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You Can’t Ignore the Couple Relationship

When parents present a child for therapy the implicit and sometimes explicit request is to focus on ‘the person with the problem’ to the exclusion of all other relationships. Systemic thinkers understand this is unhelpful, for in the web of family relationships everything and everyone is connected, and resolution of the problem is more likely to be outside the child than inside. Yet in the face of the expectation and demand that you ’fix them up’ it is easy to lose sight of this.

Knowledge of research is helpful as it supports the practitioner’s systemic perspective and justifies the need to enquire about matters that may be distressing and intrusive. A study by Kuo and Johnson (2021) explored moderating and individual factors in the process of transfer of stress and tension from the couple relationship to parenting of young children with a view to mitigating these. Their results showed that ‘Parent–child dysfunctional interaction was unrelated to marital satisfaction, showing no evidence of spillover, whereas parenting distress was consistently associated with marital satisfaction, showing spillover.’ In addition, they reported that ‘higher parental identity strengthened marital-to-parenting spillover for mothers in contrast to expectations based on theoretical assumptions, whereas cognitive reappraisal weakened marital-to-parenting spillover, supporting the broader emotion regulation literature.’

These are interesting and practical findings which guide the practitioner to maintain the view that we should probably begin with the key relationships around a child rather than hoping to alter them on the inside. It makes sense.

KUO.P., & JOHNSON, V. (2021) Whose parenting stress is more vulnerable to marital dissatisfaction? A within-couple approach examining gender, cognitive reappraisal, and parental identity.  Family Process Vol. 60, No 1, p1-18


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