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Are You Reenacting Your Parents’ Marital Conflicts?

How to stop the cycle of marital conflict in your relationship.

Key points

  • Experiencing marital conflict as a child makes you more vulnerable to conflict in your marriage.
  • Even though you "know" better, these patterns automatically become triggered.
  • Social learning theory explains the intergenerational transmission of marital conflict.
  • Changing the cycle requires new learning and effort.

Katie comes into my office frustrated with herself: “I can’t believe I am in this situation. I vowed never to expose my kids to the kind of conflict I grew up with, and here I am. I hate myself.” This kind of thinking is quite common in difficult marriages. Not only did the people involved likely suffer as kids at the hands of their own parents’ conflict, but they also feel guilt and shame that, despite knowing better, they are enacting similar behaviors in adulthood.

In fact, studies show that experiencing marital conflict as a child makes people more vulnerable to conflict in their adult romantic relationships and can decrease relationship quality.

The intergenerational transmission of marital conflict means that when you grow up in a house with parents who do not have the skills to manage disagreements effectively, you absorb those same ways of managing conflict in adulthood. Even though a part of you gets it and knows that you don’t actually want to act like your parents, these patterns often play out automatically and without a lot of conscious awareness.

The intergenerational transmission of marital conflict occurs largely because of what psychologist Albert Bandura termed social learning. Social learning theory explains how an enormous part of learning occurs through observing and imitating others.

In Bandura’s famous Bobo doll study, children watched an adult act aggressively or non-aggressively toward a doll, the “Bobo Doll.” Children who observed aggression toward the doll were more likely to imitate aggression than the children who were not exposed to the aggressive modeling. This is the idea of observational learning.

Learning is inherently social in that we vicariously take in the patterns we see around us, even without conscious awareness. A child may appear zoned out watching cartoons, but a part of their brain is still absorbing the fight nearby.

If this describes you, there is a way to stop the cycle and help future generations of your family. Neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to grow in the face of new experiences, means with effort, you can change this pattern. Here are four ways to start:

1. Stop the shame spiral. If you find yourself having ugly arguments with your partner that impact your kids, you probably feel guilty, ashamed, and helpless. Perhaps you vow to change, and then, once again, the pattern returns. Right now, take a moment and offer compassion to yourself. Think about social learning theory and how it says you had no conscious choice or awareness to stop yourself from absorbing what surrounded you. It’s not your fault. You are doing the best you can.

2. Reflect on your childhood models for managing conflict. Consider what models you had growing up and objectively label what was missing—emotional regulation, direct communication, acceptance of one another’s flaws, self-managing mental health issues. Alternatively, you may have had no model; perhaps people didn’t argue at all, or you grew up with a single parent or caregiver.

3. Now objectively label what skillset you are missing. Do you need help taking the edge off your anger, expressing how you feel, and being more tolerant? What capacity is missing from your repertoire when you argue? Do you wish to be more understanding, less hot-headed, clearer, and more upfront in expressing your needs? Or, perhaps, as a reaction to the conflict you were exposed to as a child, you shut down and can’t express your emotions or needs.

4. Make a plan to bring in new learning. A big part of why these patterns continue is because people feel great shame in talking about their marital issues. As a result, the system remains closed, and no new models are available to teach you new patterns of coping. Just as you learned your conflict skills from observing, you need new models to observe. Consider reading a self-help book, entering therapy, and talking with friends about what you are working on. Make a commitment to talk with your partner about this idea and about what skills you both need to grow.

It’s not that you won’t argue but more how you argue that makes all of the difference.

More from Jill P. Weber Ph.D.
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