Marital Conflict, Fathers, & Children
If you’ve been married longer than your honeymoon, you know that marital conflicts will arise. Even people who love one another and want to spend the rest of their lives together have disagreements. Those conflicts and disagreements also impact their children. On the one hand, angry, stressed-out parents might take their anger out on their children in small and subtle ways or in loud and obvious ways. They may withdraw emotionally or physically from their family and children. On the other hand, they might manage their conflict in a way that teaches their children how to love a person even while you disagree with them…and to love enough to work toward some type of resolution. It can go either way, depending on how the couple responds to conflict in their marriage. With this in mind, you can image the impact marital conflict can have on our children’s long-term emotional health and well-being…for better or for worse.
To understand the impact of marital conflict on our children, one study analyzed data from 3,955 heterosexual intact families (both mother and father were present in the family). They discovered an important role fathers play in how a married couple’s conflict impacts their children. Specifically, when fathers reported more frequent conflict with their marriage partner, they also reported increased parenting stress and decreased warmth toward their children. In the same surveys, this was linked to the mother’s report of children struggling to develop social skills and emotional regulation skills.
On the other hand, when fathers used more “constructive conflict resolution” skills, parental stress was minimized, parental involvement increased, and warmth toward children increased. All this leads to healthier social and emotional development in children. So, the big question I have from this research is: what are constructive conflict resolution skills? Let’s name a few.
- Open communication. Children benefit when both parents, fathers in particular, learn to communicate openly. This requires exhibiting enough vulnerability to express emotions and feelings, to risk being misunderstood while patiently listening to understand the other person. Couples can help fathers communicate openly by starting conversations “gently” and soothing one another as the conversation progresses.
- Compromising. Being a family involves compromise. Not everyone can have everything they want all the time. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s true. We don’t live with Burger King. Every person in the family is going to have their own opinions, perspectives, and ideas. Meshing them all together into a happy, healthy home will demand compromise. Look for a resolution with which you can both be satisfied.
- Listening. I briefly mentioned listening under open communication, but listening is so important that it deserves its own bullet point. Many times, if both parties in conflict will listen deeply and intentionally to the other person, rather than defending or blaming, they will discover their conflict is not really that big. They will easily find a compromise. In fact, they may even find they agree on a deeper level than the conflict suggests. So, listen, don’t judge. Listen to understand rather than listening to form a rebuttal. Listen to find the good in what the other person is saying, areas in which you can agree, rather than listening to prove them wrong.
- Remember who you are talking to. You are talking to the one you love, your spouse, the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life. Don’t let your frustration or anger lead to statements that hurt, belittle, or demean the one you love. Remember how much they have done to make your life and your home a better place.
- Remember how you want others to remember you. Do you want to be remembered as someone who always “had to be right” or someone “who listened so well I always knew they understood me”? Do you want to be remembered as someone who “blew their stack” when they didn’t get their way or someone who “always found a solution everyone could be happy with”? Someone who was always kind, even when angry, or someone who was unpredictable and loud when angry? Act accordingly…especially in the midst of conflict.
As you practice these skills and attitudes, you will find conflict resolves more easily. You will feel less stress. Your marriage will grow more intimate. And your children will develop in a healthier manner.