Parental relationships: how we weather family life, or not
Honor Rhodes: "Relationship quality matters – or it should do – to everyone in the array of services that we turn to when we are distressed."
EIF’s work on the impact of parental conflict on children has highlighted the links between key moments of stress in family life and levels of relationship conflict, and the negative impact, in turn, on children who experience, frequent, intense and poorly resolved – harmful – conflict between their parents. Understanding when and how these stressful moments arise, and how relationship quality works to withstand these stressors, is therefore an important part of support to minimise the impact of parental conflict on children.
A transition – a change from one state to another – can take many forms: abrupt or gradual, complex or simple, desirable or desperately unwanted, painful and fracturing or joyful and rewarding. This is not about Brexit, but about how we live our family lives and manage our relationships.
Our capacity to manage change can turn on the sorts of transitions we are making. Some changes are entirely expected – the Cowans (who are leading academics on couple relationships) call these ‘normative transitions’. These might happen simply as a result of time passing, our children growing up, starting school and leaving home, or having children themselves, if this is the sort of life we are leading.
Sometimes these changes are downright tricky. One of the most complex – and it’s often not at the front of people’s minds – is what happens when two becomes three, when a couple becomes pregnant and have a child, or adopt, or share the making of a baby through fertility technology. This looks, to all intents and purposes, like a normative transition. But for so many relationships it causes a fracture; for some the change is so intense and confounding that the relationship ends.
Now, this is not what anyone wants to happen: neither the parents who wanted a baby together or found themselves acclimatising to the idea after an unexpected pregnancy, nor their own group of parents and family, friends and society at large.
What has happened here? And what might happen for other parental couples later in the family life story? Why does it happen to some people and not others? What is the glue that holds or fails to keep our relationships strong, resilient and flexible under pressure?
For some people these sorts of transition are more of a struggle. More often than not, this is patterned – hard-coded – into their early experiences. If we think of the people we know who hate conflict, we may also know that they grew up in families that were full of it. This needn’t be the shouting, boiling kind of anger; equally problematic for children is the chilly silence that some couples adopt which rarely thaws – an “eternal winter, just like Narnia”, as one young parent put it.
If we see our parents struggle through these transition points then we are less likely to learn how to successfully face them in our own adult lives. We may not have seen that a warm, loving and respectful relationship can withstand a great deal of anxiety; we may not know or have experienced the better mental and emotional state that a healthy relationship offers people. All of this matters.
To be clear, this is not to sign up to the preoccupation of those who want to ‘save marriage’. Rather, relationship quality matters – or it should do – to everyone in the array of services that we turn to when we are distressed: to the local authority children and families workforce, to early help practitioners, to adult mental health commissioners, to the workforce involved in safeguarding, education, housing, and employment.
And we are distressed and needing help most at points of transition and when our relationships are failing us, and in some cases making things worse. The services we turn to then will help us best if they include an understanding of power and the difficulties relationships present. It helps also if the workers we meet have a good grasp of what healthy relationships look like and what our intimate relationships are actually for.
Most of us struggle to make relationships work at times. We do this hard work because the bond we make is one that allows us to be safe and vulnerable, to be cared for and to offer care, to create together a shared life and a shared story. A plan to grow old in someone’s company is not an immediately apparent reason for looking for love, but if we think of the work of the Jo Cox Foundation and the loneliness in many older people’s lives, surely this is a good reason to think today about how we can improve our intimate relationships.
Because we can improve most relationships – not just the ones that are damaged by domestic violence or abuse, but also the vast majority that are not as strong and resilient as they could be, that might start to unravel when the next strain is placed on them, at the next tricky transition point perhaps.
We do not need to be therapists or counsellors to have a ‘couple thought’, to ask a question about relationship quality, to offer effective, evidence-based interventions that reduce conflict and improve communication. Most people feel confident intervening in a parent’s relationship with their child; we know that this matters, because we know improved parenting improves children’s outcomes. But now we also know that parental relationship quality improves children’s outcomes, improves mental and physical health for all, makes life less precarious and parental couples more resilient.
Our relationship is the motor of family life that powers us through. It gets us through transitions both large and small, from grumpy bedtimes and fractious breakfasts through to those moments when disaster strikes and life is just too hard. It needs to be understood and taken care of just as much, if not more, than the other family relationships we intervene in.