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Beating a Legacy of Marital Failure

Reaping What Was Sown

Low-conflict vs. high-conflict homes continued...

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.

A clinician weighs in

Despite the research, Robert Maurer, PhD, a psychologist at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, who often counsels divorcing couples with children, isn't convinced that parents' marital behavior can be ruled out as a blueprint for their offspring.

"When your partner walks in," Maurer often asks married couples he counsels, "does your face light up, or does your look say the warden has just come onto the cellblock?" He tells them their children can't help but notice these interactions and form some opinions about their own goals for a romantic relationship when they become adults.

Still, Maurer says, the research done by Conger does send an optimistic message to some parents that all is not lost if a divorce is inevitable. Divorcing parents might consider continuing counseling sessions together even after the divorce is final, Maurer tells WebMD, to work on their parenting skills. He sees some divorced couples who continue seeking his advice so they can be effective parents together, even though they are no longer romantic partners.

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