Couple fighting in front of child

If you think good parenting practices alone will secure a positive future for your child, you may be overlooking the elephant in the room − the relationship between you and your life partner. 

According to a recent study by Michal Einav published in The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, the quality of your marriage significantly impacts expectations your children have about their own future intimate relationships. Children learn how to have close relationships by observing and interacting with their parents or caregivers. For example, research shows that children of divorced parents perceive adult relationships as fragile and short-lived. As a result, they often shy away from intimacy, fearing rejection and discontent. 

But what about families who live together? We all know that family relationships are messy. Studies show that those messy relationships are engrained in social patterns that often repeat from one generation to the next. Despite the odds, there are ways you can help your children develop and enjoy healthy relationships as adults.   

Is Your Child At Risk? 

If any of these questions remind you of the relationship with your partner, your child’s future adult relationships may be negatively impacted. 

  1. Do you rely on your partner to meet all of your emotional needs, like your sense of self-worth and life meaning? 
  2. Do you or your partner believe that space and distance should be the norm in your relationship, with little expectation of closeness?
  3. Do you focus primarily on your child’s problems as a way of distracting yourself from issues with your spouse? 
  4. Do you and your partner use inconsistent disciplinary strategies with your child? 
  5. Does the amount of stress you feel in your marital relationship make you emotionally unavailable to your child’s needs? 

Research Weighs In 

Key research in the field of family dynamics suggests children learn to engage in social interactions with others based on their perceptions about the quality of their parents’ relationship. For example, a study by Dixon, Gordon, Frousakis, and Schumm published in Family Relations, found that adults who rely on their partners for a sense of self-worth usually have high levels of anxiety in their relationships. Slight frustrations between these partners are noticeable by children and often result in family conflict. The same study found similar results in relationships where one partner rejected demands for intimacy from the other. Children can sense resentment and observe the unavoidable conflict that occurs when one spouse doesn’t meet the expectations of the other. 

When there is discord in a spousal relationship, one natural solution is to avoid the elephant in the room by focusing attention on your child.  The child becomes the problem, rather than the adults. In a review of the research by Erel and Burman published in the Psychological Bulletinthis type of coping mechanism is a distraction that usually harms the parent-child relationship. Why? Because the child feels blamed for the conflict in the family. Oftentimes, the child takes on the role of maintaining family harmony. This process is often successful at reducing tensions between parents, but leads to a child who feels rejected and alone. 

Research shows that parents who experience conflict in their relationship tend to use inconsistent disciplinary strategies with their children. Why? It is hypothesized that the way parents discipline children varies with the status of the spousal relationship. When you’re angry, for example, you tend to be harder on your child. Also, parents who disagree on a multitude of daily challenges, often disagree on how their children should be raised or disciplined.  Whatever the reason, the result is the same. Your child experiences unclear and contradictory boundaries. This makes children feel insecure and confused, leading to tension with parents. 

When parents feel a great deal of stress in their own relationship, they rarely have enough emotional energy left for their child. Researchers refer to this as the “spillover effect.” Studies continue to link the spillover tensions experienced by adults to the relationships they have with their children, and to the development of children’s expectations about their own future intimate relationships. 

What You Can Do 

The ability to have and maintain an intimate relationship is a key aspect of a person’s happiness and well-being. Whether or not you have a positive relationship with your partner, you can develop a close, loving relationship with your child. As it turns out, a secure relationship with at least one caregiver is critical to a child’s positive development through life. When you have a deep and enduring emotional bond with your children, they will seek you out when they are upset or feel threatened. As a parent, you respond sensitively to their needs. This simple bond improves your children’s social skills and helps them relate intimately with others as they get older. 

Many children observe and experience less than ideal relationships between their parents and do not grow up to use these interactions as a model for their own life. Research in positive psychology shows this happens when caregivers pay attention to children’s inner strengths, like resilience, self-awareness, and caring. Those abilities act like an internal compass to guide them on successful paths through life, often regardless of their life circumstances. Learn more about the skills that drive a child’s internal compass, and how you can impact these abilities in your children. 

References 

Amato, P. R., & DeBoer, D. D. (2001). The transmission of marital stability across generations: Relationship skills or commitment to marriage? Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 1038–1051. 

Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Retrospect and prospect. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry52, 664–678. 

Dixson, L. J., Gordon, K. C., Frousakis, N. N., & Schumm, J. A. (2012). A study of expectations and the marital quality of participants of a marital enrichment seminar. Family Relations61, 75–89. 

Erel, O., & Burman, B. (1995). Interrelatedness of marital relations and parent–child relations:A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin118, 108–132. 

Hall, S. S. (2006).Marital meaning: Exploring young adults’ belief systems about marriage.Journal of Family Issues27, 1437–1458. 

Michal Einav (2014) Perceptions about parents' relationship and parenting quality, attachment styles, and young adults’ intimate expectations: A cluster analytic approach, The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 148:4, 413-434. 

Author

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadershipeducation, and civic engagement. Subscribe to Updates at Roots of Action to receive email notices of Marilyn’s articles.    

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©2014 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint. 

Photo Credit: goodluz

About the Author

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and researcher in the field of positive youth development and youth civic engagement.

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