Men, it is frequently said, are very good at compartmentalizing—usually when they've done something wrong. But new research suggests women can compartmentalize too, especially around family.
A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology looked at the effect marital squabbling had on parents' relationships with kids. The researchers found, not surprisingly, that when a couple fights, that spills over to the relationship each parent has with his or her offspring. But, interestingly, this effect does not last very long for moms.
By the next day, most mother-child relationships were back on an even keel, while the fathers still reported things were tense. "In fact, in that situation, moms appeared to compensate for their marital tension," said the study's lead author, assistant psychology professor at Southern Methodist University Chrystyna D. Kouros. "Poor marital quality actually predicted an improvement in the relationship between the mom and the child."
Are the moms compensating for their lousy relationship with dad by looking for human bonds elsewhere? Are they making a pre-emptive strike, even subconsciously, in case there's a custody battle? Do they not care so much about fights with their spouses? Or do they just need someone to talk to? Kouros says it's not clear why the women are more able to isolate the relationship with their kids from the tension they feel toward their spouse, but there are several theories.
It could be that because women's parenting role is more clearly defined, they don't allow their marital woes to negatively affect other relationships in the family. Or it could be that the women are compensating and seeking support from their kids that they would normally get from their husband. "If the first theory is true, then the fact that moms don't show the same "spillover" between their marital relationship and relationship with their child is a good thing, " says Kouros. "However, if the second theory is true, then leaning on your child for support is not a good thing for the long-term." In psychology this is called "parentification," and has been linked to depression and other mental health problems in kids.
The data was gathered by asking more than 200 families to make daily diary entries for about two weeks, in which they rated how the marriage was going and how the relationship with their kids was going at the end of each day. It's possible that what was causing the marital tension and the grumpiness with the kids was something that only affected the fathers. A bad day for a guy at work, for example, might be the source of stress in all his relationships. Kouros admits this third variable is possible, but says the study has some specific data that suggests that's not always the cause.
"The findings of our study show that it's men who have marital tension and their wife shows symptoms of depression that are the ones that carry over that marital tension to their relationship with their child on the next day, whereas all men appear to do this on the same day," she says. "This is consistent with some other studies showing that when men have marital stress and some other stress, like work stress, that's when they are more likely to compromise their relationship with their child." The wife's depression points to the marital tension as being the source of the man's inability to communicate effectively with his kids.
In other words, if you have to fight with your spouse, keep it quick and fair. For the children.