Parents who can better handle conflicts and go through a healthy separation process are more able to model life positively to their children because they did not destroy the family by separating, but they had separated because the family relationship became unhappy and unstable.
“Conflict and stress in the home pose a serious threat to children’s emotional, psychological, and physical well-being, especially if the conflict and stress is continuous or chronic.”
Every marriage is unique and whether we manage to keep the relationship alive over tough times or end the relationship, we all have gone through story of love and loss that we learn from and basically shape the person we are today.
“Sara loved her father so much, but from about age nine she started to pray that he would leave because when he stays the conflict between her parents continues”.
Some relationships have lots of conflicts, which can be so tiring and frustrating not only on the couple but also on the children. Parents should know that no matter how they hide their anger and arguments, children always know and can feel the resentment between the parents which can be very depressing. Some conflicts can have a negative impact on children for a lifetime, which can end in them having souring relationships of their own in later stages of their life. But why would parents stay together in a marriage that is not working? Many explain that some parents tolerate the pain, disrespect and selfishness from the partner for the sake of their children and they don’t want to separate the family.
Over 40 years of research, psychologist John Gottman identified five types of conflict between couples that are more likely to lead the relationship to continue or split up. In the avoidant conflict type, couples are not emotionally expressive and always try to avoid arguments because they focus on compatibility and in finding out things that can make them live together, ignoring the differences. The second type of conflict is volatile and a person with such behaviour has no secrets and everyone knows it. They fight passionately and love to debate and believe that honesty and connection are highly important in any relationship. It is true that jealously in such a relationship can cause friction but it has lots of humour and fun. If the conflict type between couples are validating, they are likely to be positive and take time to understand the partner’s point of view and sometimes they can go dissatisfied on some topics, but they usually choose their battles and the partner can always back down.
These three conflict types can be good and can end up having happy and stable relationship but the other two conflict types, which are hostile and hostile-detached, can be very toxic and most probably can lead the couples to split up. When we talk about hostile couples, that means one is avoider and the other is validator. Usually the validator highlights and talks about the issues where the avoider doesn’t want to because they hate to be trapped in a circle of conflict. The validator always sees the partner as uncaring and the avoider looks at the partner as needy and negative. This relationship contains lots of criticism and blaming and usually the avoider partner wishes that the other accepts them the way they are. According to the hostile-detached conflict, one is validator and the other is volatile which is considered a toxic combination. The validator will tolerate the conflict to a certain stage but the volatile will have a blazing row and won’t stop blowing up until the partner accepts or gives the silent treatment. This relationship drains the couples of energy and it is not a healthy relationship to be in.
Sadly when children under the age of ten see their parents in open conflict, they tend to blame themselves and as they get older they might become more isolated from one or both parents. Some might develop behaviour problems like disobedience, bullying or acting out, and in other cases would suffer from grades deterioration.
When children watch or hear such conflicts in the home, they may experience increased emotional or behavioural difficulties, and they may also have traumatic stress reactions (such as sleep disturbances, intensified startle reactions, or constant worry about danger). Children may also imitate and learn modelled behaviour. Exposure to extreme violence may desensitize children towards aggressive behaviour and aggression can become a ‘norm’. Even a 3 months old child can be distressed from loud noises, vivid visual images and emotional feelings of the parents when they are around their parents. This can have an effect on the parent/child bond and the baby will fear exploration and will have a decreased motivation to play, thus affecting their character, brain, social and emotional development.
The biggest long-term loss comes from what the parents have instilled in children during childhood, is modelled years later in the 26-year-old mother tackling the conflicts with her husband by shouting at her partner, or a husband handling the conflict by bullying his wife. They don’t know a better way to handle family conflicts because that is what they have experienced and saw their parents do.
Parents should believe that the damage of separation is not whether the parents are together or not, but how well they deal with the conflict. If parents’ separation gives them space to better parenting with mutual respect, the children will be better off than when their parents were together.
In later stages of adulthood, children of parents who were divorced can draw a model that says you don’t have to go down with a sinking ship. Their parents did not destroy the family by separating, but they separated because the family had a problem and needed to tackle it by separating. So would you want your children to stay in a toxic and unhappy marriage? Be careful about what you model.
Written in collaboration with Arabian Child organization. Visit www.arabianchild.org for more information about early childhood education in the United Arab Emirates.