This is the first in a four-part series.
It may sound like just plain common sense: What goes on in our families affects what goes on in us. For a long time, however, psychotherapists pretended that they could conveniently ignore that fact. They wanted to treat people as individuals immune to the family life they came out of and would return to.
It often didn't work. And eventually a whole new discipline -- marriage and family therapy -- came into being. Based on the assumption that we are all affected by our relationships -- past, present and future -- marriage and family therapists sought to work with couples and families together to make things better for everyone involved.
A lot has been learned in the process. Perhaps the most important discoveries have been around just how much children are influenced -- for better or worse -- by their parents' marriages. In fact, many of the emotional problems children experience can be directly related to some sort of problem between their mothers and fathers.
Of course, problems are a normal part of being married. Even the healthiest of marriages has rough times now and then. Such problems have a negative impact on our children, however, when we fail to resolve them constructively.
For example, the anxiety, anger and overall tension in our marital interactions can easily spill over into our interactions with our children. We may express toward our children the negative emotions we have toward our spouse, leaving them feeling confused and rejected.
Likewise, unresolved parental problems can threaten our child's sense of "world stability." Our children do not know how we will respond to them. Family life takes on a disconcerting element of uncertainty and unpredictability.
When our marriage problems continue to go unresolved, our children also can begin to fear the total disintegration of the family. Fantasies of losing one parent or the other and other catastrophic effects of the ending of a family can become increasingly real to the children who see their parents incessantly battling.
Sadly, many children also assume they are responsible for their parents' chronic conflict. Believing that "if I just hadn't been born" or "if I was just good enough" there would be no fighting, such children sink beneath a load of guilt that is not theirs to bear.
Finally, older children often will feel they must take sides in such situations. They may seek to bolster the seemingly weaker parent, or ally against the parent they believe is "causing" the problem.
We parents often are unaware of our children's response to our marital problems. Yet there are a number of clues our children may give us: withdrawal, school failure, angry "acting out," over-involvement in our marital interactions, dependency, chronic physical illness, even regression to behaviors characteristic of a younger child (for example, a 12-year-old who starts sucking his thumb).
With such potentially catastrophic consequences, it might seem best to avoid marital conflict at all costs. Yet, as we noted earlier, that simply is not possible. Conflict in marriage is inevitable. Luckily, it can also be constructive for us, and for our children.
When we successfully deal with our differences as husbands and wives, we can teach our children a set of skills that will serve them well in their own relationships. And as they closely watch us work through our conflict, they will learn that marriages can survive the expression of differences, even when frustration, hurt or anger are involved.
Our marital problems, then, can have both negative and positive impact on our children. Assuming that we'd like to maximize the positive, let me suggest some things we can do:
• Settle problems when they come up, or as soon as possible.
• Don't involve the children in our conflicts.
• Don't let the emotions from our marital difficulties influence how we interact with our children.
• Reassure our children that our conflicts are normal and solvable.
• Stress to our children that they are not part of the problem.
• Use therapy if our problems persist. And tell our children we're getting help. Get help for them, too, if they are having problems themselves.
Our children always will be influenced by the quality of our marriages. And our marriages always will involve some conflict. As parents, then, it is our responsibility to use our conflict constructively to teach our children the lessons they need to learn about themselves and about the relationships in which they live.
Next week: When Mom and Dad fail.