-Written by Katie Little ’18
In recent blog posts, we have discussed the effects of parental divorce on a child’s relationships and attachment style. Attachment style can be understood as a characteristic way an individual perceives and behaves in close relationships as a function of their previous experiences with close relationships. (For more information, please see the following: “Does Attachment Classification Change from Infancy to Adulthood?”, “Does Exposure to Parental Divorce and Separation Affect How We Experience Romantic Relationships?”, or “What Does Attachment Theory Tell Us About Romantic Love?”)
However, while we have established a basic understanding of how parental divorce can affect a child’s later relationships and attachment style, understanding how marital quality can affect parenting behaviors provides an explanation of how this pattern might occur. In 1989, Cox, Owen, Lewis, and Henderson conducted a study regarding the relationship between marital quality and parenting.
They recruited 38 couples who were expecting a baby and administered a semi-structured interview to determine the quality of each couple’s marriage. They then videotaped the couples as they completed a series of tasks, including discussing a major source of disagreement in their marriage and what the most painful and pleasurable aspects of married life were. From the interview and observed interactions, the researchers scored each couple for closeness of the marital relationship and intimacy of communication. The researchers also measured the psychological health of both spouses to look for symptoms of anxiety and depression, so they could consider the effects of these characteristics on parenting and look only at the effects of marital quality on parenting attitudes and behaviors.
Three months after the babies were born, the researchers invited the couples back for a second visit. During this visit, the parents were interviewed individually about their baby and their feelings about the parenting role. The researchers then visited each family in the home to watch and videotape the parents interacting with the child.
From their study, the researchers found that even after removing the effects of any anxiety or depressive symptoms, when a couple had higher scores on the measures of marital quality, mothers generally showed more warmth and sensitivity to their babies’ needs; fathers generally had more positive attitudes about parenthood and the fatherhood role. These results show how marital quality can change the parent-child relationship. While this study did not look at infant attachment or later adult attachment and relationship outcomes for the children, these results provide an avenue for future research in this area.
Cox, M.J., Owen, M.T., Lewis, J.M., & Henderson, V.K. (1989). Marriage, adult adjustment, and early parenting. Child Development, 60(5), 1015-1024.
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