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Beating a Legacy of Marital Failure

Reaping What Was Sown

Parent role vs. partner role continued...

Conger's team conducted in-house interviews annually for four years, beginning when the children were in seventh grade. They gleaned information on the interactions between the subjects and their parents, subjects and the siblings, and the parents as spouses. Then, when the subjects were about age 20, they videotaped them with their romantic partners. The subjects also gave their own evaluations of the relationships with their parents and with their romantic partners.

What they found: Teens who grew up with parents who were supportive and warm tended to develop similar relationships with their romantic partners when they got older. But those who grew up in families who were not supportive and warm tended to have unhappy romantic relationships as adults. "Contrary to our expectations, observing their parents' marital relationship was not that important," Conger says.

This suggests to Conger that children who grow up in supportive, warm, single-parent families may do just as well as those from warm, supportive two-parent families when they seek out romantic relationships as young adults.

Of course, if you are an unhappy spouse, it might affect your parenting, he points out. "If parents are angry and fight with each other, that may spill over into their parenting. As long as you can maintain an effective role as a parent, you can mitigate the effects of a bad marriage on your child."

Low-conflict vs. high-conflict homes

Other researchers have been studying types of divorce and their effects on children's well-being, as well as the children's ability to form satisfying relationships later in life.

Divorces that occur in "low-conflict" marriages tend to have negative effects on children, while divorces that occur in "high conflict" marriages often have beneficial effects on children, according to Alan J. Booth, PhD, a distinguished professor of sociology at the Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., who reports the conclusion in the February 2001 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family after reviewing his own and others' studies on the topic.

It sounds backward until Booth explains it. If kids grow up in a home with a high-conflict marriage -- much disagreement, perhaps constant shouting and arguing -- the dysfunctional home environment puts them at risk for emotional and developmental problems. When the split occurs, the calmer, single-parent household may be a relief, and symptoms abate.

But if children grew up in a home where the marriage had little outward conflict, the decision to divorce can blindside them, and the stressful fallout can put them at risk for symptoms such as emotional and behavioral problems.

Like Conger, Booth says the role model of a good marriage "doesn't seem to be too crucial" in the ability of children to form lasting romantic relationships later. What is vital? "Growing up with loving parents is important to forming your own adult relationships," he says.

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