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Interparental Conflict—Effects on Children

Theoretical Models, Dimensions Of Marital Conflict, Individual Protective Factors, Conclusion


Few parent-child relationships are conflict-free. In fact, some parents argue with heated emotion, but also clearly love each other. Thus, arguing may be an element of their communication style and may be productive for them. When interparental conflict is more frequent, intense, and longer-lasting, however, studies show that children are at increased risk for emotional and behavioral difficulties (Cummings and Davies 1994). In fact, interparental conflict is a better predictor of child adjustment problems than divorce or global indices of marital functioning (such as satisfaction). The extent to which marital conflict accounts for differences in psychological functioning in children has been estimated at 4 percent to 20 percent (Cummings and Davies 1994). When the family environment includes additional stressors such as poverty or violence, marital conflict can be expected to have even more significant effects (Cummings, Davies, and Campbell 2000).

Witnessing anger or conflict can be aversive for children and it is often associated with increased arousal, distress, and aggression as well as long-term adjustment difficulties including behavioral, emotional, social, and academic problems. Children from homes characterized by high conflict appear to be vulnerable to externalizing problems such as verbal and physical aggression, noncompliance, and delinquency, as well as internalizing problems such as depression and anxiety (Cummings and Davies 1994). Typically, however, stronger associations are found with externalizing rather than internalizing problems. Living with marital conflict also increases the risk of children displaying poor interpersonal skills and low levels of social competence (Cummings, Davies, and Campbell 2000).

Cultural differences exist with respect to what is normative in the expression and management of conflict. Thus, the meaning and impact of conflict may vary across families. The conditions under which children from different cultural or racial groups respond to marital conflict, as well as the various ways in which they respond, are areas of ongoing research. Some authors suggest that ethnic minority youth may be less vulnerable to the effect of conflict whereas others find similar results across different ethnic or racial groups (see McLoyd, Harper, and Copeland 2001). Research on culture, ethnicity, and race is limited, however, and is an area in need of further exploration.

Negative secondary affects of exposure to marital conflict have been shown for boys as well as girls, though the results are sometimes stronger for boys. Some studies find different patterns of reactivity between boys and girls, though it has been proposed that the variability in functioning within each gender is probably greater than the variability in functioning across the two sexes (see Davies and Lindsay 2001). Although no clear patterns have consistently emerged across studies, some interesting findings have begun to appear with respect to interactions between sex of parent and sex of child. There are some indications that marital conflict may be more likely to affect opposite-sex parent-child relationships than same-sex parent-child relationships (Cox, Paley, and Harter 2001).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & Parenthood