1. Study suggests how parents manage conflict has impact on kids

    October 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Arizona press release:

    Few parents want their children to hear them arguing, but since conflict is a normal part of any relationship, it can be hard to shield little ones from every spat.

    That’s OK, as long as parents handle disagreements in a constructive way, says University of Arizona researcher Olena Kopystynska.

    Kopystynska, a graduate student in the UA’s Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, studies conflict and conflict resolution. In a new paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Family Psychology, she looks at how the way parents handle conflict with each other affects their parenting styles and how emotionally secure their children feel after being exposed to conflict between their parents.

    Kopystynska’s study focuses on constructive versus destructive styles of conflict management. In constructive conflict management, there is calmness and respect, despite a difference in opinion; the conflict stays focused on one topic; and progress is made toward a resolution. When conflict is handled destructively, there is anger and resentment, and the argument often strays off topic to things that may have happened in the past.

    Kopystynska and her colleagues found that when even one parent handles conflict with a partner destructively, it can leave children feeling more emotionally insecure about their home life.

    “Children are very good at picking up on little nuances of how parents interact with each other, so it really matters how parents express and manage their daily life challenges because that determines children’s confidence in the stability and safety of their family,” Kopystynska said. “If parents are hostile toward each other, even children as young as 3 years old may be threatened that their family may be headed toward dissolution. They may not necessarily be able to express their insecurities verbally, but they can feel it.”

    Stressors Can Feed Strife

    Kopystynska’s study is based on national data collected for the Building Strong Families Project, which targeted low-income families — a population that could be at high risk for conflict, given the many stressors associated with financial strife. Parents in the study were mostly unmarried and had just conceived their first child at the start of data collection, which was done in three waves.

    Kopystynska focused on the third wave of data, collected when the children in the study were 3 years old. Mothers and fathers were surveyed at that point about their perceptions of their conflict management behaviors with each other, and how their children react emotionally when they witness conflict between their parents. While similar studies have relied only on data from mothers, the inclusion of fathers helps provide a more complete picture of what’s going on, Kopystynska said.

    Kopystynska and her co-authors identified four different profiles of the couples surveyed: couples in which both partners handled conflict constructively; couples in which both partners handled conflict destructively; couples in which the mother was more constructive and the father more destructive; and couples in which the father was more constructive and the mother more destructive.

    The researchers further looked at supportive and harsh parenting behaviors, as measured through direct observations of each parent separately interacting with his or her child. Supportive behaviors might include making positive statements, being sensitive to the child’s needs and engaging the child in cognitively stimulating ways. Harsh parenting might include forceful or intrusive behaviors or expressions of anger and dissatisfaction toward the child.

    Researchers found that fathers’ parenting styles did not seem to be affected by how they managed conflict with their partners. In other words, fathers interacted with their children similarly in all profiles. Yet, mothers in the profile in which fathers handled conflict constructively and mothers handled conflict destructively tended to be harsher with their children than mothers in the profile in which both parents handled conflict constructively.

    As far as the impact on children’s emotional insecurity, researchers found that when one parent handled conflict destructively and the other constructively, children’s emotional insecurity was higher than what was reported for children whose parents both handled conflict constructively.

    “What we found is that when parents are using constructive conflict management, the children feel less insecure about their family climate, and when at least one parent argues destructively, there are some levels of insecurity about the family relationships,” Kopystynska said.

    ‘Arguing Constructively’

    Worth noting, Kopystynska said, is that despite a common misconception that most low-income families are at risk for dysfunctional behaviors, very few couples in the study were entirely destructive in their conflict management styles. In fact, only 3 percent of couples in the sample included two partners who handled conflict destructively, suggesting that most couples in the sample participated in healthy and positive conflict patterns.

    “There is often a belief out there that if you are a low-income family, you probably have a lot of dysfunction, but over 50 percent of the couples we looked at were arguing constructively,” Kopystynska said. “Considering all the stressors they’re dealing with, the majority of them still have a good, functional relationship, at least when it comes to conflict.”

    The fact that the group in which both parents were arguing in destructive ways was so small might help explain one surprising finding of Kopystynska’s study — that emotional insecurity levels were lowest for children of these parents. Also contributing to that finding could be the fact that those couples may have broken up and physically separated from each other by the time the data was collected, meaning that children may not have been as directly exposed to their parents’ interactions, Kopystynska said.

    “Parents who were in the concordant destructive group were less likely to stay together, so they were probably not in the same home, so children were probably not exposed to that interparental conflict,” said Kopystynska, whose co-authors on the paper were UA faculty memebers Melissa Barnett and Melissa Curran, along with Katherine Paschall of the University of Texas, Austin.

    In general, Kopystynska said, it’s important for parents to be aware of how they interact with each other, and remember that conflict shouldn’t necessarily be avoided but handled in a way that makes a child feel less threatened.

    Not all conflict is bad — it’s about how you manage it,” Kopystynska said. “Given that children are going to encounter conflict out there in the real world, exposure to some conflict can be beneficial. However, it’s really how parents handle that conflict that sets the tone for how safe children feel, and may further promote similar conflict management behaviors for when children are confronted with conflict of their own.”


  2. Study suggests midlife depression may stem from tension with mothers and siblings

    September 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Iowa State University press release:

    Relationships with our mothers and siblings change as we become adults and start our own families, but the quality of those relationships still has an effect on our well-being, particularly at midlife.

    A new study led by Iowa State University researcher Megan Gilligan found that tension with our mothers and siblings, similar to our spouses, is associated with symptoms of depression. The research, published in the journal Social Sciences, found all three relationships have a similar effect and one is not stronger than another.

    “Family scholars have focused a lot on the relationship we have with our spouse,” said Gilligan, an assistant professor of human development and family studies. “There is this assumption that as you go through your life course, you leave these other relationships with your parents and siblings behind, but you don’t. You carry those with you.”

    The relationship between mothers and daughters is even more significant. The research shows tension between mothers and adult children was a stronger predictor of depression for daughters than it was for sons. However, gender did not make a difference in relationships with spouses and siblings. Gilligan says this makes sense based on her previous research.

    “We know that mothers and daughters in adulthood have the closest relationships and also the most conflictual. These are really intense relationships,” she said. “Later in life, adult children start providing more care to their parents, and daughters in particular are often caregivers for their mothers.”

    Midlife is key to findings

    Midlife is often characterized as stable and uneventful, but in reality, it is a time of change and transition for many people, Gilligan said. For example, adult children may be leaving the house and aging parents start requiring more care. Additionally, researchers know that midlife adults often react more strongly to family conflict than older adults do.

    While there is a great deal of research on young families and family dynamics later in life, there is a gap at midlife, Gilligan said. Given the potential for greater conflict with mothers or siblings related to these midlife changes, it is important to understand the consequences of negative relationships on our psychological well-being.

    “Midlife is a time when siblings are often coming back together as they prepare and navigate care for parents,” she said. “For that reason, it’s a pivotal time when these family relationships might be experiencing more tension, more strain, more discord.”

    Professionals should consider whole family

    The research team used data collected through the Within-Family Differences Study. Their analysis included 495 adult children within 254 families. For a majority of families, multiple siblings participated in the study. Researchers measured depressive symptoms and tension among family members through survey questions. They controlled for race, gender and education.

    In the paper, Gilligan and her colleagues explained that they expected all three relationships would predict depressive symptoms, but the effect would vary depending on the salience of the relationship. The fact that they found no significant difference between spouses, mothers and siblings is important to note, especially for practitioners. Gilligan says instead of focusing solely on a romantic partner or spouse, marriage and family therapists should ask about other sources of family stress.

    “These findings show that we are navigating other family relationships at the same time and we’re not experiencing them in isolation; we’re experiencing them simultaneously,” Gilligan said. “The stress people are experiencing may be the result of a romantic partner or spouse. However, it could also be that they’re fighting with their siblings or they’re experiencing a lot of tension with their mother even though they are 50 years old.”


  3. Study suggests couples weather bickering with a little help from their friends

    September 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Texas at Austin press release:

    Every couple has conflict, and new research finds that having good friends and family members to turn to alleviates the stress of everyday conflict between partners. In fact, according to the study led by The University of Texas at Austin’s Lisa Neff, social networks may help provide protection against health problems brought about by ordinary tension between spouses.

    In a paper published this week in the online edition of Social Psychological and Personality Science, Neff and other researchers in UT Austin’s Department of Human Development and Family Sciences found that “spouses who reported being more satisfied with the availability of friends and family, whom they knew they could connect with during times of marital conflict, experienced conflict as less physiologically stressful.”

    The paper is the first to look at the link between spouses’ cortisol levels, which are an indicator of physiological stress, and marital conflicts occurring in the home. At a time when more couples in the U.S. are living in communities separate from where their families and friends reside, the research suggests there is a strong correlation between relationships like these outside of a marriage and people within the marriage experiencing lower risk factors for health problems such as weight gain, insomnia, depression and even heart disease.

    “We found that having a satisfying social network buffers spouses from the harmful physiological effects of everyday marital conflicts,” said Neff, an associate professor. “Maintaining a few good friends is important to weathering the storms of your marriage.”

    The research looked at 105 newlywed couples who kept daily records of marital conflict in their home environment and completed questionnaires about the number, quality and characteristics of their connections with friends and family. In addition, the couples participating in the study collected morning and evening saliva samples for cortisol testing every day for six days. Cortisol levels over the course of the day are a measure of the stress response.

    The overall number of friends and family members that study participants reported having didn’t appear to affect couples’ ability to handle conflicts nearly as much as the quality of those outside relationships. Neff and her colleagues found that people who reported having even a few close friends or family members to talk to outside of their marriage experienced lower levels of stress when marital conflicts arose.

    “Even everyday conflict takes a toll on people physiologically,” Neff said. “But we found that the association between marital conflict and cortisol responses completely disappears when people are happy and satisfied with their available social network.”

    The other authors on the paper are Liz Keneski, a former graduate student in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at UT Austin; and Tim Loving, an adjunct faculty member in the department. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.


  4. Study suggests stress behaviours may have evolved to lessen aggression

    September 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Portsmouth press release:

    Scratching is more than an itch — when it is sparked by stress, it appears to reduce aggression from others and lessen the chance of conflict.

    Scratching can be a sign of stress in many primates, including humans.

    Research by Jamie Whitehouse from the University of Portsmouth, is the first to suggest that these stress behaviours can be responded to by others, and that they might have evolved as a communication tool to help social cohesion.

    The research, published in Scientific Reports, raises the question whether human scratching and similar self-directed stress behaviours serve a similar function.

    Jamie said: “Observable stress behaviours could have evolved as a way of reducing aggression in socially complex species of primates. Showing others you are stressed could benefit both the scratcher and those watching, because both parties can then avoid conflict.”

    The research team conducted behavioural observations of 45 rhesus macaques from a group of 200, on the 35-acre island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. The team monitored the naturally occurring social interactions between these animals over a period of eight months.

    The researchers found that scratching in the monkeys was more likely to occur in times of heightened stress, such as being close to high-ranking individuals or to non-friends.

    Stress scratching significantly lowered the likelihood of a scratching monkey being attacked.

    The likelihood of aggression when a high ranking monkey approached a lower ranking monkey was 75 per cent if no scratching took place, and only 50 per cent when the lower ranking monkey scratched.

    Scratching also reduced the chance of aggression between individuals who did not have a strong social bond.

    Jamie said: “As scratching can be a sign of social stress, potential attackers might be avoiding attacking obviously stressed individuals because such individuals could behave unpredictably or be weakened by their stress, meaning an attack could be either risky or unnecessary.

    “By revealing stress to others, we are helping them predict what we might do, so the situation becomes more transparent. Transparency ultimately reduces the need for conflict, which benefits everyone and promotes a more socially cohesive group.”

    The researchers expect the findings will lead to a better understanding of stress and the evolution of stress in humans as well as how we manage stress in captive animals.


  5. ‘Tightwads and spenders’ study examines financial perceptions that hurt couples

    August 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Brigham Young University press release:

    When a husband thinks his wife spends too much money, whether it’s reality or perception, financial and marriage problems follow.

    A new multistate study from researchers at BYU and Kansas State University looked at contrasting financial personalities in a marriage. They titled the personalities “tightwads and spenders,” as seen in the Journal of Financial Planning.

    What shaped these personalities in marriage wasn’t concrete attributes the individuals displayed or even the circumstances they were in. Rather, it was the perception about how spendy the other spouse was.

    “The fact that spouses’ perceptions of each other’s spending behaviors were so predictive of financial conflict suggests that when it comes to the impact of finances on relationships, perceptions may be just as important, if not more important, than reality,” said Ashley LeBaron, BYU graduate student and study co-author.

    The study found that for husbands, having a wife who they saw as a spender was the highest contributor to financial conflict. For wives, having a husband who viewed them as a spender was the highest contributor to financial conflict. This was seen for couples with high incomes and low incomes as well as with couples who spent a lot and those who did not spend much at all. The views were completely relative to perception.

    LeBaron worked with BYU family life professor Jeffrey Hill as well as a national expert in the area of finances in marriage, Kansas State professor Sonya Britt-Lutter.

    “Couples need to communicate about finances, especially early in marriage,” Britt-Lutter said. “Don’t think that financial problems will magically go away when circumstances change. The study showed that circumstances weren’t the issue here, perception was, and perception doesn’t always change when circumstances do.”

    Secondarily to the perception of a spendy wife, the study found that men saw having more children as impacting financial conflict, and women saw a lack of financial communication overall as impacting financial conflict.

    Of those who participated in the study, 90 percent of women and 85 percent of men reported that they experienced some kind of financial worries.

    The researchers suggest that no matter what the perceptions or realities are exactly, if finances are causing problems in a marriage, help is possible.

    “The good news is that couples can benefit from clinical help,” Hill said, “whether that be a financial planner or a marriage and family therapist.”

    There are also a host of resources available online, paid and free, to assist in budgeting and money management.

    Data for this study came from BYU’s Flourishing Families Project, which is a longitudinal, multi-informant, multi-method look at inner-family dynamics. The project began in 2007 and to date includes 10 waves of data (including questionnaire, video and physiological data) on nearly 700 families from two locations. Hundreds of BYU undergraduate and graduate students have been involved over the course of the project.


  6. Study links rude customers to workers’ shopping binges

    August 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    Service workers who face verbal abuse from customers during the workday are more likely to go on unnecessary shopping sprees in the evening, indicates new research co-authored by a Michigan State University business expert.

    The study of 94 call-center workers at a large bank in China found that customer mistreatment (e.g., customers who yelled, argued, swore, etc.) put the employees in a bad mood after work. This, in turn, led to damaging thoughts (ruminating about the mistreatment) and behaviors (impulse shopping).

    “Thus, stress from customers spills over to spoil people’s experiences outside of work,” said Russell Johnson, MSU associate professor of management.

    The findings from Johnson and colleagues — who surveyed employees multiple times per day for 15 consecutive workdays — are published online in the Academy of Management Journal.

    The researchers also tested two interventions and found a potential solution to the problem.

    On days when workers who thought about a recent incident where they helped customers (a “recall of prosocial action intervention”) or thought about an interaction from the customer’s viewpoint (a “perspective-taking intervention”) before starting work, it reduced their perceptions of mistreatment, reduced their negative mood and led to less rumination and impulse shopping.

    Becoming more prosocial shifts attention away from the self and reduces impulsive and individualistic acts, according to the study.

    “These recall and perspective-taking interventions are quick and easy exercises that customer-service employees can do prior to beginning the workday to reduce the stress from rude customers,” Johnson said.


  7. Study suggests strong friendships among women in the workplace reduce conflict

    August 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences press release:

    According to a new study in the INFORMS journal Organization Science, when employers foster an office environment that supports positive, social relationships between women coworkers, especially in primarily male dominated organizations, they are less likely to experience conflict among women employees.

    The study, “Gender and Negative Work Ties: Exploring Difficult Work Relationships Within and Across Gender at Two Firms” was conducted by Jenifer Merluzzi of George Washington University.

    Merluzzi surveyed 145 management-level employees regarding workplace dynamics at two large U.S. firms that were primarily male-dominated environments, with women representing less than one-third of the workforce and under 15 percent of the senior management.

    The study author found that, while men and women are equally likely to cite having a difficult co-worker, compared to men, women are more likely to cite another woman as a difficult coworker than they are to cite a man, or not cite anyone. However, this tendency is reduced among women who cite having more women coworkers for social support and friendship at work. Knowing that unique gendered network characteristics such as the gender compositions of an employee’s social support at work were associated with negative ties can help organizational leaders anticipate potential trouble spots within their firms where gendered conflict may erupt.

    “While gender diversity and inequality are well document topics in management, sociology and labor economics, few have looked closely at the gendered negative relationships within the workplace from a social relationship perspective,” said Merluzzi. “Understanding the relational side of conflict also bears practical importance as companies increasingly organize using diverse teams, heightening the reliance on informal ties between and within gender to get work accomplished.”


  8. Lack of sleep fuels harmful inflammatory response to marital stress

    July 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center press release:

    A lack of sleep doesn’t just leave you cranky and spoiling for a fight. Researchers at The Ohio State University Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research say it also puts you at risk for stress-related inflammation.

    This type of inflammation is associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and other diseases.

    “We know sleep problems are also linked with inflammation and many of the same chronic illnesses. So we were interested to see how sleep related to inflammation among married couples, and whether one partner’s sleep affected the other’s inflammation,” said Stephanie Wilson, lead researcher on the study.

    Results of the study were published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

    The research team recruited 43 couples who completed two study visits. Each time, the couples provided blood samples and said how many hours they had slept the previous two nights. Then researchers had the couples try to resolve a topic that sparks conflict in their marriage. Blood samples were taken again following the discussion.

    “We found that people who slept less in the past few nights didn’t wake up with higher inflammation, but they had a greater inflammatory response to the conflict. So that tells us less sleep increased vulnerability to a stressor,” Wilson said.

    If both partners got less than seven hours of sleep the previous two nights, the couple was more likely to argue or become hostile. For every hour of sleep lost, the researchers noted that levels of two known inflammatory markers rose 6 percent. Couples who used unhealthy tactics in their disagreement had an even greater inflammatory response — about a 10 percent increase with each hour of less sleep.

    “Any increase isn’t good, but a protracted increase that isn’t being addressed is where it can become a problem,” Wilson said. “What’s concerning is both a lack of sleep and marital conflict are common in daily life. About half of our study couples had slept less than the recommended seven hours in recent nights.”

    That’s higher than the current national average. The CDC reports 35 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep per night.

    “Part of the issue in a marriage is that sleep patterns often track together. If one person is restless, or has chronic problems, that can impact the other’s sleep. If these problems persist over time, you can get this nasty reverberation within the couple,” said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, senior author and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

    Researchers were encouraged to see that there was a protective effect if one of the partners was well-rested, or discussed conflict in a healthy way. They tended to neutralize the disagreement that might be stirred by the sleep-deprived partner.

    “We would tell people that it’s important to find good ways to process the relationship and resolve conflict — and get some sleep,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.


  9. Study suggests age affects how married couples handle conflict

    July 1, 2013 by Ashley

    From the SF State University press release via EurekAlert!:

    pregnancy coupleArguing with your spouse about where to go on vacation or how to handle the kids? As you age, you may find yourself handling these disagreements more often by changing the subject, according to a new San Francisco State University study.

    The study by Sarah Holley, SF State assistant professor of psychology who directs the University’s Relationships, Emotion and Health Lab, followed 127 middle-aged and older long-term married couples across 13 years, checking in to see how they communicated about conflicts from housework to finances. The researchers videotaped the couples’ 15-minute discussions, noting the types of communication they used when talking about contentious topics.

    Holley and her colleagues wanted to see how the couples might change in their use of a common and destructive type of communication, the demand-withdraw pattern, as they aged. In the demand-withdraw pattern, one person in a relationship blames or pressures their partner for a change, while the partner tries to avoid discussion of the problem or passively withdraws from the interaction.

    The researchers found that while most aspects of demand-withdraw communication remained steady over time, both husbands and wives “increased their tendency to demonstrate avoidance during conflict,” Holley said. That is, when faced with an area of disagreement, both spouses were more likely to do things such as change the subject or divert attention from the conflict.

    Avoidance is generally thought to be damaging to relationships as it gets in the way of conflict resolution. For younger couples, who may be grappling with newer issues, this may be particularly true. But for older couples, who have had decades to voice their disagreements, avoidance may be a way to move the conversation away from “toxic” areas and toward more neutral or pleasant topics, the researchers suggest.

    “This is in line with age-related shifts in socioemotional goals,” Holley said, “wherein individuals tend toward less conflict and greater goal disengagement in later life stages.” Several studies have shown, Holley explained, that as people age they place less importance on arguments and seek more positive experiences, perhaps out of a sense of making the most out of their remaining years.

    The age of the partners appears to be driving this important communication shift, the researchers suggest, but the change could also be influenced by the length of the couples’ relationship. “It may not be an either-or question,” Holley said. “It may be that both age and marital duration play a role in increased avoidance.” To explore this idea further, she hopes to compare older couples in long-term marriages with older newlywed couples.

    The study focused on this specific set of communication behaviors, Holley said, because psychologists think the demand-withdraw pattern, with its “self-perpetuating and polarizing nature,” can be especially destructive for couples. If a husband withdraws in response to his wife’s demands to do the dishes, for example, that withdrawal can lead to an escalation in the wife’s demands, which in turn may fuel the husband’s tendency to withdraw from the argument, and so on.

    This can lead to a polarization between the two partners which can be very difficult to resolve and can take a major toll on relationship satisfaction,” Holley said.

    Holley has studied demand-withdraw communication in all kinds of couples, and she said that the pattern goes beyond the stereotype of a nagging wife and a silent husband. When she compared gay, lesbian and heterosexual couples in a 2010 study, she found “strong support for the idea that the partner who desires more change … will be much more likely to occupy the demanding role, whereas the partner who desires less change — and therefore may benefit from maintaining the status quo — will be more likely to occupy the withdrawing role.”

    The study “Age-Related Changes in Demand – Withdraw Communication Behaviors” was published online on July 1, 2013 in the Journal of Marriage and Family.


  10. Study suggests marital conflict causes stress in children, may affect cognitive development

    April 2, 2013 by Ashley

    From the Society for Research in Child Development press release via EurekAlert!:

    child frustrationMarital conflict is a significant source of environmental stress for children, and witnessing such conflict may harm children’s stress response systems which, in turn, may affect their mental and intellectual development.

    These conclusions come from a new study by researchers at Auburn University and the Catholic University of America. The study appears in the journal Child Development.

    Researchers looked at 251 children from a variety of backgrounds who lived in two-parent homes. The children reported on their exposure to marital conflict when they were 8, providing information on the frequency, intensity, and lack of resolution of conflicts between their parents. The study gauged how children’s stress response system functioned by measuring respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), an index of activity in the parasympathetic branch of the body’s stress response system. RSA has been linked to the ability to regulate attention and emotion. Children’s ability to rapidly solve problems and quickly see patterns in new information also was measured at ages 8, 9, and 10.

    Children who witnessed more marital conflict at age 8 showed less adaptive RSA reactivity at 9, but this was true only for children who had lower resting RSA. In addition, children with lower baseline RSA whose stress response systems were also less adaptive developed mental and intellectual ability more slowly.

    “The findings provide further evidence that stress affects the development of the body’s stress response systems that help regulate attention, and that how these systems work is tied to the development of cognitive ability,” explains J. Benjamin Hinnant, assistant professor of psychology at the Catholic University of America and one of the researchers.