The way spouses respond to conflict in their relationships may be transmitted across generations—and dysfunctional responses to conflict learned from our families of origin may negatively impact current marital quality, suggests research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships last month.
Monk and colleagues (2020) explain that “children learn how to navigate interpersonal dynamics by observing and participating in interpersonal interactions…developing a specific way of dealing with conflict can be a result of, or reaction to, how conflict was handled in an individual’s family growing up.”
In Monk et al.’s study investigating family conflict and spousal conflict, more than 200 newly married heterosexual couples from the Eastern and Central United States responded to surveys that assessed family-of-origin conflict, current marital conflict, relationship quality, and similarities/differences in couples’ conflict behavior. The authors found that when more dysfunctional responses to conflict were present in a person’s family of origin, worse marital quality was reported by both husbands and wives. When couples came from families with more negative problem-solving strategies, they also tended to engage in more negative conflict behaviors in their marital relationships. Those negative behaviors in turn tended to lead to reduced relationship quality for both spouses.
In the current research project, both husbands and wives were equally likely to show negative problem-solving strategies such as “ignoring the partner, acting distant, or shutting down.” These negative responses to conflict are associated with reduced marital satisfaction for both spouses. Furthermore, dysfunctional approaches to managing conflict may be intensified when both partners have experienced negative conflict patterns in their families of origin. As Monk et al. state, “when both partners exhibit poor problem-solving, relational issues persist and contribute to poorer marital quality.” However, when one partner has more positive problem-solving skills, it can benefit the relationship through a more positive approach to managing conflict such as compromise and negotiation.
The authors stress that observing conflict and reactions to conflict in families of origin can promote either positive or negative problem-solving strategies in our future relationships. However, when we observe negative conflict-management in our families, our own behavior may tend to echo those maladaptive problem-solving strategies in our own relationships, leading to poor relationship outcomes. According to the authors, all relationships will endure some conflict and how couples react to that conflict can either impair or improve relationship quality. The authors suggest that “positive factors such as repairing after a conflict and avoiding hostile or negative behaviors” are better strategies for couples to maintain happy and healthy marriages.
The researchers acknowledge that their sample was comprised mostly of couples with better marital quality and fewer negative conflict behaviors. Furthermore, because couples self-reported their own behaviors, the authors suggest that future research corroborate self-reports with observational data. It may also be the case that these observed relationships between conflict styles and marital quality are unique to newlyweds, however, the authors do caution that “destructive conflict behavior exercised during the newlywed years may likewise become an enduring characteristic of the relationship.”
The authors conclude that “the relational context in which an individual develops sets the stage for future relationships” and considering family-of-origin conflict may be beneficial for couples who wish to improve their marital conflict-management skills.
Monk, J. K., Ogolsky, B. G., Rice, T. M., Dennison, R. P., & Ogan, M. (2020). The role of family-of-origin environment and discrepancy in conflict behavior on newlywed marital quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 0265407520958473.