The “Dirty Bird” Effect

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October 14, 2008

When I was engaged to be married to my wife we once visited her great-uncle. He and his wife had a wonderful marriage and seemed content and loving in their older years. At the end of the visit he pulled me aside and said, “I understand that you want to marry into our family.” I reported in the affirmative, expecting some sage advice. What he said next will always remain seared to my brain. He said, “If you want to be happy in your marriage you need to remember, . . . It is a Dirty Bird who poops in his own nest.” This advice caught me off guard, but as I have passed through 17 years of marriage it comes back to my memory on many occasions.

While the advice relates to many aspects of marriage and marital interactions I want to speak to the issue of couple conflict and the effects on children. I previously wrote that marital conflict is strongly related to coronary heart disease and the build-up of plaque in the arteries for adults. However, the impact on children is equally devastating. When we look closely at marital conflict, we see an important linkage between the quality of the couple relationship and the quality of the parent-child relationship. Aspects of the couple relationship “spill over” into the parent-child relationship, which then directly affects children’s outcomes. Likewise, the positive aspects of the couple relationship appear to promote positive parenting. However, what has not received as much attention is the fact that the negative conflict within the couple relationship also directly affects the physiology of children and adolescents.

El-Sheikh and colleagues at Auburn University research the effect of mild to moderate couple conflict on children’s sleep patterns, and subsequent health indicators. The results are astounding. Conflict impacts the amount and the quality of sleep for children, which in turn is associated with physical and emotional problems. Marital conflict negatively impacting their children’s amount and quality of sleep had devastating repercussions on academic performance, behaviors, and health. El-Sheikh and colleagues found that these children scored lower on IQ and academic tests, had lower academic performance, were more inattentive, poorer concentrators, and more hyperactive. In other research, Redline and colleagues recently reported that adolescent who sleep less than 7 hours a night doubled the risk for high blood pressure, while those with troubled sleep have triple the risk. The culprit for many of the adolescents with disruptive sleep was family conflict.

It seems that the conflict impacts the physiological functioning of the children and changes the body. Exposure to stress and conflict for the children changes the way the body metabolizes food, leading to greater fat storage. Sleep disturbances are related to imbalanced hormone levels, affecting appetite, especially carbohydrate cravings, and metabolism. It should be no surprise that sleep problems are associated with higher BMI (weight gain), and immune problems with children. Children experience digestive problems, chronic health problems and acute illness more frequently. When conflict becomes more severe and couples turn to physical violence children exhibit lower resistance to illness and greater overall health problems.

Chronic marital conflict is also related to emotional and behavior problems in adolescents, lower school performance, higher truancy, and greater drop-outs. It is also related to increased substance abuse, criminal activity, and delinquent behaviors.

It is essential to remember, however, that not all marital conflict is bad. The existence of conflict is not necessarily detrimental to the marital well-being. It is how each partner engages the other in conflict, whether both participate, and whether it is managed.

There is definitely constructive and destructive conflict. Constructive conflict involves listening, attempting to understand, looking for solutions, compromise, expressing positive humor. Destructive conflict includes name calling, yelling, interrupting, threatening to leave or hurt others, hitting, slapping, pushing, and conflict avoidance. While neither list is exhaustive it is apparent that there is a qualitative difference in constructive versus destructive conflict. Happy couples regulate the emotional negativity within the conflict. Couples who are able to regulate their marital discords reported more satisfaction. These couples are also get less physically aroused, which decreases the ever destructive pattern of the “wife demanding-husband withdrawing.” This pattern of behavior is a killer of positive relational affect.

If you find yourself in a negative spiral of destructive conflict – and you, your spouse, or both of you are behaving like a “Dirty Bird” – then take a marital enhancement class or communication seminar. They are not only beneficial to the marriage, but also greatly impact how well your child or adolescent is doing. For more information about such courses call 1-888-together.

To Be Continued: Skills Training for constructive conflict.

Dr. Scott Ketring, Co-Principal Investigator, ACHMI and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

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