations and Child Adjustment Research Paper

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Socialization research is frequently focused on the effects of parent–child interaction on child development, neglecting the impact of broader family influences, such as marital relations. In fact, associations between marital relations and child adjustment have been reported at least since the 1920s.

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1. Marital Discord and Children’s Adjustment

The publication of a landmark review by Emery (1982), and influential papers by Rutter and colleagues (e.g., Rutter and Quinton 1984), greatly increased recognition of the significance of relations between marital discord and child adjustment. Accordingly, a particular concern in this area has been the effects of marital conflict on child adjustment.

1.1 Children’s Psychological Problems

Relations between marital conflict and children’s externalizing problems (e.g., aggression, conduct disorders) have frequently been reported. However, the introduction of more sensitive measures of children’s functioning and adjustment has expanded the purview of the possible effects of marital conflict. Thus, evidence for links with internalizing problems (e.g., depression, anxiety) and for relations with children’s academic problems and difficulties in peer relations has accumulated in recent years (Grych and Fincham 1990).

1.2 Relations with Other Forms of Family Dysfunction

Marital conflict co-occurs with other forms of family dysfunction (e.g., physical and sexual abuse, Appel and Holden 1998) and is frequently associated with the effects of other family problems on children’s adjustment. For example, it has been identified as a significant factor in accounting for the effects of divorce on children’s adjustment (Amato and Keith 1991), with high marital conflict linked with adjustment problems in children before, during, and after divorce. Marital conflict is also implicated in the effects of parental depression on child adjustment, and is more closely linked with problematic outcomes in these families than parental depression for some types of adjustment problems (Downey and Coyne 1990).

2. Direct and Indirect Effects of Marital Conflict on Children’s Functioning

The research indicates that children are affected by marital conflict (a) owing to exposure to these situations, and (b) because of the effects that marital conflict has on children via changes in parenting practices.

2.1 Effects of Exposure to Marital Conflict

Unresolved interparental discord is distressing for children to observe, even solely as bystanders, from infancy through adolescence. Emotional distress is evident in children’s self-reported and behavioral distress reactions (e.g., freezing, crying), physiological reactions (e.g., blood pressure), increased aggressiveness, and their efforts to resolve or otherwise ameliorate interparental conflicts (Cummings and Davies 1994). Children’s problems in emotional regulation when coping with anger, including interpersonal anger (Fabes and Eisenberg 1992), have been implicated in their development of adjustment problems (Davies and Cummings 1998).

2.2 Marital Conflict and Parenting

In addition to effects caused by exposure to marital conflict, children may also be affected by changes in family functioning that are the sequelae of marital conflict. In particular, links between marital conflict and a variety of problems in parenting are reported, including parent–child discipline problems, problems in child management, and insecure parent–child attachments (Erel and Burman 1995). Relatively little research has been carried out to demonstrate why parenting is affected, but presumably insensitivity to children or other effects due to the preoccupying demands of conflict with the spouse, and the spillover of interparental hostility to interactions with the children, are involved (Cummings and Davies 1994).

2.3 Age and Gender Differences

Children evidence increased social understanding and disposition towards involvement in marital conflict as they get older. Greater links with internalizing problems for girls and externalizing problems for boys are frequently reported. However, recent studies suggest that gender differences in the effects of marital conflict change with age, and the pattern of findings for age and gender is quite inconsistent across the body of research in this area. Thus, while effects across age and gender are often reported, one cannot conclude from current work that any one age or gender is more vulnerable to adjustment problems caused by high marital conflict (Cummings and Davies 1994).

3. The Term ‘Marital Conflict’

However, the relations found are, in part, a function of how marital conflict is defined. Relations with children’s adjustment problems are evident when marital conflict is defined as the frequency of verbal or physical hostility between the parents. On the other hand, when marital conflict is defined more broadly as how the parents handle their differences, both positive and negative effects on children’s functioning are reported.

4. It is not Whether but How the Parents Express Disagreements that Matters

New developments indicate that any assumption, either implicit or explicit, that marital conflict is a homogeneous stimulus oversimplifies matters considerably. Current research suggests that some forms of marital conflict are moderately or even highly associated with children’s adjustment problems, whereas other forms of marital conflict may not at all be linked with problems in the children. That is, the effects of marital conflict vary considerably in terms of how it is expressed. Accordingly, research has begun to focus on advancing understanding of the distinction between destructive and constructive forms of marital conflict expression from the perspective of the child.

4.1 Distinguishing Between Destructi e and Constructi e Marital Conflict

The task of differentiating between destructive and constructive marital conflict from the children’s perspective is in a relatively early stage of study. A first step is to decide upon criteria for making such distinctions. Among the possible criteria for categorizing conflicts as destructive are whether the behavior is linked with (a) children’s adjustment problems, (b) problems in parenting, or (c) distress reactions seen in the children during exposure. Conversely, bases for regarding behaviors as constructive include (a) the absence of links with adjustment or family problems, including the promotion of children’s social competency, or (b) positive or neutral emotional reactions by the children during exposure to conflict, including behaviors that ameliorate children’s negative emotional reactions (e.g., conflict resolution). By these criteria, aggression between the spouses; aggression towards objects; threatening statements (e.g., ‘I’m leaving’); withdrawal or the silent treatment; intense, escalated, proliferating conflict; or blaming the child for marital problems qualify as destructive conflict behaviors. By contrast, conflict resolution; parental explanations to the children that conflicts have been worked out; or conflicts expressed by parents with emotional control and mutual respect merit categorization as constructive conflict behaviors. However, many of the parental behaviors that may occur during marital conflict have not yet been examined in this regard. Moreover, these various criteria for classifying marital conflict may sometimes yield different conclusions regarding the same behaviors, and do not readily apply to complex interparental communications in which multiple behaviors may occur. A well-articulated theoretical model for classifying constructive versus destructive conflict, and empirical evidence to support such a model, are required to support a more advance perspective on this distinction.

4.2 Explanations for Why Marital Conflict is Linked with Child Development

A significant challenge is to identify the causal bases for links between marital conflict and child outcomes. Pathways of influence within families are multivariate and complex, and the multiple directions of influence of marital conflict on children are difficult to disentangle (Cummings et al. 2000). Contrary to a common sense expectation that repeated exposure to marital conflict would be linked with habituation to conflict, accumulating evidence indicates that high levels of marital conflict are associated with sensitization to marital conflict and other family stressors. That is, high levels of marital conflict are linked with children’s greater distress, anger, and aggression in response to marital conflict, and an increased tendency to intervene in parental disputes. At the level of theory, Davies and Cummings (1994) have proposed that these response are indicative of children’s greater insecurity about marital relations in homes characterized by high marital conflict, which contributes to the greater risk for adjustment problems among children from such homes.

5. Methodologies for Studying the Effects of Marital Conflict on Children

Examining the effects of marital conflict on children poses significant methodological challenges. For obvious ethical reasons, one cannot test causal propositions by means of a traditional experimental research design. That is, one cannot randomly assign children to groups and induce significant marital conflict in front of the children in the experimental group in order to observe its effects. Moreover, each of the methodologies that have been developed and are appropriate for the study of this issue (e.g., questionnaire methodologies; laboratory observations of marital interactions; analog presentations of marital conflict; or home observation) have both significant methodological strengths, and weaknesses, in absolute terms and in relation to the other methodologies (Cummings et al. 2000).

6. Future Directions

The upshot is that significant further advances towards understanding the effects of different forms of marital conflict on children will probably require the simultaneous and coordinated use of multiple methodologies. The study of causal relations between different forms of marital conflict and child development also requires that effects be examined prospectively over time. A future direction is to test theoretical propositions about why marital conflict affects child development in the context of prospective, longitudinal research designs, which is urgently needed to advance understanding of the nature of the causal processes and pathways of influence on the children. There is also a need for greater study of other positive dimensions of marital relations, which may have directly beneficial effects on children’s functioning, or serve to buffer children from the negative impact of marital discord. Little is known about how other familial (e.g., the quality of relations between a child and a sibling) or extra-familial (e.g., the quality of relations with a grandparent) relationships affect the links between marital conflict and children’s functioning. An urgent need is to include fathers more directly in research, and to understand more about the child development outcomes linked with the role of fathers in the context of marital relations. Research has focused on affluent, Caucasian, and Western cultures. Greater understanding will be promoted by more cross-cultural research and the inclusion of samples with more diverse ethnic and socioeconomic characteristics.


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