When I was a child, my parents’ fights could suck the oxygen out of a room. My mother verbally lashed my father, smashed jam jars, and made outlandish threats. Her outbursts froze me in my tracks. When my father fled to work, the garage, or the woods, I felt unprotected.
“Children are like emotional Geiger counters,” says E. Mark Cummings, psychologist at Notre Dame University, who, along with colleagues, has published hundreds of papers over twenty years on the subject. Kids pay close attention to their parents’ emotions for information about how safe they are in the family, Cummings says. When parents are destructive, the collateral damage to kids can last a lifetime.
My experience led me to approach marriage and parenthood with more than a little caution. As a developmental psychologist I knew that marital quarrelling was inevitable. According to family therapist Sheri Glucoft Wong, of Berkeley, California, just having children creates more conflicts, even for couples who were doing well before they became parents. “When kids show up, there’s less time to get more done,” she says. “All of a sudden you’re not as patient, not as flexible, and it feels like there’s more at stake.”