Nurturing Children in the family – starting from couple’s relationship

Parents may put a lot of attention in building up positive parent-child relationship as they understand that it is important for the development of their children. However, a positive relationship between a couple is equally, or even more important. Research findings indicated that a healthy couple relationship is essential for healthy growing up of children, right from their early childhood.

The Link between couple relationship and child adjustment

When studying the effect of divorce versus marital conflict on children, the American Psychological Association commented that the latter is a more important predictor of child adjustment1. It reported that children from families of frequent interparental conflict are more likely to experience behavioural and academic problems such as aggression, antisocial behaviours, poor self-esteem and depression. Studies on Hong Kong and Chinese families also found that marital quality could have direct or indirect effect on children and adolescents’ emotional and behavioural problems. For example, one local study found that Hong Kong adolescents’ self-esteem and sense of hopelessness were affected directly by their parents’ marital quality2. Other studies found that interparental conflict affected parenting, which then related to children and adolescents’ mood problems as well as aggressive and antisocial behaviours3,4.

One may not imagine that the impact of interparental conflict can be very long-lasting. A recent research found that children who had experienced parents’ marital conflict in their preschool age tended to have more emotional and behavioural difficulties in their adolescence5. Such impact was similar for both boys and girls. Marital conflict in this study referred to physical aggression, verbal and non-verbal expression of anger, as well as refusing to communicate during arguments. 

The above findings suggested that the impact of negative couple relationship is extensive. At the same time, research findings indicated that positive couple relationship has lasting positive effect on children. To facilitate transition into parenthood, the Cowans developed preventive intervention groups for new parents6,7, with one group focused on parenting issues and the other focused on marital issues. To study the effect of these groups, they conducted randomized control trials to compare the outcome of the two intervention groups with the control group. Both intervention groups showed improvements in parenting, but the marital-focused group had a value-added impact of reduced marital conflict. They followed up the participants in ten years after the intervention completed. Research results indicated that the marital-focused group still reported better marital satisfaction and their children showed less hyperactive and aggressive behaviours comparing to those who had not received any intervention. Therefore, after reviewing Cowans’ studies, Christine Carter concluded that if one improves in parenting, he/she will not necessarily improve in marriage. On the other hand, if one improves in marriage, he/she will improve in parenting8.

Nurturing positivity between a couple

John Gottman, a renowned researcher in the field of marital relationship, reported that in observation of couple interactions, couples who enjoy stable and satisfying relationship usually shows a minimum of 5 to 1 ratio in positive versus negative interactions9. What does this ratio tell us?

  • Conflict exists between stable couples

    The ratio is not 5 to 0, but 5 to 1. This indicates that negative interactions do exist even for couples enjoying satisfying relationship. Gottman stated that it was neither the conflict itself nor the number of conflict that predicted divorce. Rather, it was the way how the couple handled their conflict10. Having some conflict is necessary to keep the couples involved with each other. If the conflict is handled in constructive ways, stronger relationship could be built11.

    Responses in both positive and negative interactions can be categorized along the constructive-destructive and active-passive dimensions. Rusbult and Zembrodt named the four types of response to conflict as exit, neglect, voice and loyalty12:

      Constructive Destructive
    Active Voice Exit
    Passive Loyalty Neglect

    Exit refers to behaviours such as screaming, threatening to leave, blaming and personally attacking the partner. Neglect refers to behaviours withdrawing from the relationship such as ignoring the partner or spending less time together. Loyalty refers to behaviours that passively wait for improvement of the situation. Finally, voice refers to active behaviours to improve the situation such as expressing one’s feelings, discussing and compromising with the partner or seeking advice from others. Research findings indicated that only the last type of responses, i.e., voice, would lead to long-term benefit of the relationship. While disagreements are inevitable, well-functioning couples could establish a “dialogue” about those issues. They are able to talk about their disagreements with humor, affection, and some irritability but without escalating negative affect13.

    Other than understanding constructive ways in responding to conflict, it seems even more important for couples to be able to deal with problems which are unable to be solved. Research found that 69% of couple conflict was perpetual and unsolvable14. Gottman observed couples’ interactions in his “Love Lab”. He described that when he brought a couple into his laboratory again 4 years later, he observed that they were talking about the same issues in very much the same ways. When the current and past videotapes of the couple in the laboratory were edited together, it looked like time had not passed at all. In fact, “choosing a partner is choosing a set of problem”15. Nonetheless, couples did learn to cope in the relationship. Gottman described that:

    “This is very much like a set of ailments we develop as we age. Trick knees, bad backs, indigestion. We learn to live with these chronic ailments and to make the best of life in spite of them. The same is true in any marriage. We have discovered in our study of long-term happy marriages that when people stay married for a long time, they learn to become mellower about one another’s faults. They become more accepting of one another, and they communicate this acceptance. ”16
  • Positivity should out-number negativity

    While 5 to 1 is a baseline, in fact 20 to 1 positive versus negative interactions can be observed during general conversation when the relationships are happy. Positivity in relationships has to be built with effort. Gottman observed that for couples whose relationship continued to improve, they devoted around an extra 5 hours each week to their marriage. Gottman called it Magic 5 Hours. In these 5 hours, the couples spent time in the following activities17:

    Partings Before saying good-bye in the morning, learn about one thing that is happening in each other’s life that day
    Reunions Engage in stress-reducing conversation at the end of each workday
    Admiration & appreciation Find some way every day to communicate genuine affection and appreciation toward each other
    Affection Kiss, hold, grab and touch each other when together
    Weekly date Arrange a relaxing, low-pressure time to stay connected, or a time to talk about marital issues every week

    Positivity can also be built in daily communication. Research findings indicated that only active-constructive responses in positive interactions were related to better marital satisfaction and encouraged further communication18. This means that when one shares with his/her partner a positive event, such as getting promoted, if the partner just expresses minimal emotions of his/her support, this could be detrimental to the couple relationship. To help each other feel connected, it would be desirable if the partner expresses excitement directly and shows genuine concern about the event.

    When there are more positive affect in non-conflict situations, there are also more positive affect during conflict19. This suggests that positivity extends from non-conflict situations to conflict situations.

Points to remember

  • While parents focus on building a close parent-child relationship, the extensive impact of couple relationship on healthy child development should not be overlooked. The impact, both in positive and negative ways, can last from early childhood into their adolescence.
  • Conflict is inevitable in every couple. Learning to respond in active-constructive ways and accept perpetual unresolvable problems helps.
  • The baseline of positive versus negative interactions for stable relationship is in a 5 to 1 ratio. The larger the ratio, the happier the relationship.
  • Positivity in the relationship could be built by spending time for activities of the Magic 5 Hours and responding to your partner in active-constructive ways when he/she shares positive events.
  • Having a reserve of positivity during non-conflict situations can help building up positive affect during conflicts.

Tips for professionals working with children

  • While parents’ relationship with the children should be of concern, the importance of the relationship between the parents should not be overlooked.
  • When parents appear to be putting all their attention only on childcare issues, they could be reminded of the importance to nurture their relationship. The activities in the Magic 5 Hours could be suggested.
  • Should marital conflicts be detected, consider to make referrals to appropriate services.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2004). An overview of the psychological literature on the effects of divorce on children. Retrieved May 20, 2015, from
  2. Shek, D.T.L. (2000). Parental marital quality and well-being, parent-child relational quality, and chinese adolescent adjustment. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 28(2), 147-162. doi:10.1080/019261800261725
  3. Lei, C., Lansford, J.E., Schwartz,D., & Farver, J.M. (2004). Marital quality, maternal depressed affect, harsh parenting, and child externalising in Hong Kong Chinese families. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 28(4), 311-318. doi: 10.1080/01650250344000523
  4. Bradford, K., Barber, B.K., Olsen, J.A., Maughan, S.L., Erickson, L.D., Ward, D., & Stolz, H.E. (2004). A multi-national study of interparental conflict, parenting, and adolescent functioning: South Africa, Bangladesh, China, India, Bosnia, Germany, Palestine, Colombia, and the United States. Marriage & Family Review, 35(3-4), 107-137. doi:10.1300/J002v35n03_07
  5. Cummings, E.M., George, M.R.W., McCoy, K.P., & Davies, P.T. (2012). Interparental conflict in kindergarten and adolescent adjustment: prospective investigation of emotional security as an explanatory mechanism. Child Development, 83(5), 1703-1715. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01807.x.
  6. Schulz, M.S., Cowan, C.P., & Cowan, P.A. (2006). Promoting healthy beginnings: a randomized controlled trial of a preventive intervention to preserve marital quality during the transition to parenthood. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(1),20-31.
  7. Cowan, C.P., Cowan, P.A., & Barry, J. (2011). Couples' groups for parents of preschoolers: ten-year outcomes of a randomized trial. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(2), 240-250. doi: 10.1037/a0023003.
  8. Carter, C. (2008). Your love life, your child’s happiness. Retrieved from
  9. Gottman, J. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. W. W. Norton & Company.
  10. Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  11. Campbell, L., & Stanton, S.C.E. (2013). Handling Conflicts Positively. In Hojjat, M. & Cramer, D. (Eds.), Positive Psychology of Love (pp. 134-148). Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/
  12. Rusbult, C.E., & Zembrodt, I.M. (1983). Responses to dissatisfaction in romantic involvements: A multidimensional scaling analysis. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 274-293.
  13. Gottman, J.M., & Gottman, J.S. (2008). Gottman method couple therapy. In Gurman, A.S (Ed.). Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy (4th ed., pp. 138-164). The Guildford Press.
  14. Gottman, J.M., & Gottman, J.S. (2008). Gottman method couple therapy. In Gurman, A.S (Ed.). Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy (4th ed., pp. 138-164). The Guildford Press.
  15. Wile, D.B. (1988). After the honeymoon (p.12). New York: Wiley.
  16. Gottman, J.M. (1998). Clinical manual for marital therapy: A research-based approach. Seattle, WA: The Seattle Marital and Family Institute.
  17. Gottman, J.M., & Silver, N. (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press. (p.260)
  18. Gable, S.L., Reis, H.T., Impett, E.A., & Asher, E.R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 87,2, 228-245.
  19. Ryan, K.D., & Gottman, J.M. Psycho-educational intervention with moderately and severely distressed married couples – 1-year follow up results. Retrieved from