The Truth About Marital Conflict And Its Powerful Impact on Children

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My First Exposure

You could cut the tension with a knife! I could feel it as soon as my friend and I walked into his house. As we made our way toward his room, I could hear his parents arguing at the top of their lungs.

Like watching a tennis match, I listened as they exchanged verbal barbs. It seemed like every other word was an expletive. I remember thinking, “I’ve got to get out of here as quickly as I can.”

Thankfully, my friend and I made our way outside before things got worse. I could tell he was embarrassed.

“Is it like that all the time?” I asked. “No,” he said. “It doesn’t really bother me.” I was only 10 years old at the time, but I was old enough to know that it had to affect him.

conflictThe Real Truth

E. Mark Cummings, a psychologist at Notre Dame University who has published hundreds of papers on this very subject affirms what I felt that day, “Children are emotional Geiger counters.”

“Kids pay close attention to their parents’ emotions for information about how safe they are in the family,” Cummings says. “When parents are destructive, the collateral damage to kids can last a lifetime.”

So what are parents supposed to do? Conflict is a normal part of life and it would practically be impossible to shelter them from all exposure to it. In fact, a couple who resolves disagreements in a healthy way would be a great role model for their children.

Generally speaking, there are two mistakes that parents make when it comes to disagreements.

MISTAKE #1: Destructive Conflict

In their book called  Marital Conflict and Children: An Emotional Security Perspective, Cummings, and his colleague, Patrick Davies, list four kinds of damaging conflict:

  • Verbal aggression like name-calling, insults, and threats of abandonment
  • Physical aggression like hitting and pushing
  • Silent tactics like avoidance, walking out, sulking, or withdrawing
  • Capitulation—giving in that might look like a solution but isn’t a true one

Exposure to this kind of damaging conflict affects children on several different levels.

conflictThe most noticeable damage is done to our children’s emotions. Kids have an innate ability to connect the dots when the fighting becomes intense. One of the biggest effects is upon a child’s sense of safety and security.

If your kids perceive that your relationship with your spouse could potentially break apart, this opens the door to feelings of anxiety, worry, and hopelessness. Some children will even act out in anger to try to gain some control over their situation.

Destructive conflict affects children physically as well. A fascinating study was done by anthropologists Mark Flinn and Barry England over a period of 20 years. Among other things, they analyzed samples of the stress hormone cortisol taken from kids in a village on the island of Dominica.

conflictIn case you haven’t ever heard of it, cortisol is known as the stress hormone because it helps to regulate different parts of the body when a person is experiencing stress.

While cortisol helps us tremendously during a stressful event, our bodies were not made to have high levels of cortisol over a long period of time.

Flinn and England found that kids who lived in homes where unhealthy conflict was happening regularly had a much higher level of cortisol than children who lived in peaceful households.

They also discovered that these same children slept less, became tired and ill more often, and played less. One other interesting fact was that there was no sign of kids getting used to the stress in their families.

MISTAKE #2: Avoiding Conflictconflict

According to the same study, avoiding conflict altogether affects your kids in a greater way than destructive conflict. Why? In layman’s terms, it’s because kids can tell when we are pretending.

Think about it. When parents choose to hide their conflict, they are forced to stuff their emotions. This only causes more confusion for kids because they don’t know any of the details.

Avoiding conflict is also dangerous because our kids never get to see a healthy way of resolving differences with someone. Instead, they learn from watching you as a couple practice one or more of these conflict-avoidance patterns. The most common are:

  • Procrastination: Let’s talk about this another time.
  • Denial: We really don’t need anyone to help us. We can do it ourselves.
  • Escalating emotions: Overreacting
  • Joking and diversion: Sarcasm
  • Working too much: Avoiding conversation by engrossing yourself in your profession.
  • Walking out: Going to a different part of the house

As you can see, avoidance is just another dysfunctional way of dealing with your conflict.

conflictDealing with Conflict in a Constructive Way

So, by now you may be wondering, what is the right way to deal with marital conflict? Here are some practical steps that come right from scripture.

  1. Do not sin when you are angry. There is nothing wrong with being angry. Wouldn’t you agree, though, that it becomes very easy to sin when you are upset? Ephesians 4:26a says, “Do not sin in your anger.”
  2. Keep short accounts. In other words, don’t let your disagreements simmer over time. The second part of Ephesians 4:26 says, “… do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
  3. Forgive each other. Colossians 3:13 states, “… if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”conflict
  4. Don’t bring up past wrongs. When Cheryl and I are working through a conflict, I am often reminded of one of the characteristics of love in 1 Corinthians 13 which says, “Love keeps no record of wrongs.”
  5. Listen before and more often than you speak. James 1:19 says, “… Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger …”
  6. Let God be the judge. “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).
  7. Do everything in love. 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us that, “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
  8. Get outside help if you are not able to resolve an issue. Matthew 18 outlines an important principle when dealing with a conflict that can’t be resolved. Find someone you trust who can mediate For you and your spouse.

Finally, I recently read a story about a husband and wife who had a special code to help their young children when the 2 of them were working through a disagreement.

conflictThe dad would hold his fingers an inch apart and remind them that the fight was this big, but that the love was this big—and he would hold his arms open wide.

What a simple but profound way of helping their kids process what was happening!

So, how do you and your spouse deal with conflict? Maybe you can relate to some of what was written in this post. If so, there is hope for you.

Encourage your spouse to read through this article and then talk about it together. While you can’t change things overnight nor can you change the past, you can begin taking small steps in the right direction.

Don’t you think your kids deserve it? They sure do!

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