Conflicts — 08 March 2012
Temper your conflicts for the sake of your children

Marital conflicts are common and may not be hazardous to the spouses or their children if they are handled well. When parents’ feuds are hostile, aggressive and are not resolved amicably, the impact on the children can be grave.

Most parents have divergent perspectives on various issues, are motivated by their own needs and desires and may get into strong verbal exchanges in asserting their preferences. Constructive conflict resolution serves the partners and their children well.

When conflicts between parents are hostile, attacking, argumentative, disrespectful and contemptuous of each other they harm the relationship and the children’s wellbeing.

Patrick Davies and Mark Cummings in “Marital Conflict and Child Adjustment,” report that though “Fighting is surely a normal part of life, and conflicts within families and marriages may sometimes need to occur if important issues are to be worked out, destructive forms of marital conflict undermine children’s feelings of emotional security leading to adjustment problems in children.”

Research findings reported by Davies and Cummings document that “Children as young as 6 months and through adolescence respond to unresolved anger between adults with visible upset.” Youngsters who observe their parents fight feel fear, anger, sadness, insecurity and deep helplessness. The researchers add, “Destructive forms of marital conflict undermine children’s feelings of emotional security, leading to adjustment problems in children.” Conversely, “Exposure to constructive conflicts between parents may be beneficial in teaching children how to handle their own inevitable conflicts in life.”

The distinction between destructive and constructive marital conflicts entails differences in the process, content and outcome of the spousal disagreements.

The process of destructive conflict is initiated by a frustrated party who is intent on getting personal needs met through self-justification, attacking, demanding, shaming, blaming or belittling the other. This abusive presentation is unhealthy. It is not structured constructively as a collaborative attempt to resolve a problem amicably and thus cannot lead to a positive resolution of restoring a healthy connection between mates.

The content of destructive conflict involves a one-sided demand for exoneration of one party at the expense of the other. The accusing mate holds the other solely responsible for the difficulty at hand. Here again, the goal is for personal rather than mutual resolution.

The outcome of a disagreement between parties determines whether it was a destructive or constructive process. If both parties are hurt, angry and self-righteous after the confrontation they failed to unite in creating a mutually acceptable resolution for themselves that models healthy disagreement for their children.

To achieve constructive conflict resolution:

  • State your frustrations by declaring, “I feel, think, want, need, am annoyed by…” rather than, “You are all wrong about this.”
  • Follow up with, “Let’s find a way to work this out to both of our satisfaction.”
  • Use as modulated a voice as you can. If you must raise it be sure it remains respectful of your spouse.
  • Model for your children healthy conflict resolution achieved with dignity and love.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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