Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Observations of Marital Conflict and Power: Relations with Parenting in the Triad

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Observations of Marital Conflict and Power: Relations with Parenting in the Triad

Article excerpt

An ethnically diverse sample of 113 families with a 7- to 11-year-old son participated in this study of marital functioning and its relationship with parenting in a family setting. Observations were made of discussions of dyadic marital and triadic family problems. Behavioral observations of marital conflict and balance of power in the marital dyad were compared with observations of rejecting, coercive, withdrawn, and supportive parental behaviors. Results indicated relations between destructive forms of marital conflict and fathers' negative parental behaviors. Results also indicated moderation bv either distress or ethnicity on many of the relations between parenting and the balance of power, suggesting complex and varied links between functioning in the marital subsystem and the family system.

Key Words: marital conflict, parenting, power, triadic interaction.

The theory that family subsystems are interdependent entities and that how family members interact in one subsystem affects relationships and individuals throughout the family has been popular with family clinicians (e.g., Haley, 1987; Minuchin, 1974). Such theorizing has received substantial empirical support from longitudinal and cross-sectional studies focusing on the interconnectedness of different family subsystems. For example, a recent meta-analysis of the literature (Erel & Burman, 1995) convincingly demonstrates that the quality of the interparental relationship is positively linked with the quality of the parentchild relationship, and Fincham ( 1998), in a comprehensive review, documented the relevance of marital quality for studies of child development.

As a matter of good science, the significant empirical gains in this area have led to many questions aimed at furthering knowledge, including what are the pathways through which marriage impacts child development (e.g., Katz & Gottman, 1996). Results of many investigations are consistent with what has come to be called the spillover hypothesis, which states that when the quality of the marriage is poor, difficulties may spill over to the parent-child relationship (Engfer, 1988; Erel & Burman, 1995; Kerig, Cowan, & Cowan, 1993). Given that data indicate that the parent-child relationship is a critical mechanism to consider in the link between marital quality and child development (Fincham, 1998), our study focuses on identifying specific relations between aspects of marital quality and parenting behaviors. In this pair of family subsystems (marital and parental) we attempt to address some of the gaps in the literature. We examine parenting in the context of triadic family interactions, we use a school-aged and multiethnic sample, and we employ a multidimensional assessment of marital quality.


One of the most important questions researchers in the field face at this point is under what conditions do we find marital functioning related to how parents behave with their children (Fincham, 1998). Most studies that examine links between marital quality and parenting have focused on parenting in mother-child dyads and somewhat less frequently in father-child dyads. (See Erel & Burman, 1995, for a review.) From infancy to adolescence, marital quality has been found to be positively associated with warm and sensitive responses from parents (Belsky, 1984; Cox, Owen, Lewis, & Henderson, 1989), and marital problems, such as distress and conflict, have been associated with either intrusive, coercive, rejecting, and power-assertive behaviors or withdrawn and disengaged behaviors. Some research suggests that these relationships are stronger for fathers than for mothers (e.g., Crockenberg & Covey, 1991; Fauber, Forehand, Thomas, & Wierson, 1990; Kerig et al., 1993).

Though some evidence links marital conflict and distress with problematic dyadic parent-child interactions, less is known about the relationship between marital quality and parenting in triadic interactions. …

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