Hostility in Relationships: Protecting Children from Toxic Fighting

Parents argue while their son looks depressed about it.What is happening in your child’s body as they observe you and your partner fight it out over your latest trust issue? If it’s anything near the results taking place in your own body, they can actually taste the level of toxicity of the argument. As parents, we are hypervigilant about the level of toxins in our children’s food, playgrounds, and classrooms, but we can be selectively blind to the level of toxins passed on through our relationship.

At the most primitive level (where most of our life decisions take place), we have mixed instincts about the risks and rewards of our relationship. Recent findings from immunologist Ronald Glaser and clinical psychologist Jan Kiecolt-Glaser show that a skin blister can take one to two days longer to heal after a hostile dispute with one’s partner. Hostility actually weakens the immune systems of all those within its range. Combine this alarming knowledge with the results of over 150 years of study in the field of epidemiology, assuring us that married couples are much healthier and live longer than unmarried people. Somehow we reconcile our negative feelings with the greater hopes of a long and lasting union: “Sure the fights feel terrible but a divorce would definitely feel worse.”

With the arrival of children, the costs and benefits of a hostile relationship change entirely. Babies are not built with the long view in mind. You find that your words, your tone, your entrance and exits from stress are forming the very basis of these new beings’ identities. Not only that, but in the eyes of your children, you and your partner are one. Suddenly, now as a parent, your success is measured not by arguments won or lost but by the level of honesty and empathy applied even to your most difficult conflicts. Your children need to feel a loving and peaceful context for their life and they need it now, not later.

Yet with the magic of your first years as parents come the most strenuous challenges to your relationship. Negotiating your different parenting styles, assuming shared roles of leadership, transitioning away from the influence of grandparents, finding time to nurture your intimacy and connection, tasks like these require a full-court press of engagement that doesn’t take place without considerable stress and conflict. Change comes hard sometimes. Here are some new goals to focus on while building a less hostile relationship with your partner:

  • Spend predictable time together
  • Soften your communication style
  • Know how to calm down/repair
  • Accept and understand the influence of your partner
  • Speak up for what you need
  • Learn to care for yourself while yielding with love and compassion

Remembering that your relational style sets the tone for your child’s future need not paralyze you from addressing conflicts or from feeling your anger. Rather it can embolden you to keep these larger goals at the forefront. Succumbing to criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or shutting off may seem to have worked for you in the past. Seeing these coping strategies, instead, as toxins that directly impact you and your child’s immune system may prompt you to establish new shared strategies together. Reducing the toxins in your home requires some intelligent empathy and purified communication skills. Take time to speak about your shared goals as partners, listen carefully to each other, and get help when you need it.


Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ronald Glaser, et al. (1993). Negative Behavior During Marital Conflict Is Associated With Immunilogical Down-Regulation. Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol 55.

© Copyright 2011 by By Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kayla

    February 8th, 2011 at 5:12 PM

    I think that it is very important for kids to see the reality of a relationship and not to hide things from them. That does not mean that it is ok to have a knock down drag out fight in fromt of them but I do happen to think that it is ok for them to see that parents can fight and argue like adults and can then make up. That these things do not mean that you do not love one anoother, just that sometimes adults have disagreements but that with effective communication they can also find a way to resolve it.

  • brian hill

    February 8th, 2011 at 7:19 PM

    I completely agree with what you’ve said here.Not only do children suffer due to their parents quarelling but they also pick up these thongs and it may lead them to unruly behavior at school or outside.Also,it can destroy their faith in the institution of marriage,which is definitely a very negative thing to happen.

  • HUGH

    February 9th, 2011 at 6:01 AM

    Most of the homes where kids are either drug addicts or even alcoholics have hostile conditions and are broken homes. The absence of both the parents is a major blow to a child psyche.

  • lacey

    February 9th, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    Jonathan this article makes so much sense. I came from a family where my parents were not good parenting partners, and I feel emotionally/relationally crippled from it. I had to relearn patterns of relating to people later in life, because my early role models were no good! Interestingly, I was also a very sickly child. I wonder if things would have been different if my parents could have worked together better and fought less.

  • Holly MC

    February 9th, 2011 at 1:33 PM

    I am the poster child for what a home growing up should not look like. My parents went through a very acrimonious divorce when I was 9 or 10 and that put a real scar on how i feel about getting into a relationship now. I know that adults can be civil but mine never ever showed me that type of relationship. Are there loving marriages out there? I know that they are but I have never been an eye witness to one. What a way to skew my whole view of love right?

  • PC

    February 9th, 2011 at 7:37 PM

    @Holly MC:I am sorry about how you feel but you need to realize that it’s not the case with everyone and that there is someone special just for you! Speak to your friends and I’m sure nobody is unfit to be in a relationship. You will discover the joys if love and care along the way. All the very best friend! :)

  • Jonathan Bartlett

    February 9th, 2011 at 11:27 PM

    The picture chosen for my article by the folks at goodtherapy really speaks volumes. Like the girl with her hands over her eyes, children instinctively try to close themselves off from witnessing disagreements that have gone out of control. Yet, like your comments attest, the out of control feelings can take a lifetime to release. I agree with PC’s supportive comment. Each new relationship offers an opportunity to reinvent ways to communicate difficult feelings. I also appreciate kayla’s view that children are resilient and equally sensitive to how their parents repair hurt feelings. Relating honestly to those we care about takes practice, hope, and forgiveness. These are the antibodies and good medicine that we can make sure get passed on along the way.

  • Jon

    February 10th, 2011 at 1:59 PM

    Some “adults” fail to recognize the damage they are doing to their children when they keep them involved in a toxic relationship. I think that poster Holly MC is a perfect example of this The parents forget about anyone else involved and are only thinking of themselves. And before long the damage is done and kids no longer trust themselves and the feelings that they have about other people. You know, that kind of thing really ticks me off because I think that as a parent your number one goal should be to protect your kids from feeling like this and yet so many seem hell bent on sharing the pain that they are going through.

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