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Interparental Conflict—Effects on Children

Theoretical Models

Since 1990, there has been an increased emphasis in the literature on a search for mechanisms whereby marital processes might affect children. Three of the more compelling theoretical models are outlined below.

Cognitive-contextual theory. Rooted in information processing and stress and coping theories, John Grych and Frank Fincham (1990) developed the cognitive-contextual theory to help explain children's responses to interparental conflict. This model hypothesizes that children's appraisals mediate the impact of conflict and guide children's coping efforts (Grych and Cardoza-Fernandes 2001). Appraisals are defined as children's attempts to understand the conflict and its implications for themselves and are affected by the manner in which the conflict is expressed and contextual factors such as previous exposure to conflict and the quality of the parent-child relationships. Appraisals occur in a two-stage sequence. Primary processing refers to children's initial determination of the relevance and level of threat posed by the conflict. Secondary processing represents attempts to understand why the conflict has occurred. For example, children may look for someone to blame for the conflict and those that tend to blame themselves are at higher risk for depressive symptomatology and for becoming involved or triangulated into the conflict, a situation that is linked with adverse outcomes (Grych et al. 2000). Children's appraisals of their own coping efforts also are important to consider. According to this theory, the more confident children feel in their ability to cope with the conflict, the less likely they are to be threatened (Grych and Cardoza-Fernandes 2001).

Emotional security hypothesis. Patrick Davies and Mark Cummings (1994) proposed the emotional security hypothesis as a means of understanding the impact of marital conflict on children. This theoretical model focuses on the meaning children ascribe to marital conflict and the extent to which children perceive the conflict as threatening to their level of emotional security and the integrity of their family system. Children's emotional security is hypothesized to be a function of three regulatory systems, each of which may be disturbed by inter-parental conflict: emotion regulation (i.e., emotional reactivity and arousal), internal representations of family relationships (i.e., interpretations of the meaning and the potential consequences of the conflict for one's own well-being), and regulation of exposure to family affect (i.e., level of involvement in or withdrawal from conflict). There is some suggestion that children who engage in the conflict exhibit higher levels of difficulty than those who withdraw (Kerig 2001).

Parenting. In addition to the potential mediating effects of the cognitive processes as outlined in the cognitive-contextual theory and the emotional regulatory processes of the emotional security hypothesis, marital conflict has also been hypothesized to indirectly affect children through its impact on parenting. Studies have found marital conflict prior to the birth of a child predicts insecure attachment (Howes and Markman 1989) through its association with insensitive parenting (Owen and Cox 1997). Cross-sectional studies support the findings from longitudinal work, and marital conflict has been found to be associated with poorer quality parent-child relationships. Marital conflict has been shown to be associated with less emotionally available and less sensitive and responsive parenting as well as with more rejecting, hostile, and aggressive parenting (see Cox, Paley, and Harter 2001). Inconsistency in discipline, both within and across parents, has been linked with inter-parental conflict. A number of studies have found parents from more conflictual marriages to be more likely to triangulate (or involve) a child in the conflict (Kerig 1995; Lindahl, Clements, and Markman 1997), in essence forming a coalition with the child against the other parent.

Parenting findings are inconsistent with respect to sex and scarce with regard to ethnicity. Although Ross Parke and Barbara Tinsley (1987) and Susan Crockenberg and Susan Covey (1991) both concluded that marital functioning was more closely related to fathers' than mothers' parenting, Osnat Erel and Bonnie Burman (1995) did not find sex to moderate the association between quality of the marriage and parenting. In a later review focusing specifically on marital conflict, Mary Jo Coiro and Robert Emery (1998) found that the behavior of both parents was adversely affected, with slightly stronger effects found for fathering than mothering. Others have suggested that destructive levels of marital conflict are likely to overwhelm mothers as well as fathers and that the impact on parenting may be different for parents, but is likely to be present for both sexes (Crockenberg and Covey 1991). Limited cross-cultural data are available, but marital conflict has been associated with more critical and domineering parenting in Anglo- and African-American families and more disengagement in Hispanic families (Malik and Lindahl 2001; Shaw, Winslow, and Flanagan 1999).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodInterparental Conflict—Effects on Children - Theoretical Models, Dimensions Of Marital Conflict, Individual Protective Factors, Conclusion