Affection and Conflict in Marital and Parent-Child Relationships

By Fauchier, Angele; Margolin, Gayla | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Affection and Conflict in Marital and Parent-Child Relationships


Fauchier, Angele, Margolin, Gayla, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


In this study, we examined affection and conflict in marital and parent-child relationships, as reported by mothers, fathers, and 9- and 10-year-old children in a community sample of 87 families. Affection and conflict were inversely related within relationships, with mixed findings across relationships. Most reports showed an association between marital and parent-child conflict as well as between marital and parent-child affection. According to fathers, however, the association between marital affection and father-child affection is moderated by marital conflict. Clinical implications of the associations between positive and negative dimensions of family interaction and of the links between marital and parent-child relations are discussed.

Although family relationships often are thought of as discrete entities, there is increasing evidence that each relationship affects and is affected by other relationships (Cox & Paley, 1997; Hinde & Stevenson-Hinde, 1988). In addition, the complex association between positive and negative dimensions of relationships has received growing attention. Conflict, as a frequently used index of aversive family environments, is negatively associated with relationship satisfaction and cohesion, but the presence of conflict does not imply the absence of positive relationship dimensions in the marriage (Christensen & Walczynski, 1997) or in parent-child relationships (Cox, Brooks-Gunn, & Paley, 1999; Forgatch & DeGarmo, 1999). Researchers have closely examined the linkages between the marital and the parent-child relationships, with a particular focus on how conflict in the marriage can disrupt parenting (Cox, Paley, & Harter, 2001; Erel & Burman, 1995). In the search for explanations of negative child outcomes, research has concentrated on the impact of marital conflict as an important destabilizing force on parent-child relationships. However, studies of the link between marital conflict and parenting generally have not taken into consideration the dimension of marital affection. In this article we investigate the association between conflict and affection within the marital and the parent-child subsystems and examine the associations across subsystems. We further explore whether marital conflict and affection, taken together, have a greater effect on parenting than either conflict or affection alone.

Family systems theories posit that interactions in one family subsystem influence other family subsystems (Minuchin, 1988). The spillover or transmission of affect hypothesis (Erel & Burman, 1995; Repetti, 1987) provides one explanation for the mechanism of influence across family subsystems. Other researchers have proposed that family subsystems influence each other by way of the intrapersonal characteristics or underlying psychopathology of one family member. That is, because an individual's characteristics are reflected in how a person behaves across relationships, the emotional tone of multiple family relationships can be set by one person (Cowan, Cowan, Heming, & Miller, 1991; Engfer, 1988). These explanations suggest that positive or negative affect can be transferred across family relationships.

A number of studies support the general assumption that there is an association between marital and parent-child relations, but do not necessarily support the explanations discussed above. Erel and Burman (1995) offer the most comprehensive evidence of the linkage between the marital dyad and the parent-child dyad. Their meta-analysis of 68 studies shows that more negative parent-child relationships are found in families with more negative marital relationships and, conversely, more positive parent-child relationships are found in families with more positive marital relationships. As reviewed by Crockenberg and Covey (1991), evidence supports that conflict in marriage is associated with negative parenting behaviors, including parental intrusiveness (Brody, Pelligrini, & Sigel, 1986), psychological control and rejection (Fauber, Forehand, Thomas, & Wierson, 1990), and parent-child aggression (Jouriles, Barling, & O'Leary, 1987). …

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