Marriage Lessons Are Learned In Childhood

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Phil McGraw, a noted behavior medicine specialist and author of Relationship Rescue once said to a couple seeking help for marital conflict, "Every time you fight, you change who your children are."

Many parents don't realize that their toddlers have already acquired blueprints of their own marriage that is 15 or 20 years away and will be surprised to know that these blueprints are basically imprints of their marriage. In the years to follow, some childhood impressions of parental marriage will fade, many will become even sharper and others will be modified.

Children continue playing "mom" and "dad" right through their own marriages as spouses and parents. They are either trying to be like their parents or trying real hard to be not like them. Many feel compellingly drawn to the parental marriage model and simply ape the examples learned during childhood, "That's what my mom and dad did." Others react to what they had witnessed in their parents' marriage and feel compelled to avoid it, "I don't want to be like my father (or mother)." But, couples don't always consciously decide which behaviors or examples they would choose. Many times couples unconsciously imitate or react to parental behavior as partners.

Some parents think they are "careful," that is, that they only fight when children are out of the house, sleeping in their bedroom or playing in another part of the house. They believe that they are protecting their children from the likely pain and hurt. The fact is that children have super efficient antennae. They watch their parents closely. They pretty much know what's going on behind their back and out of their sight.

Not just the arguments, children learn a lot of things from their parents' relationship, both obvious and subtle. As an example of obvious, they learn how parents talk to each other, resolve their differences, and express their emotions. As an example of subtle, they learn about the level of mutual support, respect and trust that exists between parents and the degree of priority and commitment exhibited by them towards their marriage.

Couples conduct their relationship by a set of definite rules and beliefs as for example, "Husbands always decide about important financial matters (rule);" and "Women should never be trusted (belief)." How do couples "know" those rules and form those beliefs, if not, at least to a large extent, from the marriage they witnessed in their childhood?

Take for example, a boy child, "John." John on numerous occasions has witnessed that whenever his mother makes a suggestion or offers ideas about such matters as John's schooling, moving to another neighborhood, or buying a car, his father assumes a dismissive attitude and makes derisive comments. John "knows" that men have real power and women are laughable and stupid.

Take another scenario. "Jane" is growing up in a home where father is often given to angry outbursts. Whenever, there is a disagreement between parents or something doesn't go the way father wants it, he screams and yells at her mother. Mother doesn't say a word but when nobody is watching she quietly cries. Whenever, Jane has "caught" her mother crying, she wipes her tears, smiles, and tries to distract Jane by talking to her about some unrelated matter. Jane grows up to believe that disagreements should be avoided at all cost as they lead to violence and pain. She has learned that a woman must always hide her pain and tell no one.

In still another scenario, "Robin" grew up watching her father completely dominating her mother. Mother never raised her voice, always followed father's words like the law, and never tried to defend or come to Robin's help whenever her father acted as a tyrant towards her. Robin grew up with the resolve that she would never let any man get an upper hand over her. Needless to say that in her marriage, she overreacts to even the slightest hint of a threat of domination. She is uncompromising, unrelenting, and unable to negotiate on any matters with her husband. Her husband has started calling her a "control freak" and their marriage is headed for a divorce.

All bantering parents should be told this, "Children don't thrive and stay happy and healthy just on your love alone. They need your love, harmony and respect as much if not more." Loving a child may not be enough unless the child is living in a loving home.

A study shows that preschoolers, who were growing up in homes where marital hostility was the pattern, had chronically elevated levels of stress hormones. You already know that chronic elevation of stress hormones is harmful for a child's present and future health. Read on. The researchers followed these preschoolers through 15 years of age and found that compared to other children of their age, they had a higher rate of truancy, peer rejection, failing grades and depression.

So parents who think in such terms as, "I just have a terrible relationship with my spouse (or my ex-) but I love my child with all my heart, so my child should be okay," need to rethink about the impact of negative parental interaction on their children.

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Copyright 2000, Mind Publications 


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