This is part 1 of a 2 part guest-post written by my friend and colleague Steve Sulmeyer on the important role the parental relationship plays in shaping a child’s development. (1)
As most parents have discovered, having a child, particularly in the early years, puts enormous stress on even the best of relationships, with resulting tensions, frustrations and discord. Few fail to notice the negative effects such tensions have on their child, and on their ability to optimally parent their child. And yet, pervasive as this problem is, most of the parenting literature focuses on how an individual parent should relate to the child, and very little is said about how a parent should relate to the other parent, or about how the parents’ relationship with each other affects the child. This post will take a brief look at how parents’ relationship with each other affects their child’s development, and at how important it is to make the parents’ relationship with each other a high priority.
It’s helpful to remember that babies come into this world totally open, utterly undefended, little sponges of Being. It will be years before their emotional buffers are in place, the boundaries that can protect them from the full emotional impact of interacting with significant others. Being completely open, babies and young children pick up on what’s going on around them emotionally and energetically. They not only feel their own feelings intensely, they feel your feelings intensely. They get your and your partner’s feelings towards each other. They get the vibe in the home. You cannot hide what’s going on between you and your partner from your child.
Children not only pick up on, but are also strongly affected and influenced by what is going on between the parents, in both direct and indirect ways. On the positive side of the equation, a loving and respectful relationship between the parents directly affects the child by creating what might be called a “parental holding environment” which, like the maternal holding environment described by Donald Winnicott, acts as a kind of energetic womb in which the child begins to find itself as a human being. Though by no means as powerful a determinant in infant development as the mother-child bond, the parental holding environment nevertheless exerts a profound influence on the developing child. The extent to which the parents openly and genuinely are loving and affectionate with one another shapes both the child’s world and its developing sense of self. It also affects the child’s sense of safety and predictability, and becomes the model and archetype for the child’s future relationships by providing the basic schemata for the child’s internalized images of closeness, intimacy, dispute resolution, expression of emotions, and respect between the sexes.
Indirectly, a good relationship between you and your spouse benefits your child by acting synergistically with and upon the mother-child and father-child relationships. That is, a loving marital relationship significantly increases the odds of you and your partner getting your basic emotional needs met, which in turn increases the odds that each of you will be optimally available to parent and fully show up for your child. While we can get some of our emotional sustenance from our friends, there are some kinds of support that can only come from our spouse, particularly those related to our own attachment needs. When our own needs for connection are being met, we are a lot less likely to get reactive with our children and with our partner, and are better able to respond positively to the needs of the entire family.
On the negative side of the equation, children’s profound undefendedness leaves them vulnerable to significant harm when their parents do not get along, again both directly and indirectly. Direct negative effects include children’s mimicking of dysfunctional parental behaviors, failure to learn appropriate social interaction skills, and internalization of negative parental- and self-images. Unable to make sense of or cope with the feelings being stirred in them in response to their parents’ discord, young children instead tend to act out in a wide variety of ways (usually in an unconscious attempt to relieve stress and restore equilibrium to the family system). Research has shown that frequent, intense parental discord is linked to a myriad of developmental problems in children, including insecure attachment, poor self-esteem, conduct disorders, antisocial behaviors, difficulty with peers and authority figures, depression, anxiety, and academic and achievement problems. (2)
Marital conflict has indirect effects on children via the mother-child and father-child relationships. Persistent marital disharmony and dissatisfaction pervasively undermine the quality of parenting, including limiting the parents’ emotional availability, diminishing their ability to discipline effectively and appropriately, and increasing the likelihood of parent-child aggression. Research indicates that parents in high-conflict marriages tend to be less warm and empathic toward their children, are more rejecting, are more erratic and harsh in discipline, and use more guilt and anxiety-inducing disciplinary techniques, compared with parents in low-conflict marriages. Fathers in high-conflict marriages tend to withdraw more from the parenting role and from their children than do fathers in low-conflict marriages, and are more likely to feel excluded from parenting functions by their partner. Parents in high-conflict marriages tend to be more depressed than those in low-conflict marriages, and depression is linked to more impaired family functioning.
Given the seemingly obvious benefits that result from a positive parental relationship, why do so many couples find it so difficult to have one? For one thing, it’s easy, under the extreme stress and exhaustion of parenting, to find yourself resentful about how your other basic needs aren’t being met—your need for your own professional, artistic, and spiritual expression; your need for fun and play; your need for your relationship with yourself and your friends—let alone your need for your partner who is no longer as available as he/she used to be. It’s easy to blame our partners for how hard parenting really is, for the ways in which no one told us how difficult it would be, for the isolation and the curtailment of our freedom, and the lack of support and appreciation around parenting from the culture. Add to this the confusion and power struggles that often result from the shift in power and status that inevitably accompanies childbirth: many women move from feeling hierarchically inferior to men in life to suddenly feeling that at last they have the power in the family, as the birther, the nurser, the one with the primary relationship with the baby—and any perceived encroachment on this power by the father can be deeply resisted and resented. On top of that there’s the frequent occurrence of what might be called “emotional regurgitation” when a baby is born: issues around past sexual abuse, disappointments from past romantic relationships, and other unconscious material can erupt into awareness and can find a convenient scapegoat in our spouse, usually the safest and easiest person for us to dump on.
Next week in part 2, we look more specifically at what can be done to optimize this “parental holding environment.”
(1) For purposes of simplicity of expression this article assumes the most typical parental situation, that between a man and a woman in a committed relationship, living in the same house. This, of course, is not the situation that all children are born into or remain with. The author believes that the concepts articulated in this article apply equally well to other parental arrangements.
(2) This does not mean that all conflict or verbal disagreements between spouses cause this kind of harm. Research indicates that the severity and frequency of parental fighting, the style of conflict (e.g., overtly hostile, contemptuous, passive aggressive), the subject of the conflict (child-focused or not), its manner of resolution (e.g., negotiation and compromise, reparation, non-resolution), and the presence of protective buffers (e.g., protective siblings or grandparents) are all important factors in determining whether and to what degree parental conflict will result in harm to the child.
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