In work with families there is a tendency to become focused on one or maybe two individuals in the family system, typically the child or the mother or their relationship. There is recognition of the importance of engaging fathers where there is distress in the family or concerns regarding how children are progressing, but the detailed approaches to working with men around their children’s wellbeing are still being articulated in therapy circles. In the midst of this focus, there is still a hesitancy in exploring how the adult couple in a child’s life are travelling as a couple despite there being clear evidence that dysfunction in the couple relationship has BIG implications on a child’s wellbeing.
Marshall and Watt (1999) established that marital conflict has been found to be the strongest risk factor for behavioural problems in children. They found it was significantly associated with externalising and internalising behaviours and social, attention and thought problems when children were assessed at the age of five. The more frequent and intense episodes of parental conflict were, the more likely it was that children exhibited problem behaviours. A focus on the couple dynamics around managing conflict then becomes important business for those wanting to support children’s wellbeing. It appears that how the couple manage conflict is at the heart of the health of the relationship -not unlike how children and parents manage distress in the attachment relationship. This is why it is often said to be important for couples to go beyond the “ honeymoon stage” of their relationship before making life commitments to each other as there needs to be time for conflict to become present in the relationship to highlight a couples capacity for an ongoing healthy relationship.
In terms of assessing the couple’s functioning a useful starting place is the use of the Marital Agendas Protocol developed by Notarius and Vanzetti, 1983, which asks couples to individually rate problem areas in their relationships and rank order the top three. Based on these rankings, couples are then asked to choose a top problem area and discuss the problem for 12-15 minutes, not unlike what naturally happens in a regular family session. See http://digitalunion.osu.edu/r2/summer09/eskin/MAP.html for a video example of it in action. It is in conflict that the strength and capacity of the relationship is exposed, and the valuing of the other tested.
Malik and Lindahl ( 2000) then created the SCID- System for Coding Interactions in Dyads to assess the functioning of the couple in this conversation. Important elements that are coded are
- Verbal aggression
- Attempts to control
- Negativity and conflict
- Dysphoric affect
- Problem solving communication
- Positive affect
- Negative escalation
- Conflict management style
- Balance of power
Identifying struggles in a couple’s conflict management then needs to lead to supporting capacity building for each person individually and then ultimately within the dyad. William Doherty, Professor of Family Social Science and Director of Minnesota Couples in the Brink Project outlines in detail in his recent article in The Therapist ( March/ April 2012) the benefits of working with each person individually to ensure there is commitment to addressing the difficulties before launching into couples therapy.
For many workers, there is a clear understanding around the impact of domestic violence on children. There is a need to further recognise the significance of more subtle yet powerful interactions around conflict in the dyad if there is to be support for healthy relations in the dyad and therefore best outcomes for children in their care.