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
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
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