Let Parenthood Strengthen Your Marriage

How to keep your marriage strong through the baby years.

By Sarì Harrar and Rita DeMaria | Ph.D. from The 7 Stages of Marriage

Brush up on calm conflict resolution. Your marriage will benefit — and so will your kids. When researchers from the University of Notre Dame and Catholic University of America tracked 226 mothers and fathers and their 9- to 18-year-old children for three years, they found that parents whose conflicts revolved around personal insults, defensiveness, marital withdrawal, sadness, or fear had kids who displayed more depression, anxiety, and behavior problems. In a related study of 232 parents of kindergarteners, they found that parents who engaged in “dirty fighting” triggered emotional insecurity in their sons and daughters. “When the marital relationship is functioning well, it serves as a structurally sound bridge to support the child’s exploration and relationships with others,” says researcher Mark Cummings, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Notre Dame. “When destructive marital conflict erodes the bridge, children may lack confidence and become hesitant to move forward or may be unable to find appropriate footing within themselves or in interaction with others. This study is a warning to strongly encourage parents to learn how to handle conflicts constructively for the sake of both their children and themselves.”

Disagreement isn’t the problem, Dr. Cummings says. It’s how the two of you handle it. “If everyday issues are addressed in a productive or constructive way, children benefit,” he notes. “I talked about the harm that destructive types of conflicts can cause. Some of the most destructive types of conflicts occur when partners withdraw from one another, stonewall, or show disrespect. Children are very sensitive to the emotional quality of the home.”

Schedule a private powwow about discipline. Presenting a united front, whether it’s about your 8-year-old’s allotment of TV time or your 17-year-old’s use of the family car, will help you avoid a major source of ongoing marital conflict. It will also help your kid feel more secure. If you find yourselves in disagreement about how to handle a child-rearing issue, work out a temporary rule and tell your child that you and your spouse need to consider the issue together before laying down the law. Then discuss the issue when you have a private, kid-free opportunity.

“We had to negotiate between ourselves about what the ground rules would be for our four children, especially when the eldest first became a teenager,” says Susan Vogt of Covington, Kentucky. “We definitely had disagreements. One of us would think it was fine for our son to do something, and the other wouldn’t. We weren’t too far apart, but it still took a lot of debate to work things out, and the stakes got higher when they were teenagers. The positive part of working it out was that going with just one parent’s viewpoint could make things too permissive or too disciplinarian. You need both opinions, melded together.”

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