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Marital discord

Children notice when parental harmony strikes a sour note

It was a typical argument in a typical marriage. What started as a difference of opinion escalated after several minutes into strong feelings and raised voices. "I can't even remember what Frank and I were discussing," says Jeri Forestieri of New Tripoli, Pa. But neither of them will forget what happened next. As the decibel level increased, their 7-year-old daughter, Tess, quietly picked up her 1-year-old brother, carried him into another room and closed the door behind them. "Frank and I just stopped in our tracks," Forestieri recalls. "We instantly forgot whatever it was we were fighting about and followed Tess to apologize."

What the Forestieris' young daughter taught them in one poignant, symbolic gesture is what researchers have long suspected and are now confirming: The emotional well-being of everyone in a family is directly tied to the quality of the parents' relationship. Make a happy marriage a high priority, and the payoff for your children is huge as well. But when you and your partner aren't getting along, you're not the only ones who feel like walking out of the room and shutting the door. It doesn't matter whether you have no-holds-barred blowups or give each other the silent treatment, says E. Mark Cummings, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and coauthor of "Children and Marital Conflict: The Impact of Family Dispute and Resolution" (Guilford, 1994). "Kids pick up on the emotional as well as the verbal — they know what's going on."

The kid-conflict connection

Even the very youngest of children can pick up on the subtleties of happy and unhappy marriages. A study of 50 couples with 3-month-old infants found that the babies of unhappy marriages showed a markedly lower capacity for joy, concentration and self-soothing than babies whose parents had thriving relationships. These couples had been part of an ongoing study by John Gottman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington and author of "The Relationship Cure," and he knew they were already struggling. "They were increasingly avoiding each other — there was a lot of emotional withdrawal," he says. "When they tried to discuss a conflict, they became critical and defensive, and sometimes contemptuous."

And when he videotaped these parents playing with their babies, he found that the couples weren't in sync, either: They weren't smiling or including each other much in the interaction. Though they weren't fighting right then, their babies' physiological reaction — an accelerated heart rate — nonetheless reflected the quality of the marriage.

In another study, Gottman's research team took hourly urine samples of 63 preschoolers over a 24-hour period. The 3- and 4-year-olds who were being raised in homes with what Gottman characterizes as "great marital hostility" had markedly higher levels of stress hormones than those children whose parents' marriages were stable.

The health consequences of this extreme kind of stress may not be known until these kids reach middle age, but the behavioral ramifications are already clear, Gottman says. His study followed the children through age 15, and the kids of the troubled marriages had a significantly higher incidence of truancy, depression, peer rejection, low school achievement and behavior problems — especially aggression.

Conversely, says Pamela Jordan, Ph.D., coauthor of "Becoming Parents: How to Strengthen Your Marriage as Your Family Grows" (John Wiley & Sons, 2001), the children of happily married couples are, well, happier. They have more advanced social skills, do better in school, aren't as likely to succumb to depression during stressful times and act out less.

Cummings is now in the early stages of researching the impact of good marriages, and his initial findings suggest that the better coping skills found in these kids are the result of what he calls their "enhanced emotional security." When children grow up in a home that feels safe instead of tense, they're better able to cope with life's smaller disappointments. They also tend to approach the world in a much more positive way.

Emotional money in bank

Many couples believe that putting their marriage first means putting the kids second. When their children are young, parents may be too emotionally tied to the baby to disappear for long weekends together or too strapped to go out for a candlelit dinner. As their kids get a little older, though, they may feel they can get away — and reap the benefits. "When our first child turned 2, we went to St. Barts and rediscovered everything that had made us best friends and lovers in the first place," says Forestieri. "After that trip, we found a sitter and began to go out to dinner a couple of times a month."

But it's not just the whistles and bells of romance — weekend getaways, expensive gifts, all-night lovemaking — that make a marriage happy. Satisfied couples, says Gottman, are constantly putting "emotional money in the bank." That is, they work to create an environment that nurtures the relationship. This trust-building, says Gottman, "allows them to have a more gentle approach to conflict. They can repair the relationship when things aren't going well."

So how do you get that kind of currency in the bank? Develop a culture of appreciation. Take time each day to thank each other for small favors. This is one facet of a happy marriage in which my husband truly shines. Haywood never fails to thank me for making dinner. If it's his turn to cook, he thanks me for loading the dishwasher. He genuinely appreciates even the most unremarkable tasks I do for our family.

And create small rituals of connection. Eat dinner together every night without the television on, even if it's just a frozen pizza. Give each other a six-second kiss when leaving or coming back together. Hug each other before drifting off to sleep. These rituals can help the marriage withstand the stresses that come up so often.

"I often send my husband notes on his pager or call to say I'm looking forward to our evening together. It doesn't take a lot of effort, but I know it's in the back of his mind all day," says Suzanne Dannenmueller, a mother of two in Paducah, Ky.

It's all in the teamwork

Too often, couples founder when fathers feel edged out by what they see as their wives' greater physical involvement and competence with the baby. Feeling unnecessary, these dads may withdraw, putting into play a marriage-busting domino effect. When the father becomes emotionally and physically unavailable, the exhausted mother feels abandoned and resentful. These are perfect conditions for conflict, so it's not surprising that 70 percent of mothers report a precipitous drop in marital satisfaction after a first child is born, according to Gottman.

The other 30 percent have husbands who are fully involved in the transformation to parenthood. If fathers are part of the team, says Gottman, "if they make the change from a 'me' to a 'we' orientation, then the marriage gets closer rather than distant."

So whether it's spending the afternoon feeding and snuggling with the baby or getting their toddler dressed in the mornings, dads need to pitch in. And just as key, mothers must make a conscious effort to include their mates more in the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting and try to resist the impulse to criticize the way they do things. "Different doesn't mean wrong," says Elisa Morgan, coauthor of "When Husband & Wife Become Mom and Dad." "We need to make room for each other's styles of parenting."

The benefits of this "we're-wearing-the-same-team-jersey" approach extend to kids, too. As the mother of three boys, I've learned that when my sons clear the table as my husband loads the dishwasher, the family is getting more than a tidy kitchen: My kids are getting a father who can interact with them on many more levels than he would just during a game of after-dinner catch, and my future daughters-in-law will get husbands who understand what a 50-50 marriage really looks like.

Talk, talk, talk

One of the fastest routes to marital harmony is to keep current with each other. Which means finding a way — somehow, somewhere — to talk about the big and small stuff that's going on in your lives. Moe Hill, a father of three in Nashville, says that he and his wife, Jess, do "a lot of talking. And if we ever go a whole day without having a real conversation, it feels as if something important is somehow missing."

Sometimes finding time to talk freely takes creativity. You may have to put the cranky baby in her car seat and drive around the block several dozen times while you chat in the front seat or pop in a Barney video on Saturday morning and let your preschooler veg out while you linger over coffee. Sometimes you just have to stay up late: After Christine and David Laikind of Troy, Mich., get 8-year-old Chloe into bed at around 9 p.m., "it's not unusual," Christine says, "for us to turn off the television and sit on the couch and talk until midnight."

Ground rules of fighting

Of course, no matter how much a couple tries to stay connected, spats are inevitable. When kids come along, there are more issues to fight about and more day-to-day stress to complicate them. It's the intensity of the disagreement and how you deal with it that matters. To avoid the kind of yelling, blaming, name-calling fight that does real damage to both your marriage and your children, says Jordan, you need some ground rules.

For starters, that means agreeing to disagree. "Parents aren't always going to see things the same way," says Cummings, "but from a child's point of view, what matters is whether his parents are relatively amicable about it." Disagreements that happen in the context of a generally peaceful relationship aren't upsetting to the child. Even if there's no resolution on the specific topic of conflict, there's resolution within the relationship, and that's reassuring to kids.

And pick your time and place. "If you're having a heated discussion," says Jordan, "you need to stop and say, 'You know what? We aren't getting anywhere with this.' " Then make a plan for continuing the conversation at a better time — when you've calmed down, the pasta's not boiling over, and, certainly, the kids aren't staring at you fearfully from across the table.

You may also be able to defuse your anger simply by stopping and listening. Often during arguments we get so upset that we aren't able to hear what the other person is saying; we're just waiting for a break in our spouse's monologue so we can deliver our own. Instead, take turns giving your viewpoints in brief sound bites. After one person makes a point, the other one repeats it. Truly hearing your partner's point of view may pave the way for a compromise.

At the times when you do have an argument that gets out of control in front of the kids, make sure they see or know about a happy resolution. Not only are any fears put to rest, says Cummings, but the kids will learn some lessons about apologizing.

Christine and David Laikind have noticed that their daughter gets very quiet when they quarrel. "But when it's over, we tell Chloe that we just had a disagreement and we're OK," explains Christine. "Then she asks for a group hug, and we're all OK."

While parenthood can be exhausting and stressful, under the right conditions it can also bring a couple closer together. And it can bring the marriage to a level of intimacy it never would have reached otherwise. "I never knew the level of patience my husband had until he became a father," says Jeri Forestieri.

The real trick: achieving those conditions for intimacy, and then working to keep them in place. As tough as it is to take time to nourish your relationship, it's dangerously short-sighted not to do so. "There's a pervasive attitude in society that says if your life doesn't revolve around your children, you're selfish," says Jordan. "But the truth is, the best way to be a terrific parent is to love your partner."

Margaret Renkl is a contributing editor. ©The Parenting Group