Effects of Marital Discord on Children

by Vince Lindgren

What constitutes marital discord? Marital discord is essentially the inability to talk about differences in the marital relationship and come to some agreement about how these differences will be managed. Common differences may include areas such as finances, values, sex, child rearing, relationships with friends or in-laws, etc. This inability to discuss and manage these differences commonly gets expressed in two major ways: either overt hostility such as arguing, put downs, physical violence, etc. or emotional withdrawal via spending less and less time together, throwing oneself into work, affairs, etc. Either type of marital discord can have a huge negative impact on developing children. One of the most terrifying things to a child is the possibility that their parents may break up. In the heat of marital discord, many people fail to recognize the intense fear engendered in their children.

Most people understand that overt expressions of hostility may have a negative impact not only on the subject of hostilities, but also the witnesses to hostilities. Occasional expression of hostility in any relationship is normal and generally does not negatively affect bystanders. However, if the hostility is frequent and/or severe (e.g. physical abuse or intense personal attacks) the result can be traumatizing to children. Awareness of this negative impact often leads couples to agree to refrain from fighting in front of their children. However, most children are adept at perceiving hostility, even when it is not expressed openly. The result is that friends, neighbors, and extended family may not know when a couple is experiencing marital discord, but children always know.

Children typically feel an intense loyalty to both their parents. As a result, when they become aware of feelings of hostility between parents, it creates internal dissonance for the child. That is, they feel stressed when either parent is under attack for whatever reason. Their father may be the stereotypical emotionally closed and unexpressive male, and the children may know it. It is still makes them uncomfortable when their mother criticizes their father for this failing. Similarly, the mother may be the stereotypical "cold fish" that Mary Tyler Moore played in the movie "Ordinary People". Yet, children do not want to hear their father denigrate their mother for this fault. Further, children understand that continuation of marital discord can lead to divorce and a radical change in life as they know it. Anyone who doesn’t think children experience extreme anxiety when evidence of this threat is present is kidding him/herself.

You might say, "So what?" Life is full of unpleasant experiences. This is most certainly true, however many unpleasant experiences are one time or infrequent events. Examples of this might be the occasion of being treated rudely by a service person, or having a person make an obscene gesture towards you while driving your car. Unpleasant, yes; however, typically they are not psychologically damaging. The effect of repeated exposure to hostility is much different.

When a child repeatedly witnesses hostility between their parents, they often feel impotent. That is, if a person does not have the power to stop the hostility, and he/she cares about the recipients of the hostility, the result is often a feeling of impotency. From impotence, it is not too far to rage. Rage can consume a person. A person with a significant amount of rage must occasionally vent through acting out or being hostile to another person. Also, because rage tends to be all consuming, it interrupts important child developmental tasks.

The other possible reaction is the opposite of impotency, thinking one can help (when in fact, one cannot). The child who thinks he/she can help becomes a caretaker who spends a lot of time at home hoping to interrupt the arguing, or trying to cheer mom or dad up after the dust settles. Like rage, the time and emotional energy needed for caretaking tends to interfere with childhood developmental tasks, particularly social developmental tasks.

The long-term effects can also be very problematic. Children who carry rage into adulthood (and this is not hard since rage is very hard to shake once it sets in), often repeat the mistakes of their parents with their own children, or are prone to self medication via drugs and/or alcohol to anesthetize themselves from the pain. Caretakers internalize a pattern of taking care of people who cannot or will not help themselves. Caretakers often marry alcoholics or people with chronic health problems.

As problematic as overt conflict is for children, the covert hostility of parent’s emotional withdrawal from one another can be equally damaging. Two major effects result from the "cold war" of emotional withdrawal. First, children become fearful of this disengagement leading to an eventual breakup of the family home. Second, children learn emotional disengagement as a strategy for dealing with challenging interpersonal situations. Learning the habit of emotional disengagement leads to unhealthy interpersonal relationships for children in the present, and also later in life as adults. Further, children who have adopted the strategy of emotional disengagement often have difficulty being empathetic to the needs and concerns of others.

Although the problems outlined in this article have serious implications for children and their development, potentially the biggest problem facing parents who are experiencing marital discord is awareness. That is, when parents are in the midst of a marital struggle, it is very difficult for them to be aware of how their children are being affected. The justified anger that an interpersonal conflict engenders often makes people oblivious to how other people (in this case children) are affected. People are much better at noticing how their behavior affects others when they are relaxed and relatively content with life. When parents are caught up in mutual anger towards one another, it is difficult to appreciate the seriousness of signs of trouble like slipping grades, or acting out behaviors, or social isolation. And, it is impossible for a parent to help their children with a problem if they are unaware a problem exists in the first place.

So, as one can see, the short and long term effects of parental conflict can be extremely deleterious to children. I have heard it quoted that, "The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother." This may be overstating it. But it does appear that mutual respect is a key element for parents in raising psychologically healthy and happy children. Couples who have relatively well adjusted children are the couples who have learned to get past their anger and interact with each other in a respectful non-hostile manner.


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