Conflict management is a key skill for all successful long-term relationships.
It may well be that the key skill in all long-term committed relationships is conflict management--certainly the data on marriages suggest this is true (Gottman 1994). The presence of conflict does not determine the quality of a marriage; rather, how the couple handles conflict situations determines the quality of the relationship (Comstock and Strzyzewski 1990). Even beliefs about conflict are more important to marital, happiness than whether or not the two partners actually agree with one another (Crohan 1992).
How you handle conflict spreads to other members of your family. For example, it has been noted that adult children who are taking care of their parents usually have high levels of conflict with siblings (Merrill 1996). Learning effective skills for dealing with your younger brother or sister is far better than engaging in a family dispute that will affect your children and subsequent generations as well.
Immediate impact of unresolved conflict. Unresolved conflict has tremendous negative impact. It directly affects the parties themselves--the two vice presidents are so absorbed with their conflict that they cannot carry out their normal job duties. In relationships, unresolved conflict leads to drifting away from one another and sometimes jettisoning the relationship entirely. One study even found that the relapse of compulsive gamblers was related to erupting interpersonal conflicts (Lorenz 1989).
Family research is quite clear about the systemwide effects of destructive marital conflict. First, negative conflict between the parents reduces the family's network of friends and creates more loneliness (Jones 1992). Second, conflict between the parents tends to both change the mood of household interactions and also to shift the parents' attention to the negative behaviors of their children (Jouriles and Farris 1992). For example, inter-parental conflict leads to fathers issuing confusing and threatening commands to their sons (Jouriles and Farris 1992). Third, parental conflict has direct negative impacts on the children (Comstock and Strzyzewski 1990). Conflict between parents predicts well-being of the children, with more conflict associated with maladaptive behavior on the part of the kids (Dunn and Tucker 1993; Garber 1991; Grych and Fincham 1990; Jouriles, Bourg, and Farris 1991). For example, children of conflicting parents see conflict as aggressive and have behavior problems and lower academic performance (Buehler et al. 1994). Families with delinquent teenagers are found to be more defensive and less supportive than families without delinquents (Prager 1991). Finally, the effects of destructive conflict patterns suggest that "ongoing conflict at home has a greater impact on adolescent distress and symptoms than does parental divorce" (Jaycox and Repetti 1993, 344).
Long-term impact of unresolved conflict. It isn't just the people who call one another names who have relationship difficulties deriving from conflict. It has been clearly demonstrated that "couples who never engage in conflict are at long-term risk" (McGonagle, Kessler, and Gotlib 1993, 398).
There is evidence that parents who either avoid conflict or engage in negative cycles of mutual damage directly influence the children's subsequent lives. For instance, if your parents avoided conflict, you may be at risk in romantic relationships (Martin 1990). A modest relationship exists between mothers who avoid conflict and their daughters' marital satisfaction (VanLear 1992). On the other end of the continuum, children who are exposed to harsh discipline practices at home (which coincide with a negative and hostile relationship between the parents) are more at risk for aggression, hyperactivity, and internalizing by withdrawing, having somatic complaints, and experiencing depressive symptoms (Jaycox and Repetti 1993). The family effects also reach beyond the immediate environment. One study demonstrated that children from high-conflict homes had much stronger negative reactions while watching a video of angry adults than children from low-conflict homes (El-Sheikh 1994).
Children's own favorableness toward marriage is directly affected by the conflict between their parents. If their parents have frequent conflict, the children have a much less favorable attitude toward marriage (Jennings, Salts, and Smith 1991). A child's general feelings of self-worth are directly affected by interparental conflict (Garber 1991). Finally, it has been fairly well demonstrated that parental conflict has long-term effects on children regardless of family structure (Garber 1991). This means that it isn't primarily the question of whether parents divorce or not that affects the kids but it is the level of conflict present in either the intact family or the restructured family that impacts the children.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
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