Marital Satisfaction and Child Development by Zach Conneally - Profesor/a de inglés - Barcelona

Zach Conneally

Profesor/a de inglés


Marital Satisfaction and Child Development

An important field of psychology involves that of child development, from birth to adolescence (Harris & White, 2018). For a child to develop and become a fully adjusted adult, a happy, loving, understanding family environment is vital (Easterbrook, Cummings & Emde, 1994). Psychological evidence in this field have heavily stated that the quality of home-life and family relationships emotionally speaking are linked to child adjustment outcomes (Oliva, Arranz Parra & Olabarrieta, 2014). In essence, issues in a marriage, such as, marital dysphoria, marital distress and marital conflict all have an effect on child adjustment and greater the chances of developmental issues occurring.


Marital Relations


An area which plays a crucial role in understanding the family’s influence on child adjustment is marital relationships, defined as “a high degree of intimacy, affection and empathy, allowing for a high quality and stable relationship”, (John, Seme, Roro & Tsui, 2016). Hence, strong marital relationships allow for couples to challenge each other and grow, individually and together, benefitting society and the family structure itself (South & Krueger, 2013). However, on the contrary to this, the converse can also be said of this. Marital relationships entailing conflict and dissatisfaction can have disastrous effects on the family structure and the marital relationships quality and well-being which can have a knock-on effect on the development of the off-spring, socio-emotionally, pro-socially and even further afield (Cummings, Goeke-Morey & Papp, 2004). For a child to develop emotionally, pro-socially and without behavioural problems, an established marriage with positive qualities is necessary.

Recent studies suggest that the change from a non-child house to a house with children can be straining on a marriage, seriously affecting marriage satisfaction (Shapiro, Gottman & Carrére, 2002). However, it is a well-documented fact for satisfaction to decrease when the first child is brought into the home, even in healthy and highly satisfied marriages. This is due to the increased responsibilities that come with having a child, alongside the enhanced parental stress and depression (Hackel, Ruble & Hackel, 1992).  It is estimated that one fifth of parental-partnerships can be categorised as distressed (Cummings & El-Sheikh, 1991). In addition to this research has shown that children are affected less by divorce than marital conflict, making it a significant aspect for consideration among unsatisfied parents (Vaez, Indran, Abdollahi, Juhari & Mansor, 2015).


Child Behaviour Problems


Behavioural problems are very common and have a high prevalence among children from all backgrounds (Koot, Verhulst, Boomsma & Koot, 1997). Studies have made efforts to highlight the commonality of the acts of aggression, noncompliance and acting out behaviours displayed by toddlers and preschool children, especially of those in hostile families (Shaw, Winslow & Flanagan, 1999). Research is still very new in the attempts to normalize these behaviours as can be seen in the rates of anxiety versus depression in this age range. The prevalence of anxiety amongst preschool children is measured at 10% while depression is much less prevalent at only 2% due to it being less diagnosed at this period (Eggers & Agnold, 2006). Additionally, in regards to the problems, aggressiveness and non-compliance alike are both obvious and cause disruption; the prevalence is usually observed during the preschool period. In a paper by Achenbach and Rescorla (2014), the researchers claim that child behavioural problems can be classified by two main groups: internalizing behaviour problems; and externalizing behaviour problems. Internalizing behaviour problems are categorised as being experiences of stress, or reactions occurring inside a person which do not reach the surface unlike externalizing behavioural problems which focus on developmental issues like compliance, physical aggression and hyperactivity. Without intervention these behaviour problems could cause a plethora of issues for the child going forward in life, such as, delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, criminal activity and numerous psychiatric problems (Maggs, Patrick & Feinstein, 2008). It has been shown in research that a high number of children with behavioural issues in the preschool period simply outgrow their problems as time progresses, however, the vast majority tend to develop the issues throughout their life (Ansari, 2018).

It is worth noting that it is not only marital relationships that can have an effect on this range of problems. Child behaviour problems can also stem from obsolete parenting techniques, child abuse and/or neglect, spoiling the child or serious illness trauma, negative life events (Quay, 1968). Thus, it is crucial to detect behavioural problems early in a child’s life and to intervene as quickly as possible to avoid allowing the problems to further develop and grow into much more complex and difficult issues which may not be possible to manage in adolescence and adulthood.


Marital Relations and Child Behavioural Problems


A child’s primary caregivers are key players in a child’s adjustment, physical and mental health, and the way in which they form relationships, all of which are necessary for a well-adjusted child’s successful development. In the relationship between child temperament and child behavioural problems, marital factors acts as a moderator (Frosch & Mangelsdorf, 2001). As an example, highly stressful familial environments or strained parental relationships can be associated with negative toddler/preschool child emotions (Martin & Clements, 2002). Toddlers/preschool children may react to this negativity with hostility, aggression and/or anxiety. A pathway for the development of problem behaviours can be identified. Starting with marital conflict, impacting offspring negatively causing them to act out with, for example, aggression (both physical and verbal), incompliance and resentment (Jouriles, Pfiffner & Ó’Leary, 1988). This ‘acting out’ allows for more serious issues such as anxiety, anti-social behaviour and school problems to be developed. Consequently, children of marital conflict pose a higher chance of developing issues in their relationships than that of children who come from satisfied and adjusted marriages; who exhibit less problems and have better well-being and emotional health (Larossa, Escudero & Cummings, 2009).


Existing literature on Marital Relationships and Child Problem Behaviours


Research exists on child behavioural problems and marital conflict. However, as each study has their own research methods, procedures and definitions it is difficult to compare and contrast between them. Hence, it is important to find commonalities in previous research to shine a light on the conclusions relevant to future research. The research discussed below has been conducted in different settings around the world and aims to address the issues mentioned above.

Numerous studies have been conducted highlighting the effects of conflict witnessed by a child leading them to display externalizing and internalizing behaviours (Coln, Jordan & Mercer, 2013; Cummings & Davies, 2002; Katz & Gottman, 1993; Pendry, Carr, Papp & Antles, 2013). Furthering this research shows that child adjustment is hindered by these internalizing and externalizing behaviours caused by interparental conflict (Achenbach & Edelbrock, Howell & Achenbach 1987; Cummings, Cheung; Koss & Davies 2014; Davies, 2002; Emery & Ó’Leary, 1982; Grych & Fincham, 1990; Grych, Seid & Fincham, 1992). However, studies have shown that the internalizing and externalizing issues of children are mediated through dysfunctional marriage components like parent-child conflict and marital discord (DuRocher Schudlich & Cummings, 2003). Other studies have shown the different effects constructive and destructive interparental conflict have on child adjustment (Cummings & Davies, 2002; Cummings & Davies, 2013; Goeke-Morey, Cummings, Harold & Shelton, 2003; McCoy, George,). As to be expected constructive interparental conflict correlates positively with child adjustment; destructive interparental conflict negatively affects the adjustment of the offspring indicating that the children are more prone to get involved with parental conflict.

            Similarly, it has been found that children in families with high conflict adopt fearful emotional behavioural strategies in relation to escalating and unresolved conflict (Koss, George, Bergman, Cummings, Davies & Cicchetti, 2011). Thus, it is fitting that research found children reacted negatively to aspects of interparental conflict which posed a threat to their emotional security compared to other forms of conflict not including such aspects (Davies & Cummings, 1994; Davies, Harold, Goeke-Morey, Cummings, Shelton & Rasi, 2002). These findings lead well into research conducted on emotional security and its effects on the relationship between marital conflict and child psychological issues as a mediator which garnered similar results (Cummings, Schermerhorn, Davies, Goeke-Morey & Cummings 2006; Davies, Harold et al., 2002). Cummings, Ballard, El-Sheikh and Lake (1991), both investigated the relationship between types of interparental conflict (resolved, unresolved and partially resolved) and child responses. Results indicated that constructive marital conflict (resolved) lead to a positive outcome on child adjustment (Easterbrooks, Cummings & Emde, 1994). On the contrary, Bradford, Vaughn and Barber (2008), examined the associations between marital conflict, parent-child conflict and their links to youth behaviour problems. Findings showed direct positive links between both overt and covert marital conflict. Owen and Cox (1997), postulated direct and indirect processes associating marital dysphoria to the security of infant- mother and infant-father attachment and disorganised attachment behaviour. Their research found that chronic parental conflict leaves the infant with experiences of frightened parents and lessened behavioural options to combat resulting distress. This paper complements another which looked at marital discord, hostile parenting and child antisocial behaviour. Path analyses showed that mothers, fathers and unrelated mothers and fathers alike all influenced child anti-social behaviour through parent to child hostility (Grigorenko, Cicchetti, Harold, Elam, Lewis, Rice & Thapar, 2012). One hundred and thirty nine 4 – 6 year olds (88 maltreated, 51 non-maltreated) and their mothers acted as participants in Maughan’s and Cicchetti’s (2002) study investigating child maltreatment and interadult violence on child emotion regulation and socio-emotional adjustment. Nearly 80% of maltreated pre-schoolers displayed dysregulated emotion patterns in comparison to only 37.2% of the control children. These findings allow for a deeper understanding of emotional dysregulation that might hinder the mental health of maltreated children with histories of interadult violence exposure. In line with this study El-Sheikh et al. (2008) examined marital aggression (physical and mental) and offspring physical and mental health. The researchers found that emotional security is a logical explanation for the influence of marital aggression against the parents on various levels of child adjustment, adding to the inference that marital aggression greatly effects child adjustment. Additionally, children exposed to marital conflict display symptoms of disordered eating, a precursor to the development of eating disorders (Bi, Haak, Gilbert, & Keller, 2017). Results show that dyadic parental conflict is linked to higher levels of restrained eating, emotional eating and external eating, even when parent feeding practices are controlled for. The pathways thought to be at fault for this could be that parental conflict was associated with increased child emotional security which was linked to added child anxiety, which was then related to disordered eating. It is also worth mentioning that as well as being a secondary pathway as mentioned above, anxiety also significantly acted as a direct mediator between parental conflict and each type of the three disordered eating habits.

            Marital conflict has been shown to hamper child attention development. Studies documented the attention performance of children in homes of dyadic conflict (Denahm, Zahn-Waxler, Cummings & Iannotti, 1991). Findings show that children of interparental conflict moderate short-term attention focus through their physiological reactivity. In essence, it can be said that the negative relationship of marital conflict and the development of attention skills puts child behavioural adjustment in jeopardy. Conversely, David (2009) found that pre-schoolers low in effort control had more positive peer relations when mothers reported positive marital quality (positive emotional expressions and marital satisfaction). In addition, a longitudinal study carried out by Linville et al. (2010) conducted analysis on the association between marital satisfaction, parenting styles, parent depression and child behavioural problems. Regression analysis was carried out and found that marital satisfaction directly predicted child behaviours over time. These findings still remain significant even when variables such as parenting style, early child behaviour problems and parent depression were controlled for.

            Studies examining the parental conflict on child delinquency issues have found significant results. Roth (2013) studied the effects family conflict and substance abuse had on delinquency behaviours of male children and adolescents aged 10-17 years old. A secondary analysis of existing data found that while parental substance abuse had no relationship with child substance abuse, interparental conflict did significantly affect delinquent behaviour. Various researchers deduced that interparental satisfaction and conflict are highly significant predictors of their child’s psychopathology, behavioural adjustment and functioning in childhood (Katz & Woodin, 2002).

            This study has two main aims. Firstly, marital satisfaction is examined and the role it plays in the development of antisocial behaviours in children of hostile families. Afterwards, group membership is looked at on its role as a moderator against the relationship between marital satisfaction and child antisocial behaviour (i.e. as group membership increases does the effect of low marital satisfaction has on the development of child antisocial decrease?). Thus, this paper has two hypotheses.




  1. Low marital satisfaction will have an effect on the development of antisocial behaviours in the offspring of hostile family settings.
  2. Child group membership positively moderates the relationship between low marital satisfaction and offspring antisocial behaviour development.



Participants, Design, and Procedure


This study analysed data collected from the Growing Up in Ireland survey, a longitudinal, national study examining a cohort of children living in the Republic of Ireland. The major aim of the study is to inform government policy in relation to young children, young people and families. This aim can be broken into the nine objectives which can be found in the GUI website. Data collection initiated in 2008/09, when participants were nine years of age. Following data was collected at waves 2 and 3 when participants were 13, 17 and 18 years of age respectfully. The study child, both their caregivers and their teacher all completed computer assisted personal interviews. In the case of caregivers, the primary caregiver is defined as the parent/guardian who spent the most time caring for the study child, as selected by the parents/guardians. For 7357 (97.8%) of study children, their mother was considered to be the primary caregiver at Wave 1. As for Wave 2, 7275 (96.7%) study children had mothers for primary caregivers.




According to the 2006 Census, 56,497 nine year olds lived in Ireland. A two-stage sampling method was used to recruit a proportionate sample of the nine year olds. In stage two a sample of nine year olds were selected from the schools gathered in stage one. Based on the population of nine year olds in the Census and the participating schools a sample size of 8,568 represented approximately 14 percent or about one in seven of every nine year old living in Ireland at the time.

Using this approach of sampling offered other benefits than being a comprehensive record for nine year olds. It allowed direct access to the study child’s teacher and principal who were study informants. It also reduced burden and contact time in the study child’s home as self-completion of the academic achievement tests could be completed in a group setting.



Child behavioural problems


Child behavioural problems were screened for using the 25-item Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. Five sub-scales exist in the measure, one measuring pro-social behaviour (e.g. child is kinder to younger children) and four measuring problem behaviour: emotional symptoms; conduct problems; hyperactivity/inattention; and peer relationship problems. Parents were asked to rank their child’s behaviour in relation to the statements provided on a scale from 0 (not true) to 2 (certainly true). Some scores require reverse coding (e.g. thinks things out before acting). The scale, as a whole has been shown to recognise challenging behavioural problems in children (Cronbach’s α = .76) with a higher score indicating higher problem behaviour.


Child group membership


Group membership was measured as the groups children were part of (sports, dance, drama, homework, etc.…). Responses in Wave one were measured on a yes/no basis to each item with the summed number of groups being computed. In wave two, study children were asked how often they participated in activities on a scale ranging from 1(never participates) to 4 (participates 4 or more times a week). To remain consistent with group membership in Wave 1, variables were recoded to reflect yes/no responses. Score 1, ‘never participates’ was recoded as no and all other values were recoded as yes and the summed total was computes as a value. Higher values in both waves indicate membership to more groups.


Marital satisfaction


The Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS) was used to measure marital satisfaction for the Primary Caregiver and Secondary if appropriate. This 7 item scale assessed participants’ self-report and categorised marriages as being either adjusted or distressed. This assessment allowed for a general satisfaction score to be generated by summing the results from all 7 items together. As for this study a 4 item subscale was used.






Linear Regression


Statistical analyses were conducted using IBM’s Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) version 24 to carry out Linear Regressions examining the degree to which marital satisfaction (DAS) has a significance on antisocial behaviour (SDQ).


Wave 1


A hierarchical linear regression was conducted to examine if low marital satisfaction measured by the DAS significantly predicted antisocial behaviour (measured by the SDQ). The model, with low marital satisfaction and antisocial behaviour as predictors was significant, F(1,6744) = 152.62, p = <.000, adjusted R2 = .022. As can be seen in Table 2(?), low marital satisfaction, significantly predicted antisocial behaviour, and explained 2.2% of the variance in antisocial behaviour (β = -.149, p = <.000).


Wave 2


A hierarchical linear regression was conducted to examine if low marital satisfaction measured by the DAS significantly predicted antisocial behaviour (measured by the SDQ). The model, with low marital satisfaction and antisocial behaviour as predictors was significant, F(1, 6445) = 126.11, p = <.000, adjusted R2 = .019. As can be seen in Table 2(?), low marital satisfaction, significantly predicted antisocial behaviour, and explained 1.9% of the variance in antisocial behaviour (β = -.139, p = <.000).




In the next step of analysis, group membership was examined as a potential influencer of antisocial behaviour. To analyse this an extension to SPSS was used called PROCESS (Version 3.3; Hayes 2018, Model 1, 10,000 bootstraps). In both waves marital satisfaction was entered as the predictor, antisocial behaviour as the criterion and group membership as the moderator. Results to each moderation analysis are as stated below.


Wave 1


We tested if the relationship between marital satisfaction and anti-social behaviour was significantly moderated by group membership. We predicted that the effect of marital satisfaction on antisocial behaviour decreases at higher levels of group membership. Contrary to predictions, there was an insignificant interaction between marital satisfaction and group membership on antisocial behaviour, B = .025, SE = .013, p = .055. The effect size of the interaction on antisocial behaviour decreased and became marginally significant at the group membership scores mean, B = -.1231, SE = 0.01, p = <.000, and is significant at one SD below the mean B = -.1475, SE = 0.01, p = <.000. These results did not support our prediction: high marital satisfaction decreases antisocial behaviour at higher levels of group membership.

Table 1 – moderation pathway of Group Membership on the Marital Satisfaction on Antisocial Behaviour interaction in Wave 1.

Text Box: Table 1 – moderation pathway of Group Membership on the Marital Satisfaction on Antisocial Behaviour interaction in Wave 1.



Wave 2


We tested if the relationship between marital satisfaction and anti-social behaviour was significantly moderated by group membership. We predicted that the effect of marital satisfaction on antisocial behaviour decreases at higher levels of group membership. Contrary to predictions, there was an insignificant interaction between marital satisfaction and group membership on antisocial behaviour, B = .004, SE = .025, p = .872.

Table 2 – moderation pathway of Group Membership on the Marital Satisfaction on Antisocial Behaviour interaction in Wave 2.


Text Box: Table 2 – moderation pathway of Group Membership on the Marital Satisfaction on Antisocial Behaviour interaction in Wave 2.






This study was carried out to examine interparental conflict and to see if low marital satisfaction had an effect on the social development on the offspring within the house. Child group membership was also tested with the hope that it would act as a moderator between the two variables. It was found that (a) low marital satisfaction had a significant effect on the development of antisocial behaviour at waves 1 and 2; (b) group membership had a significant negative effect on antisocial behaviour in waves 1 and 2; (c) group membership was marginally significant as a moderator in wave 1; and (d) group membership was highly insignificant as a moderator in wave 2.

            The findings in this study add to existing literature in two novel ways. Firstly, much of the literature available today focuses on the infant and preschool child development and marital conflict at just one time scale of the child’s life. This study examines child social behavioural development (pro-social and antisocial) and marital satisfaction across two time points in a child’s life (at 9 years and 13 years of age); which brings up the second point, the majority of data assessing marital conflict and child behaviour problems does just that. Findings in this study are much more specific, focusing on two key areas of contemporary research. Marital satisfaction, which encompasses emotional support, shared spousal interests and dispute resolution and its effects on child development is still a relatively novel area of child psychopathology and this paper aimed to uncover some potential real-world applications. The most promising result of this study is that marital satisfaction has a negative significance on child antisocial behaviour (i.e. low marital satisfaction is linked with child antisocial behaviour development) at both waves 1 and 2.


Clinical and Research Implications


Multiple hypothetical limitations for future research and ethical issues in regards to examining conflict in young children are produced by this paper. To begin, vast amounts of longitudinal studies exist examining children of all ages and family conflict, some of which have been shown to have long term risks even into adulthood (Katz and Woodin, 2002). If future research were to discover behavioural problems early in a child’s development, studies should cease and intervention measures must be put in place in a bid to prevent these children from going down a path of maladjustment.

            In addition, in the literature review of this paper it is mentioned that marital satisfaction is just one issue of a whole host of familial issues that has an association with child behavioural problems (Quay, 1968). This research is indisputable and acts as a cornerstone, paving the way for more contemporary results. However, an interesting current finding has built on this and has put forward the idea that a two-way, reciprocal system exists between marital satisfaction and child developmental problems (Easterbrooks, Cummings and Emde, 1994). In line with these findings, this paper shows that marital satisfaction has a negative effect on antisocial behavioural development implying that positive marital satisfaction results have a positive relationship with pro-social development.

            A major implication found in this study and the majority of others is for the need of couple’s clinical intervention in homes of child behavioural development issues. It would be recommended that experts in this field to take regular measurements of specific factors contributing to marital satisfaction, such as connection and attachment, qualities of sexual relationships and importantly conflict patterns (Linville et al., 2010). These assessments along with measures of child functioning could be recorded through self-report measures, interaction exercises and dyadic interviews. The results of these assessments could be used to create specific intervention treatments that simultaneously target both child maladjustment but also marital satisfaction, all while informing researchers of the effectiveness of certain treatments and providing vital data for positive marital interventions and providing research in an ethical manner.

            It is evident from above that interventions aimed at parent-child relations and interparental relations are highly beneficial to the mental health and adjustment of the entire family in both short and long terms. However, where possible early and direct intervention are best for the family as a whole and overall marital satisfaction. From this study itself and the others in the literature review it is clear to see that both of these aspects of familial forces are extremely correlated. Hence, not tackling issues head-on could easily have a ripple effect against the counterpart (i.e. not intervening on marital satisfaction directly could cause child behavioural problems and vice versa). A situation in which direct intervention could benefit the family force positively is when the marital relationship is categorised as distressed due to ongoing conflict. A clinician could intervene and recommend treatment such as separation as this would impact the child psychopathology a lot less (Vaez, et al., 2015). In another hypothetical scenario, parental/maternal substance abuse may put a strain on the marriage causing the other spouse to become unsatisfied which in turn puts a strain on the parent-child relationship. The point of these two examples is to show that while marital dissatisfaction was the outcome in both, two very different interventions would be necessary to resolve issues and restore adjustment in the familial setting.

            In summation, due to the findings of this paper, evidence strongly supports the use of preventative interventions as a treatment for parents and children especially those with a new-born child or those in any other situation which may cause high conflict and low satisfaction. While most intervention treatments are aimed at newly established marriages there are new papers coming to light with promising results for long term marriages (Finkel, Slotter, Luchies, Walton and Gross, 2013; Miller, Cummings and Bergman, 2016; Gottman and Tabares, 2018).

Strengths and Limitations


An enormous strength of this study was conducting a secondary analysis on the Growing Up in Ireland Survey. This survey highly adds to the validity of this study due to its sampling size and methods. Recruiting nine year old children through the schools of the data collected from the Department of Education and Science allowed for recruitment from both public and private schools, which allowed children from different socio-economic backgrounds to be examined. Also, using this method allowed for large, representative sample sizes to be researched. A sample of approximately 8,500 nine year old children meant that more or less 1 in 7 of all nine year olds living in Ireland at the time were represented. The use of self-report and observer report measures also strengthened the validity.

However, while strengths exist in this paper, so too do limitations. As mentioned above, using secondary data was considered a strength, it is also a limitation. As the data in this paper was secondary, the researcher of this paper was unable to collect the data or choose which scales should be used to measure responses. For example, the dyadic adjustment scale (DAS) used in this study is a 7 item scale; however, researchers in the Growing Up in Ireland survey decided only to use 4 of the items. If all 7 had been used perhaps a stronger significance could be measured against other variables and may have even been the reason why moderation did not exist for group membership. Additionally, as the researcher did not collect the data, temporal precedence is difficult to examine, causing a ‘chicken and the egg’ paradox to exist. To explain, did antisocial behaviour exist before marital conflict causing for low marital satisfaction to develop? Or, did the converse occur, marital conflict caused low marital satisfaction which in turn had an effect on child behavioural problems? For the sake of the study it is hoped that the latter is the truth. As 97.8% of primary caregivers were the children’s mother (96.7% in wave 2) it is hard to make the study generalizable.

A final limitation of this study involves confounding variables. As it was mentioned above there is not just one variable responsible for the development of child behavioural problems in a family setting (Quay, 1968). This made it extremely difficult for the researcher to examine specific effects caused by variables. For future researchers it is recommended to control for these covariates across waves of data to allow for more direct results.



Findings from this study support past researchers attempts to examine the causality of marital conflict and satisfaction on child behavioural problems while providing possible explanations of its own. Evidence already supports the effectiveness of brief, preventative intervention treatments especially on couples with young children to positively affect the outcomes of child behavioural development (Miller, Cummings and Bergman, 2016). Direct, preventative family intervention is still needed to combat development issues that could lead children down the wrong path for life, such as substance abuse, psychiatric problems and delinquency (Katz and Woodin, 2002). Future research should look at developing interventions targeted at maladjustment in toddler and preschool children.

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