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Conflict - Couple Relationships, Family Relationships, Parent-child Relationships

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & Parenthood

COUPLE RELATIONSHIPS William R. Cupach, Daniel J. Canary



Unique Characteristics

Three characteristics distinguish family conflict from other types: intensity, complexity, and the duration of relationships. First, relationships between family members are typically the closest, most emotionally intense of any in the human experience (Bowlby 1982). The bonds between adult partners, between parents and children, or between siblings involve the highest level of attachment, affection, and commitment. There is typically daily contact for many years that bonds individuals together. When serious problems emerge in these relationships, the intense positive emotional investment can be transformed into intense negative emotion. A betrayal of a relationship, such as an extramarital affair or child sexual abuse, can produce hate as intense as the love that existed prior to the betrayal. It is well known that a high percentage of murders are committed within family groups. Family conflicts are typically more intense than conflict in other groups. This intensity means that managing conflicts may be more difficult in families, and that their consequences can be more damaging.

The second distinguishing feature of family conflicts, complexity, is especially important for understanding their sometimes-baffling characteristics. Why do battered wives stay with their husbands? Why do most abused children want to stay with the abusive parent rather than be placed elsewhere? One answer is that positive emotional bonds outweigh the pain involved with the conflicts (e.g., Wallace 1996). These are examples of the most pertinent type of complexity in family relationships—ambivalence. The person is loved, but they do things that produce hate as well. The web of family relationships includes dimensions such as love, respect, friendship, hate, resentment, jealousy, rivalry, and disapproval. Several of these dimensions are typically present in any given family relationship. Frequent family conflict may not be a problem if there are even more frequent displays of bonding behaviors. The course of conflict often depends on which dimensions are active in a relationship. Recognizing the multiple dimensions of conflict is a prerequisite for helping families deal more effectively with their problems.

The third distinguishing feature of family conflict is the duration of the relationships, the duration of some conflicts, and the long-term effects of dysfunctional conflict patterns. Family relationships last a lifetime (White 2001). A person's parents and siblings will always be their parents and siblings. Thus serious conflictual relationships within families can continue for longer periods. Such extended exposure increases the risk of harm from the conflict. It is possible to escape such relationships through running away from home, divorce, or estrangement from family ties. But even after contact has been stopped, there are residual psychological effects from the conflict.

Work on family conflict has led to some important findings relevant to prevention and treatment. One is that the form of the conflict is as important as how much of it occurs. Some families have a lot of conflict but still function well. This is possible because conflicts are embedded in the context of other behaviors. One significant factor is whether or not the conflicts are resolved (Cummings and Davies 1994). High rates of conflict may not be damaging if most of the episodes are resolved. Another key factor is how much positive behavior is exchanged when the family is not fighting. John Gottman (1995) has reported that if there are five positive behaviors for each negative behavior, then relationships are still healthy. As a result of such findings, family conflict is not always considered to be a problematic pattern. However, if conflict occurs in forms that are physically or psychologically damaging, then intervention is necessary.

Family conflict often involves more than two individuals. A third family member can be drawn into dyadic conflict to take sides in disputes. Multiple members may join forces and work as a team to win or settle disagreements. Such coalitions may be short-lived or become a permanent part of family life. They are common and can be beneficial. For example, parents typically side with each other in disputes with their children. This helps parents maintain order and is especially useful in large families.

Coalitions add a complex dimension to dispute dynamics and strategy. Skill in forming alliances can be especially valuable to individuals with little power. As with other features of conflict, coalitions can be carried to extremes. Scapegoating, a recurrent, excessive alliance between parents against a child or children, is known to be damaging to development. Certain coalitions disrupt healthy family functioning. An on-going strong alliance between one parent and a child against the other parent can threaten the interparental relationship.

Conflict Style

Conflict style influences the kinds of disputes families have. It refers to specific tactics and behavioral routines individuals or families typically use when conflicts occur. Individuals have conflict styles of their own (Sternberg and Dobson 1987). These develop through repeated exposure to conflict situations in the family of origin. The combination of individual styles and the family system results in a family style of conflict. For example, one family member may dominate in all disputes and forcefully settle all conflicts. This is a power assertive style that is based on the power relations that are part of the family system. Another style involves endless bickering in which any kind of settlement or resolution is rare. Such an irrational style often creates a negative family climate that erodes positive family bonds. A family may avoid any kind of conflict at the first sign of trouble. Conflict may be seen as being too stressful or simply inappropriate among family members. Such an avoidant style often includes covert conflict in which secretive actions lead to negative consequences for opponents (Buehler et al. 1998). A constructive conflict style is an especially important type because it openly addresses the complaints of family members and moves toward rational changes that eliminate the problem. Several other conflict styles have been identified and research in this area continues. Furthermore, it should be noted that each family is unique and thus will have unique elements in its conflict style. But most families tend to use one of the main styles identified above.

Family conflict styles are learned in childhood. Years of exposure to the same patterns indoctrinate the child with the family's conflict style (e.g., Patterson, Reid, and Dishion 1992). The parents or primary caregivers usually establish the style for the children. Years of participation in the conflict style allow the child to learn the intricacies of using the style to protect or extend their interests. Acquiring a conflict style defines the orientation one brings to any dispute situation. For example, a child in a family with a power assertive style will tend to see any disagreement as a zero-sum game. There must be one winner and one loser. One dominates, the other submits. One must strive to use whatever power one has to defeat the opponent, who is striving to defeat you. Learning a conflict style thus includes assumptions about how interpersonal relationships should be conducted. Conflict styles learned in the family are used by children as they interact with peers and others outside of the family context. This can create difficulties in developing relationships with peers. For example, a child who is an aggressive power-assertive bully in the family may have difficulties making friends with peers who reject that style of interaction.

The concept of conflict style has been useful because it clarifies the assessment of problematic interaction patterns in families. In addition it provides a framework for improving conflict management in families. Some family conflict styles tend to interfere with healthy functioning. Power assertive, irrational, and avoidant styles can be especially troublesome. Getting troubled families with such styles to use elements of the constructive conflict style can improve conflict management and problems related to it. Considerable success has been achieved with conflict management training as a component in individual, couple, and family therapy (Vuchinich 1999). However, conflict style is only one part of the family system. As a result, conflict patterns may be resistant to change unless other elements of the family system are also changed. It is important to acknowledge this fact during efforts to improve conflict management in troubled families.

Sibling Conflict

Sibling rivalry has long been recognized as a key element in family conflict. The concept assumes that parents or primary caregivers have a limited amount of affection to give to their children (Neborsky 1997). Children therefore tend to compete for the parental affection, which they want and need. Through that competition, siblings can develop ambivalence toward each other. Siblings have affection for each other, but also some enmity. If parents provide sufficient affection for both siblings, the rivalry dissipates. But if they do not, then the rivalry can be a primary feature of sibling and family relationships through adulthood. In such cases siblings strive to out-do each other to win the approval of a parent or caregiver. Often the siblings are not consciously aware that their striving is based on sibling rivalry. Harmless sibling rivalry is common in most families. But in some cases it fuels long-term destructive conflict between siblings.

The negative impact of excessive sibling rivalry can be seen from a developmental perspective (Brody et al. 1992). Rivalry can erode the positive interaction dynamics that usually occurs between young siblings. Siblings can help each other learn to walk, talk, share, and show support. Intense rivalry interrupts these processes. In addition, a conflictual relationship with a sibling can be the template for relationships with peers outside the family. Troubled peer relations in childhood are known to be a precursor of negative outcomes later on.

The key to avoiding problems with sibling rivalry is providing all children in the family with adequate emotional support. Most parents try to treat their children equally. This is an important goal because recent research has shown that differential parental treatment of siblings is linked to adjustment problems (Feinberg and Hetherington 2001). Although equal treatment is a worthy goal, achieving it is an ongoing challenge. This is especially true when the differences in the sibling age are large. For example, it is difficult to determine what is equal parental treatment if one child is a teenager and another a preschooler. Stepfamilies and blended families further complicate equal treatment.

Conflict in the Extended Family

Extended kin are those more than one generation distant in blood lines, and may include relations created through marriage, adoption, or other social mechanisms. Most frequently, bonds with extended kin are less strong than those with nuclear family members (parents, children, siblings). As a consequence, conflicts with extended kin are usually less intense than those with nuclear family members. But when extended kin have religious, legal, economic, or ethical concerns about specific marital or parenting behaviors, the potential for more serious conflict is present. There is great variation in the organization of extended kinship relations across human cultures. There is little sustained research on conflict involving extended kin outside of the United States.

Grandparents can disagree with the way their grandchildren are parented (e.g., Cherlin and Furstenberg 1986). This can be a result of generational changes in parenting practices or problematic relationships between parent and grandparent. In-laws often disagree on a variety of marital and parenting issues. This is normal given that a marriage is a merger between two different family systems. These conflicts can become severe if there are also ethnic, cultural, or religious differences involved.

U.S. society usually gives the biological parents the right to make major decisions about their children in terms of parenting style, cultural orientation, and religion. But a high rate of divorce complicates matters in many cases. For example, immediately after divorce, noncustodial parents and grandparents often disagree with the way the children are parented by the biological parent and stepparent. Grandparents may be denied visitation rights. Such circumstances create an ongoing potential for extended family conflict. But the geographical distance that is typical between extended family members, and the U.S. cultural emphasis on the priority of the nuclear family, mitigates most extended family conflicts.


Family conflicts are usually experienced as unpleasant events, unless some resolution occurs. There is often reluctance to talk about personal disputes. But some families can benefit from changing their conflict style. Such change requires open discussions and sustained effort. But it can improve family functioning. When conflict is severe, there may be deeper family issues involved besides conflict style and communication. In such cases, addressing conflict dynamics can be a beginning point in dealing with more complex family problems.


Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and Loss, 2nd edition. New York: Basic Books.

Brody, G. H.; Stoneman, Z.; McCoy, J. K.; and Forehand, R. (1992). "Contemporaneous and Longitudinal Association of Sibling Conflict with Family Relationship Assessments and Family Discussions about Sibling Problems." Child Development 63:391–400.

Buehler, C.; Krishnakumar, A.; Stone, G.; Anthony, C.; Pemberton, S.; Gerard, J.; and Barber, B. K. (1998). "Interpersonal Conflict Styles and Youth Problem Behaviors: A Two-Sample Replication Study." Journal of Marriage and the Family 60:119–132.

Cherlin, A., and Furstenberg, F. (1986). The New American Grandparent. New York: Basic Books.

Cummings, E. M., and Davies, P. T. (1994). Children and Marital Conflict: The Impact of Family Dispute and Resolution. New York: Guilford Press.

Gottman, J. M. (1995). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Simon & Schuster. Feinberg, M., and Hetherington, E. M. (2001). "Differential Parenting as a Within-Family Variable." Journal of Family Psychology 15:22–37.

Neborsky, Robert J. (1997). "Sibling Rivalry: The Role of the Sibling in the Unconscious." In New Directions in Integrative Treatment, Vol. 2: The Handbook of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, ed. B. S. Mark and J. A. Incorvaia. Northvale, NJ: Aronson.

Patterson, G. R.; Reid, J. B.; and Dishion, T. J. (1992). Antisocial Boys. Eugene, OR: Castalia.

Sternberg, R. J., and Dobson, D. M. (1987). "Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts: An Analysis of Stylistic Consistency." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52:794–812.

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White, L. (2001). "Sibling Relationships over the Life Course: A Panel Analysis." Journal of Marriage and the Family 63:555–568.


Conflict with Young Children

Much of the research on parent-child conflict has focused on conflicts between toddlers and their parents. Although conflict may be especially prevalent during the "terrible twos" phase, conflict with parents becomes a significant feature of family interactions beginning at eighteen months (Dunn and Munn 1985) and continuing over the life span. Importantly, both parents' and children's conflict behaviors evolve over time.

For example, before children reach the age of sixteen months, mothers are more likely to use distraction or simple labels such as "naughty" or "nice" during conflict episodes. As the child ages, mothers are more likely to reference social rules, use bargaining, and provide justifications to the child during conflict episodes (Dunn and Munn 1985). Learning from these experiences with their mothers, children begin to develop their own abilities to use reasoning and justifications as early as age three.

Most of the research on parent-child conflict focuses on interactions between mothers and children. The mother most frequently acts as the primary caregiver. As such, mothers participate much more in parent-child conflicts than do fathers (Vuchinich 1987). Specifically, children oppose mothers more often than they oppose fathers. This greater number of interactions for mothers may mean that mothers exert more influence over children's development of conflict management behaviors. Additionally, fathers achieve child compliance slightly more frequently than do mothers (Lytton 1979). Moreover, children rarely follow a father's simple "no" with a bold opposition, but they would boldly oppose a mother's "no."

Traditional perspectives on parent-child conflict have considered conflict as parental discipline and/or parental attempts at compliance-gaining with their children. Research focused on observing conflict interactions between mothers and their small children illustrates some keys to successful parental compliance gaining. First, when a parent's behavior is synchronous (i.e., staying on topic) with what the child just stated (child's immediately preceding talk turn), children are more likely to comply with parental requests (Rocissano, Slade, and Lynch 1987). In addition, these same researchers argued that parental flexibility during interactions with toddlers leads to more child compliance. In general, parental positivity and flexibility before and during interactions has been consistently linked with child compliance.

Although much of the early parent-child conflict research focused on parental control and child noncompliance, more recent research has emphasized the bidirectionality of parent-child conflict (e.g., Eisenberg 1992; Patterson 1982). Bidirectionality means that just as parents' behaviors influence children, children's behaviors influence parents. For example, Gerald Patterson's theory of coercive control suggests that parents adapt their conflict management behaviors to children's coercive behaviors (e.g., hitting, yelling, and ignoring the parent) rather the reverse. This bidirectional approach to parent-child conflict broadens the focus from just compliance-gaining to a wider variety of conflict topics.

For instance, conflict between parents and toddlers in the two- to four-year-old range largely reflects the child's attempt to gain social control. Consequently, disagreements about rights of possession are particularly salient for children in this age group (Hay and Ross 1982). Other common conflict issues involve caretaking, manners, destructive/hurtful actions, rules of the house, physical space, and independence.

Between the ages of four and seven, children become less concerned with possessions and the rightful use of objects, and more concerned with controlling the actions of others (Shantz 1987). For instance, five-year-olds can become quite distressed when the mother will not play in a preferred manner. Such struggles to gain the compliance of others are integral to the child's development of interpersonal competence. The child learns that cooperating with others is an important part of control and achieving one's own instrumental goals. Engaging in conflict facilitates children's acquisition of social perspective-taking skills (Selman 1980).

Conflict with Adolescents

By the time children reach adolescence, their communication with others has gained greater sophistication across contexts. In conflict situations, they no longer express unrestrained hostility as a small child does. In addition, they exhibit greater flexibility in conflicts with their parents. Nonetheless, adolescents still express more hostility and show more rigidity than do adults. Even with their increased maturity, adolescents are still developing their conflict management skills. For example, when observing interactions between mothers and teenagers, researchers have found that mothers more consistently respond to their child in a flexible and positive manner regardless of the child's comment (Fletcher et al. 1996). However, the researchers also found that, unlike the mothers, the teenagers tended to parallel the mothers' comments in terms of following a negative comment with a negative reply.

Given the broad range of what qualifies as a teenager, adolescence consists of multiple stages rather than one. Traditional perspectives hold that due to parallel hormonal and physiological changes during puberty, conflict behavior first increases from the early stages of adolescence to the middle stages and then decreases again by late adolescence. However, other researchers have found that conflict simply decreases from early to late adolescence with no peak during middle adolescence. In attempting to resolve this controversy, researchers have found that conflict increases in hostile and coercive families but decreases in warm and supportive families (Rueter and Conger 1995) .

Mothers and fathers take on different roles during conflict than they had with their younger children. In particular, adolescent boys begin to act more assertive and forceful with their mothers but not their fathers. Mothers complement their sons' behavior by being less dominant, whereas fathers become more dominant (Paikoff and Brooks-Gunn 1991). Even though both mothers' and children's behaviors change, mothers still experience more conflicts with their adolescent children than do fathers.

The topics of conflict evolve as the child matures. Whereas younger children are concerned with gaining social control, adolescents attempt to gain personal control. Adolescents and parents often disagree about the extent to which parental control and supervision over the adolescent are legitimate. Specifically, parents and adolescents have conflict about such routine, day-to-day issues as responsibility for chores, doing schoolwork, observing a curfew, and respecting the adolescent's right to privacy. Interestingly, the issues of parent-adolescent conflict persist across generations. Thus, today's "rebellious" adolescents mature into tomorrow's "controlling" parents (Montemayor 1983).

Although conflict between parents and teens may be inevitable, effective conflict management does not always occur. The potential costs of poorly managed parent-adolescent conflict are great. For example, adolescents may become "ungovernable," use drugs, and/or run away from home. Certain communication behaviors during conflict have been linked with such teenage misbehaviors (Alexander 1973). Specifically, the researcher found that when parents and adolescents do not reciprocate each other's supportive communication behaviors (e.g., showing empathy and equality) and do reciprocate each other's defensive behaviors (e.g., showing indifference and superiority) the child appears more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors.

Conflict with Adult Children

Although conflicts between parents and children persist after the child becomes an adult, little research examines these relationships. The frequency of conflicts likely drops off significantly for most parents and their adult children. However, with some level of maintained contact and interdependence, conflicts likely remain a fundamental aspect of the parent-child relationship. For example, young adults have been found to experience psychological adjustment and identity problems when they perceive that their families have a great deal of conflict (Nelson et al. 1993). Just as personal development continues past adolescence, the impact of conflict with significant others on that development continues.

Karen Fingerman's (1996) research illustrates that conflicts with parents continue even as the child reaches middle age and the parent becomes elderly. Again, development appears to play an important in role in understanding difficulties between middle-aged daughters and their elderly mothers. Due to their different stages in life, the mothers and daughters hold differing opinions regarding the salience of the relationship. In addition, mothers and daughters tend to disagree regarding the mother's needs. These studies illustrate both that parent-child conflict endures and that the link between development and conflict persists.


Although conflict may be inevitable in families, the consequences of parent-child conflict tend to be positive rather than negative. For example, oppositions between parents (usually mothers) and their small children are usually brief in duration and not emotionally charged. Although such conflicts can test the patience of both child and parent, they do not seriously affect the relationship between parent and child. In addition, while conflict interactions between parents and adolescents can be more intense and dramatic, only 5 to 10 percent of families with adolescents experience detrimental effects on parent-child relationships (Paikoff and Brooks-Gunn 1991).

Considerable research depicts the processes surrounding conflict between parents and their young children and conflict between parents and their adolescent children. However, more research is needed to understand the nature of conflict between parents and their adult children. In addition, the research into parent-child conflict has not sufficiently examined the influence of culture on conflict management. It seems likely that the topics of conflict between mothers and toddlers as well as between teenagers and their parents may be universal.

However, the management of conflict between parents and children likely varies by culture (Ting-Toomey 1988). Unfortunately, researchers have not explored conflict management differences due to cultural norms in parent-child interactions. Moreover, such investigations of cultural differences appear problematic for two reasons. First, the concepts of individualism and collectivism may oversimplify cultural differences. Although a nation might be defined as collectivist or individualist, the individuals that make up that country likely vary widely in their behavior (Kim and Leung 2000). For example, a family living in the highly individualistic United States may nevertheless value nonconfrontation in conflict and may exhibit a strong tendency toward collectivist culture communication behaviors.

Second, virtually every investigation of conflict management differences due to culture has utilized various conflict style scales (Kim and Leung 2000). Obviously, survey methods do not work well with young children. Moreover, the conceptualization that underlies such scales appears problematic for effective comparisons across cultures. Specifically, Min-Sun Kim and Truman Leung (2000) argued that the dimensions (concern for self and concern for other) that underlie the various styles of conflict management do not have the same meaning in conflict situations across cultures. For example, U.S. society values assertiveness in conflict and perceives avoidance behaviors as showing a lack of concern for others. However, in Chinese society, avoidance of confrontation is perceived as showing high concern for others. Future research needs to resolve such methodological and conceptual issues to examine how culture likely plays an important role in the development of conflict management behaviors from early childhood.


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Dunn, J., and Munn, P. (1987). "Development of Justification in Disputes with Another Sibling." Developmental Psychology 23:791–798.

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