When You Argue with Your Spouse, Your Kids Pay the Price, Even as Adults


I just read an article published online yesterday and due to appear in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Family Issues. It reports a new study showing that college students, ages 18 to 21, almost all of them living away from home at a private religious college and a state university, pay a steep price for their parents’ arguments back home.
What price? Depression if they feel frightened by the arguing (frightened someone will get hurt or the family will break up, with emotional and economic consequences). And anxiety if they believe or have been told they cause the disagreements. The more intense the arguments and the more frequent, the more depression and anxiety. As if college and leaving home were not tough enough.
The researchers make it clear they can’t prove which causes which. They cannot ethically depress their students and check whether doing so makes them more frightened by their parents’ arguments. They cannot ramp up their students’ anxiety to see if it leads more of them to think the arguments back home are their fault. And they cannot check whether depressed and anxious college students living away from home somehow drive their parents to fight more. But their best guess — that the fights at home can cause depression if they are frightening without any sense of control and anxiety if the student feels responsible — sure sounds right, doesn’t it?
The authors, Christine R. Keeports and Laura D. Pittman of Northern Illiinois University, also include a review of the findings from earlier research their work builds upon. Here goes:

  • Children exposed to higher levels of frequent, intense, and poorly resolved conflict are more maladjusted.
  • Among children, more severe conflict (more intense, longer lasting, less often resolved) correlates with more negative outcomes.
  • Negative outcomes of severe interparental conflict are similar for adolescents and young children.
  • Young adults exposed to more interparental conflict during childhood or adolescence experience more depressive symptoms as young adults and are more likely to experience major depressive disorder, alcohol abuse, or dependency disorder.
  • Young adults who were exposed as adolescents to more interparental conflict experience more symptoms of depression and anxiety as young adults.
  • Within their own marriages, adult children who experienced more conflict in their families growing up typically demonstrate lower marital adjustment.
  • What children blame for the arguments affects their level of distress, with the greatest distress, hopelessness, and despair felt by those who feel themselves as the reason for the arguments, less (but still a lot) by those who blame a stable, outside influence like parents do not love each other, and the least by those who blame a situational outside influence like a bad day at work.
  • While threat and self-blame are greatest for children ages 10 to 14, they continue to be a problem for adolescents and young adults, with their perception of threat affecting their self-esteem, competence, and identity integration.
  • And the problem may be increasing, as young adults from intact families now stay in much closer contact with their families than in previous generations, presumably because more are in college and marry later.

So, how can you protect your children? Learn how to argue a lot less:

  1. Learn to Find Third Alternatives instead of debating two you’ll never agree on or accepting compromises that make both of you equally unhappy.
  2. Choose to Expect Love and question some of your other expectations of what married people should do and what it means when they don’t.
  3. Before you jump into battle over alarming behavior that doesn’t immediately threaten your safety or financial security, Assume Love and consider some more likely explanations for the behavior.

You’ll be happier when you can get what you need without an argument, and you’ll probably feel a lot better with happy, hopeful, secure kids, even if they’ve already left the nest. And especially when they are raising your grandchildren.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • My parents argued and bickered a lot. It definitely had an effect on me throughout my childhood and adolescence. It was very stressful. Not only that, but the behavior they were modeling did nothing to help me in future relationships. If only my parents had looked for third alternatives instead of turning everything into a battle of wills.

  • How I wish we could help every married couple learn to resolve their disagreements in a mutually beneficial way and release a lot of the resentment that fuels those arguments, Baby Mama. Keep on blogging! Let’s see how many we can reach.

  • Same here, Rosemary! Let’s make sure no more generations have to grow up with such unhappy parents, fighting for the first way they can think of for getting what they want instead of seeking another way that benefits them and the most important person in their world and their children’s world.

  • My parents went through two or three years of bitter bickering when I was in high school and got along substantially better before and after. The anxiety I experienced started and stopped at the same time as their period of bickering.
    I agree that it’s reasonable to assume causation, even if we can’t prove it for sure!

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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