Marital Conflict Undermines Parents’ Relationships with Children

Parents argue while their son looks awayIf you want to improve your relationship with your children, you may need to begin by improving your marriage, at least according to a new study. The study found that fights between spouses led to strained relationships with children. The strain was most pronounced for fathers.

How Fights Affect Parent-Child Relationships

Researchers asked parents in over 200 families to keep diaries logging marital disagreements and interactions with their children for 15 days. Both mothers and fathers rated their marriages and their relationships with their children at the end of each day. Parents who reported discord within their marriage were more likely to report strain in their relationships with their children.

Mothers were better able to control the effects of marital discord, though. During times of marital conflict, mothers’ relationships with their children were strained for only a day. In fact, researchers found that mothers’ relationships with their children actually improved after the conflict, suggesting that mothers took steps to compensate for the negative effects of marital discord.

For fathers, marital tension spilled over into the next day. The effect was particularly strong in families where the mother showed signs of depression. These fathers’ interactions with their children were particularly negative the day after a marital fight.

The Marriage as a Family Hub

The study’s authors explain their findings by referring to marriages as “hub relationships” that spill over into other family relationships. Marital conflict is a serious family issue, with a 2011 study finding that 22% of couples reported “high” marital conflict, and 60% of couples reported moderate conflict. Only 16% of couples reported little or no conflict.

Conflicts between parents don’t have to be damaging to children, though. Previous research has found that the worst conflicts are those that use destructive language and fighting techniques. According to a 2012 study, children closely observe how their parents disagree with one another. When parents disagree in a respectful way that fosters mutual concern and collaboration, children see fewer negative effects.


  1. Lowry, R. (2012, September 4). Study: Marital conflict affects kids; not all conflict has negative effects. Retrieved from
  2. Parents’ fights may strain bonds with their kids. (2014, August 28). Retrieved from

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  • Chrissa


    September 3rd, 2014 at 11:52 AM

    I never understood this until I had children of my own, but I have come to think that it is better to let your kids see you argue sometimes in front of them so that they can then see you forgive and make up and then let it go.

    My parents never argued in front of me when I was young and it wasn’t that they had this perfect marriage but they just made it a point to rarely have disagreements with us aorund. But I think that what that showed me was that it was better to hold those feelings in instead of getting out what you need to say and then getting over it; and it also made me even more fearful those times that I did sense tension because i had never really witnessed that so I didn’t know how they would react or how to react myself.

    I think that it is much better to show kids that you don’t always have to be on the same page and that that is ok as long as you handle it like adults and then you move on.

  • Jonah


    September 3rd, 2014 at 4:07 PM

    This is why it is of the utmost importance to put the marriage first.
    That is not being mean to the kids
    That is actually building the foundation so that the family can be stronger for them
    I have heard those people who always put the kids forst, and you know what I find with them? That it seems that they are always the ones who have the most problems with their marriages.
    Kids are going to thrive when they have a good and stable home to grow up in. This is what they will have when you are midful of caring for and nurturing the marriage. Everything else is then so much easier when that happens.

  • Tia


    September 4th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    Make things solid and make things right in your relationship before you have kids because they are going to take up so much time and energy at times that you will have very little time leftove for each other at certain points.

  • Beatrice


    September 4th, 2014 at 2:29 PM

    I do not ever want for there to be anything that will come between me and my kids, and that especially means the relationship that I have with my ex husband.
    Sure we don’t agree on everything, obviously because we are divorced, but we try to keep the kids away when we have a disagreement and come to an adult conclusion and resolution before we let them back in.
    This works for us and for the kids because doing us allows us to be untied and for their not to be this huge rift that comes between all of us and our relationship.
    Sometimes it is not easy but you have to determine that you are going to be an adult for the sake of your children.

  • Harriett


    September 5th, 2014 at 1:20 PM

    I kind of think that moms try to make it up to their kids after they have witnessed some sort of marital conflict. It is as if we think that if we make it up to the kids and repair those relationships then the other will be okay. I think that men are on the flip side of that, and they have a tendency to carry around that anger and that continues to spill over into the relationships with their children.

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