Violent couples may struggle as parents

People who are involved in a violent relationship may be more likely to have trouble forming an effective parenting team. This is according to new research published in the Journal of Family Issues, which showed couples who are aggressive towards each other during pregnancy often find it difficult to work together for the benefit of their offspring.

Mark Feinberg, research professor at the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Pennsylvania State University - which was chartered by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1855 - noted the findings are important because this co-parenting relationship can have great influence on the development of both the parents and the children.

Mr Feinberg noted the bond may affect a mother's postpartum depression or impact a young person's emotional and social adjustment.

The researchers suggested working with couples "to curtail or prevent violence in their relationships before the birth of their child may have positive implications for the development of co-parenting relationships after the child is born".

Dr Nicola Graham-Kevan, Chartered Psychologist, commented: "The study by  Mark Feinberg addresses an important topic which is often ignored, particularly when exploring aggression towards pregnant women - that of mutual aggression between partners.

"The results of numerous studies, importantly this includes the most rigorous research such as longitudinal studies, all find high levels of mutual aggression within romantic relationships.

"Although this has at times been explained as male aggression and female self-defence, the empirical data does not support this distinction.

"Research instead suggests that people tend to pair up with those similar to themselves. Terrie Moffitt, King's College London and colleagues used data from their longitudinal cohort to explore aggression between intimate partners. They found that aggressive people tend to form relationships with people who are similar to them. Therefore aggressive women tend to have children with similarly aggressive men.

"This effect is known as 'assortative mating' in evolutionary psychology. Relationship researchers such as Gian Gonzaga from University of California, Los Angeles have found that couples find similarity in behaviours between partners  validating because each perceives that their emotions are shared with their partner.

"For this reason, couples who use aggression during conflicts may feel they are better able to understand each other's emotional experiences, are able to coordinate their conflict responses and feel validation from their partners due to shared emotion.

"Such couples, however, are likely to experience many problems when they become parents. Becoming a parent creates many new stressors such as sleep deprivation, changes in sexual relations and decreases in time for leisure. These stressors can create conflicts between partners that are 'zero sum', i.e. for one to win the other must lose. For example, if the mother sleeps all night the father will have to feed the baby.

"Members of couples who resolve conflicts with aggression are likely to have poor conflict resolution skills. Such skill deficits are frequently due to a failure to learn effective prosocial skills during childhood, with partner aggressive adults having a long history of aggression to friends, peers and other family members. In addition, many of those who use aggression towards their partners were witness to and/or subjected to violence in their family of origin.

"Such individuals can be so traumatised by these experiences that becoming a parent can result in retraumatisation. These individuals may perceive their own child as traumatising and respond with fear or aggression. For the child this can lead to a disordered attachment style with the parental figure, which in turn is associated with adverse child and adult outcomes.

"This may be why the psychologist Lisa Serbin said in 2004: 'When they married, their children had higher health risks and the aggressive girls had become aggressive mothers, exhibiting maternal childhood aggression and having children who had more visits to hospital emergency rooms for treatment of injuries.'

"Research on couples therapy for partner violence suggests that it is an effective means of helping couples who wish to remain together [and] resolve conflict in a non-violent and more healthy way. In no area is such an outcome as crucial as when couples become parents."