Messages on Marriage Absorbed by Children at Home
by David Gibson
There is virtually universal agreement today that a husband and wife must invest themselves as individuals and as a couple in their marriage. A successful marriage stands as a sign of real effort by the spouses.
What is puzzling is that some people appear to enter marriage with a greater readiness than others to make that sort of investment. For whatever reason, these spouses are not so likely to approach marriage passively or imagine that because they love each other they never will experience problems, or disagree, or even have a very bad day.
But why would some people seem better prepared than others to invest themselves in their marriage?
Part of the answer might be that before their wedding they participated in marriage preparation sessions where they learned strategies for communicating well and for resolving the occasional conflicts that arise for couples.
Marriage preparation programs typically highlight the need of a husband and wife to carve out time for each other, to acknowledge each other’s most positive characteristics in ongoing ways, to avoid competing against each other and to keep recalling how important they are to each other.
But another reason some people are inclined to invest themselves in marriage and work at it may have something to do with their families of origin and the sort of relationships that prevailed there.
A number of researchers are suggesting that, in one way or another, children and teenagers often discover at home that loving relationships are built up through investments of time and effort.
It could be, for example, that when parents commit themselves thoughtfully, consistently and in a caring manner to a relationship with their teenage child, they indirectly convey the message that successful relationships require time and effort. If the teenager marries later in life, he or she may not be terribly surprised to find that marriage also requires time and effort.
That, more or less, is what researchers at the University of California report in a study published recently in Personal Relationships, a professional journal. A Feb. 8 news release from UC Davis discussing the study said that “adolescents who have positive relationships with their parents tend to have stable and satisfying relationships in their early adult marriages.”
April Masarik, a UC Davis doctoral student in human development and family studies, is the study’s first author. She, together with Professor Rand Conger, a sociologist at the university, and other colleagues studied how adolescents learn in their homes about relationships.
The study’s key finding involved “the parent-child relationship,” Masarik told me.
She noted that adolescents who “experienced warm and nurturing parenting,” whose discipline was neither “inconsistent” nor particularly “harsh,” and who “were monitored by their parents” were “more likely to endorse the belief that marriage requires time, communication and effective conflict management.”
Their parents’ nurturing involvement with them could influence them in adult life, Masarik explained. This relationship, moreover, could prove “particularly important for adolescents’ beliefs that marriage requires emotional investments.”
That may sound like a curious finding, but a significant one if true. For, as the study says, “endorsing the belief that marriage requires emotional investments is considered to be an indication that one is willing to openly communicate, address areas of conflict and ‘work’ on the relationship with their spouse.”
An underlying question for the researchers behind this study, then, asked how likely it is that children whose parents “are emotionally invested” in them will invest later “and find fulfillment in their close relationships outside the family”
Parents’ Own Relationship
The study acknowledges that marriages are influenced by a number of factors, including the spouses’ unique personality traits. But a factor that stood out for me in this study concerned the ways children’s future relationships may be influenced by what they learned while growing up by observing their parents’ relationship to each other.
Other researchers have proposed that adolescents observe their parents’ interactions in marriage and “use those models to guide their own subsequent behaviors in their future romantic relationships,” the study notes.
It may be that youngsters are influenced to the good by their parents’ patience with each other, the affection between them or their willingness to reach compromises in difficult matters, the study indicates.
In light of this, the study considers it “appropriate to suggest” both that the parent-child relationship and the relationship between the parents themselves are “influential family experiences” in terms of a child’s future functioning as an adult in a “romantic relationship.”
Thus, the study underscores the importance of “positive family relationships” in preparing children for close relationships later in life, according to Masarik.
Awareness of these findings, she said, may prompt people to foster positive relationships at home between spouses and between parents and children. Moreover, some people may be motivated by a study like this to seek professional help in order “to gain better ‘interpersonal tools,’ so to speak.”
For the adults, Masarik commented, that may imply becoming “a better listener, communicator and source of support” to each other. For them as parents, she added, it might imply learning “more effective ways to monitor and discipline their children.”
Masarik recommended that professionals working with families and couples “continue to focus their efforts on enhancing warm and supportive family relationships, inasmuch as these earlier experiences in the family have an impact on their children’s future relationships outside the family.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.