Marriage is no walk in the park. It takes patience, compromise, flexibility, sacrifice, and a whole lot of open communication. We all argue with our partners—that’s totally normal and par for the course. But when arguments get too tense and too frequent, it may be time to think about what’s really going on and if it is a healthy relationship.
When you add children into the mix, it is even more crucial to step back and consider how marital problems can impact them. Kids hear and see us even when we think they aren’t paying attention. They are quite perceptive and know when their parents aren’t getting along. Interestingly, the way children perceive their parents’ level of conflict can determine how they expect their parents to treat them. These interactions and perceptions can ultimately lead to psychological issues like anxiety and depression for many years to come.
Healthy Versus Unhealthy Conflict
All relationships have their challenges. No marriage is entirely free from conflict and disagreement, and all children see their parents argue at some point. But the way in which parents relate to each other can affect the child’s well-being, according to the Institute for Family Studies. When parents interact calmly and positively even during a disagreement, solve the problem together as a team, and demonstrate to the children that the conflict has been resolved, then the children will typically be okay. Some research shows that they may even learn conflict-resolution skills by watching their parents resolve issues with each other.
However, marital problems can negatively affect the kids when they:
- Occur frequently
- Become nasty and hostile involving verbal insults and raised voices
- Are left unresolved
- Involve physical aggression
- Cause one or both parents to become withdrawn or to give the silent treatment
- Threaten to break up the family
- Are all about the children
How The Kids Suffer
During a heated debate with our spouse, we are too consumed in the moment to think about how it could bother the kids. A recent report from the think tank One Plus One in the United Kingdom assessed numerous studies about how marital problems affect children. They found that in the struggle to understand their parents’ conflict, children blame themselves or find harmful ways of coping with the conflict. In addition to their negative emotions, they experience physiological reactions related to stress that may harm the development of their brain.
Children as young as six months old show distress when their parents fight including fear, anger, anxiety, low self-esteem, sadness, and depression. They are also at higher risk of experiencing health problems, such as difficulty sleeping and trouble focusing on their school work. Some may even react by being aggressive, hostile, anti-social, or disobedient. Children who grow up with their parents fighting a lot are also more likely to have poor interpersonal skills, problem-solving abilities, and social competence.
These issues can linger throughout their lives and cause problems in their own relationships. As the report suggests, “Thus the high-conflict relationship of one couple can produce other negative relationships in the next generation.” Parents who grew up around conflict tend to be more critical, aggressive, and threatening to their own children.
Another study by researchers at Auburn University and the Catholic University of America found that marital conflict can harm the children’s stress response systems, ultimately affecting their mental and intellectual development including cognitive abilities.
Finally, a study by the University of York found that “children of divorced parents are more damaged by the arguments that occurred during the marriage than by the split itself.” Children who witnessed fights at home were 30 percent more likely to develop behavioral issues than those kids with happily married parents.
What You Can Do
The most important step you can take to ensure that you provide a happy, healthy home for your children is to recognize when your marital problems are serious and affecting the entire family. If you notice the signs of unhealthy conflict pointed out above, then it may be time to seek out some relationship counseling with a licensed professional.
Getting help does not mean you are a failure—it just means you and your partner are willing to give it your best shot and explore how you can communicate more effectively and address your issues for the sake of your entire family. Marriage counselors provide effective communication tools so that you can talk through each issue calmly and openly without the negativity and hostility.
Although marriage counseling may feel uncomfortable at first and seem like a big time commitment, it is worth every penny and second spent if you can re-build your marriage and family’s happiness. Even if you and your spouse are juggling hectic schedules, you can choose online marriage counseling. Seeing a marriage counselor online is certainly much easier than driving to an office, waiting for your appointment time, and sitting in the therapist’s office while you talk about your problems. With online marriage counseling, you can interact with your therapist from the comfort of your home or office when it is convenient for all of you. If you prefer, you and your spouse do not even have to be in the same room, which can make difficult conversations much more comfortable for everyone.
What experience do you have with relationship counseling?