How Marital Problems can Harm Children

How Marital Problems can Harm Children

Lori Cluff Schade, PhD, LMFT

We have all experienced that awkward moment of hanging out with a couple who suddenly escalate into an argument, leaving everyone around them feeling uncomfortable.  Heck, I have even been part of that difficult duo on occasion (my apologies to those I have contaminated with my bad mood).  You can be out with another couple having a great time, when suddenly, one person does something that irritates a spouse, and you’re instantly on a battlefield ducking grenades which on impact pollute the air with the fallout of negative emotions.

Take that negative feeling you have when you are around an arguing couple, and multiply it several times over, and you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like for children in a home with parents who chronically argue or ice each other out with coldness and distance.  Too many married couples expose their children to toxic negative emotion regularly without realizing the harm that it can create.  It’s more than just a matter of emotional contagion—It’s a matter of children fearing that their safety in the world will collapse.

If children perceive that marital distress might destabilize their environment (i.e. divorce), their basic emotional security is compromised.  The newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (basically the diagnostic Bible for mental health clinicians) even included a new subcategory of parent-child relational problems labeled, “Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress,” acknowledging that this can be harmful to children.

Children exposed to chronic marital distress are at risk for:

  1. Increased physiological arousal (placing the body in a state of stress)
  2. Decreased ability to regulate their own emotions
  3. Higher levels of depression
  4. Higher levels of child aggression, oppositional defiance or delinquent behavior
  5. Higher levels of social withdrawal
  6. Decreased academic performance
  7. Diminished interpersonal skills

Not all marital conflict is problematic.  It’s not reasonable to expect a marriage to be completely free of conflict.  The difference is that a high quality marriage exudes positive emotion over time which helps children feel safe.  A strong marriage offers protective factors from children.  Here are 7 easy ways to mitigate some of the effects of marital distress:

  1. Let your kids see you repair conflict. Children learn important lessons about conflict resolution when parents talk it out and allow children to see that they can disagree but come back together again.  This is preferable to a household in which children never see parents disagree, because often those people don’t know how to handle conflict in marriage later.
  1. Tell your child what you love about your spouse in front of your children OFTEN.  My children have no doubt that their father loves me because he is known in casual conversation to tell them what it is he loves about me regularly enough that they are sick to death of hearing it.  His ritualistic expressions, however, do engender security.
  1. Bring up a positive marital memory from the past in front of your children. My children love hearing my husband talk about the first time he met me at a dance and broke his “only dance with a girl one time all night rule,” because he just “had to dance with mom again because she was different from the rest.”  Again, it builds security.
  1. Plan an act of service for your spouse with your children. I remember once when my husband was out of town how excited my children were to help me clean his office for him.  We were all in it together, and they couldn’t wait to show him what “Mommy had done,” for him when he came home.
  1. Show positive affection in front of the children. My children see my husband and me hold hands, hug and kiss regularly.  Even though they sometimes yell, “Ewww!!! Get a room!!!”  it helps them witness our relationship as secure, and models healthy marital affection.
  1. Find a way to use humor with the kids and your spouse. Once, my 3 year-old son came running in while I was fixing dinner and exclaimed, “My dad says he’s a big muffin!”  I quizzed, “What?  Dad’s a big muffin?”  He answered, “Just a sec,” ran out and came running back in after checking in with his dad.  He corrected, “Dad says to tell you he’s a studmuffin.”  The whole exchange made me laugh out loud, and we still joke that dad’s a “big muffin.”  Humor binds a family together with memories and positive emotion, building safety.
  1. Don’t threaten divorce in front of your children. In the heat of emotional reactivity, this may seem impossible.  Don’t.  It scares children and sets them on a course for emotional dysregulation.  JUST DON’T!!!!!!

Think about how much effort you put into protecting your children.  Parents work hard to prevent  accidents and injuries, kidnappings, illiteracy, illness, and general distress.  As a marriage therapist, I sometimes wish more effort was put into infusing positive emotion into the marriage.  Don’t be that awkward couple making your kids feel uncomfortable.  Arm them with a shield of marital and family security.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (5th edition) by the American Psychiatric Association (2013), Washington DC

Marital Conflict and Children: an Emotional Security Perspective by E. Mark Cummings and Patrick T. Davies (2011), The Guilford Press: New York.

-Originally published at


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