Investigations have consistently demonstrated a relationship between marital distress and conflict and problem behaviors in children. Marital distress and conflict have been associated with depression, withdrawal, poor social competence, health problems, poor academic performance, and conduct-related difficulties in children (e.g., Cummings & Davies, 1994; Gottman & Katz, 1989; Grych & Fincham, 1990; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1982; Rutter, 1971). Physical marital violence also has profound effects on children's socioemotional adjustment. Children living in maritally violent homes exhibit higher levels of conduct problems (Hershorn & Rosenbaum, 1985; Jouriles, Murphy, & O'Leary, 1989), more internalizing and externalizing behavior problems (Sternberg et al., 1993; Jaffe, Wolfe, Wilson & Zak, 1986; Wolfe, Jaffe, Wilson & Zak, 1985), and more depressive symptoms (Sternberg et al., 1993) than children from nonmaritally violent homes.
While it is clearly understood that interparental conflict relates to a host of behavioral problems, there is less known about the mechanisms underlying the relationship between marital conflict and child maladjustment. In this chapter, the notion that physiological processes may serve as mediators of the impact of marital conflict on children is explored. A discussion of the limitations and advantages of physiological measures is presented, followed by a basic description of physiological methods and measures. Empirical evidence supporting the idea that physiological processes act as mediators of the impact of marital conflict on children is then reviewed, followed by a discussion of remaining issues that have yet to be explored in understanding the role of physiological arousal and regulation in children's reactions to marital conflict.