High Conflict Marriages and Their Impact on Children #2–And the Research Says. . .

So Jordan continued to work hard to try not to see what was before his eyes. He would tell me that the mileage on Jesse’s car didn’t add up to what it should have if she had been where she had said she was going, and he even, feeling dirty as he did, once called a friend where Jesse said she was, only to find out, as he knew he would, that she had never been there.

But he was stuck. Aside from a fear of divorce for himself, he felt he simply couldn’t ‘do it’ to his children. He had answered the second question from the first post on this topic with a resounding: I must stay for the children.

And despite some of the more ‘positive research,’ if we can call it that, that I address in another post, on divorce’s impact on children, there is still a general societal sense–and research to back it up–that divorce is difficult on children.   [See the New York Times article from 2005 entitled, “Poll says even quiet divorces affect children’s paths,” for just one example.]

But the question we need to address here is not that of ‘quiet divorces’ and low-conflict marriages. Rather it is what is the impact of high interparental conflict on the children, even among intact families.

In a somewhat older but still relevant paper, DR Morrison from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and Department of Demography at Georgetown University and MJ Coiro from the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health wrote that separation and divorce are indeed associated with increases in behavior problems in children. “However,” they continue in their paper entitled “Parental conflict and marital disruption: Do children benefit when high-conflict marriages are dissolved?” in Journal of Marriage and the Family (August, 1999), “in marriages that do not break up, high levels of marital conflict are associated with even greater increases in children’s behavior problems” [italics mine].

Even further, they write, “Indeed, the adverse effect of frequent marital quarrels is larger than the deleterious effect of separation and divorce.”

I saw it again when  sociologists Alan Booth and Paul Amato from Pennsylvania State University asserted in their February 2001 article in the same publication that “. . .divorce among high-conflict couples appears to have a relatively benign or even beneficial effect.”

But wait–there’s more!

David Mechanic & Stephen Hansell, sociologists at Rutgers University, found in a 1989 study [decades ago, when divorce retained more of its bad name than it does today] entitled “Divorce, Family Conflict and Adolescents’ Well-Being , “. . .that those in high-conflict, married families had significantly poorer adjustment than those in low-conflict, divorced families.”

AND, Constance Gager, Associate Professor of Child and Family Studies at Montclair State University, said in an interview that “[t]he basic implication is, ‘Don’t stay together for the sake of the children if you’re in a high conflict marriage.'”

In other words, Jordan was doing his children no favor by staying. If you’re living in a high-conflict marriage, with significant amounts of screaming and yelling, with emotional and verbal abuse, the answer to should you stay or should you go, if you’re considering your children, might just well be a vote for the “go” side.



I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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