This is the ninth in a series about common conflicts in contemporary families.
Q: What are the effects of family conflicts on various family members?
A: When couples divorce, several risks for children might be activated. First is the loss of a parent that occurs after divorce if the noncustodial parent eventually loses contact with the children. Another outcome of divorce for many children is a loss of income as they become children in single-parent families. Usually the mother is awarded residential custody, and these children have less income than they would have living with both parents or fathers. Along with a divorce comes many other changes. Examples are changing homes, schools, childcare providers and friends, all of which are interrelated.
The compromised mental health of one or both parents frequently follows divorce and causes subsequent mental-health issues for the children. Depression and anxiety are among the most common mental health problems. Parental incompetence after divorce is a significant concern because of the effect that incompetence has on children who already are hurting after divorce.
Conflict between parents is not just a problem after divorce. Such strife always negatively affects children, but such conflict is especially traumatic after divorce when children are vulnerable. The most destructive parental conflicts occur when parents communicate through the children, pressure them to take sides and sabotage the other parent. Economic loss is not in itself a main player in divorce, but the disruptions that result from a drop in income or just the changes after divorce, when both ex-spouses are likely to move, sets up inevitable changes.
Repeated changes are cumulative in negative effects. The more change, the more stress on children. Multiple remarriages, frequent moves, changes in stepsiblings, multiple stepparents and innumerable loyalty conflicts are situations that stress children.
All children of divorce are not significantly worse off psychologically. But they do carry the painful memories for many years. The most common report from children of divorce years later is feeling the loss of the relationships with their fathers. High conflict between parents after divorce also stresses children.
Another area of distress for children post-divorce is that only a minority of parents talked to them about the impending divorce. Even fewer parents explained why and gave children opportunities to ask questions. In all, children from divorced families and children from intact families have more similarities than differences. The above information is from an article written by Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., University of Illinois Extension.
In an article from the Ministry of Social Development, New Zealand, written by Ross Mackay, he states the differences between intact and divorced families regarding child-wellbeing is not large. Most children of divorce are not significantly affected negatively long-term. Mackay goes on to point out the most significant factor in reducing the negative effects of divorce on children is cooperative parenting between ex-spouses.
Portland State University’s Institute on Aging followed 650 adults during a period of two years. The research revealed repetitive or prolonged conflict was significantly correlated with poorer health, more functional limits and a greater number of health problems, as reported by the subjects of the study. Since stress weakens immunity, that fact might account for the increased toll on health.
Another frequent way conflict affects people is relationship conflict among family members. In a poll conducted by about.com, more than half of those polled reported stress at family events because of conflicts with difficult relatives. Many family members are not comfortable dealing with conflicts among relatives.
Whether or not conflict is open fighting or underlying feelings of anxiety or discomfort, family relationship conflicts stress many people. When get-togethers always involve stress from conflicts, there is also apprehension ahead of time anticipating the ensuing unpleasantness.
Not widely known by people is the fact loneliness and social rejection can actually cause physical pain. The same area of the brain that processes loneliness and social rejection also processes physical pain. Rejection by a loved one or someone close, with frequent and significant conflicts that precipitate feelings of rejection, are examples of relationship circumstances that can cause physical pain.
In relationships in which people never fight, there is a risk of unhealthy consequences. Some conflict is normal in close relationships. When all conflict is repressed, accumulated anger results. Research documents that in relationships where one partner habitually represses anger, partners die at younger ages. When both partners repress anger, these couples have the worst record of longevity.
Finally, poor conflict resolution skills actually can make conflicts worse. One partner unilaterally venting anger is an example of poor conflict resolution.
• Next week’s discussion will continue with effects of family conflicts on family members.
Judy Caprez is professor emeritus at Fort Hays State University.