She paused for a few moments and then responded, "I don't know when children may begin to think their parents are unhappy with each other except, of course, if there are a lot of arguments and fights. My parents didn't argue or fight, but they were not openly affectionate either.
“They were just there, and I never thought about it—nor did I have any other marriages to compare, no grandparents or aunts and uncles around. Then, when I was 12 or 13, my mother began talking to me about how unhappy she was with my father. She told me he was cold, uncaring and, at times, mean. I remember feeling very uncomfortable, like I was being asked to take sides.”
These recollections of a parental marriage were shared with me in one of several exploratory interviews that is a part of the ordination process for the Episcopal Church. The primary intent of the interviews is to screen out aspirants for whom a religious vocation may be psychologically unsuitable. One module of the data that I seek is the pattern of interpersonal relationships across the aspirant’s life. Most of these persons are in midlife, and it is often possible to identify a clear pattern of relationships beginning with early attachment experiences with both parents. Another source of helpful data is the nature of the recalled parental relationship—the adult relationship most persons’ early development is immersed in and reactive to.
In contrast with the thousands of studies of infant and adult attachment patterns, there has been little systematic research on the developmental impact of various parental relationship patterns. Our own research at the Timberlawn Research Foundation in Dallas has demonstrated that observed parental interactions influence a child’s early development independent of his or her relationship with each parent.1 The problem, however, with adult recollections of early-life parental relationships is that they often change over time and may do so outside the person’s awareness. One longitudinal study, for example, reported major changes in the recall of parental warmth from adolescence to midlife.2 Another of our studies revealed that new mothers’ family of origin memories changed in response to the availability and helpfulness of their husbands.3 These findings are part of a growing number that suggest that just as past influences present, the present influences how the past is recalled.
The Episcopal aspirant’s recollections of her childhood experience of her parents’ marriage are not, I believe, unusual. Unless there is obvious discord or clear revelation of marital unhappiness, the child denies that there is anything wrong. It is simply too threatening to believe that one’s world may fall apart. Those readers who are inclined to skepticism about childhood denial need to be aware of studies that document the relationship of parental marital unhappiness to physiologic markers of anxiety in children as young as 4 years.4 It seems clear from such studies that an unhappy parental marriage will probably result in anxiety for at least some of the children. We are not, however, able to say which children are most vulnerable. Can age, sex, sibling rank order, or other relatively straightforward variables be crucial? Or is vulnerability a much more complex process that involves, for example, the child’s affect sensitivity, anxiety level, or early identifications? We simply do not know what factors influence whether a child may be particularly susceptible to what is going on in his parents’ relationship.
We also are ignorant of whether it is simply the lack of parental marital satisfaction that is toxic to some children or whether specific parental relationship patterns are—separate and apart from level of satisfaction—disruptive to vulnerable children’s development. To illustrate, 2 very different relationship patterns can be described. One can be called a “dominant-submissive, complimentary relationship”; the other can be described as a “distant but nonconflicted pattern.”
1. Lewis JM. The Birth of the Family: An Empirical Inquiry. New York: Brunner/Mazel; 1989.
2. Offer D, Kaiz M, Howard KI, Bennett ES. The altering of reported experiences. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2000;39:735-742.
3. Lewis JM, Owen MT. Stability and change in family- of-origin recollections over the first four years of parenthood. Fam Process. 1995;34:455-469.
4. Gottman JM, Katz LF. The effects of marital discord on young children’s peer interaction and health. Dev Psychol. 1989;25:373-381.
5. Wallerstein JS, Blakeslee S. The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co; 1995.
6. Story LB, Karney BR, Lawrence E, Bradbury TN. Interpersonal mediators in the intergenerational transmission of marital dysfunction. J Fam Psychol. 2004; 18:519-529.