Staying Together for the Kids: Why This Isn’t a Good Idea
In my work as a counselor, I approach every couple with the intention of helping them heal what isn’t working in their marriages. I know that even the most challenging issues are often repairable. But occasionally, it is in everyone’s best interest to separate.
Parents considering divorce often find the very idea of being without their kids part of each week is unthinkable. The reason so many people stay in unhappy marriages is to avoid losing their children and to spare the kids the pain of not having both parents always present.
Research by Dr. John Gottman has shown that couples wait an average of seven years after becoming aware of problems in their marriage to seek counseling. This period of time can be subtly or obviously harmful to your child’s mental health. During those years when your relationship is not working, your kids are being affected—despite your best intentions to protect them.
While statistics often cite the harm divorce causes children, many studies fail to factor in the harm caused by a bad relationship. When your marriage has deteriorated into loss of intimacy (loving gestures, emotional closeness) this may be internalized by children and can affect their ability to love and be loved in their adult relationships. Likewise, when parents are obviously hostile and negative toward each other, kids may show signs of distress such as anxiety or depression with symptoms of guilt, worry, and low self-esteem.
When is it time to leave an unhappy marriage? Some reasons to leave an unhappy relationship are obvious: verbal, physical, or sexual abuse; ongoing substance abuse; broken trust through unaddressed lying and cheating; and a myriad of other extreme reasons. But sometimes the reasons are less obvious: sexual desire discrepancy, loss of respect and love, and unresolvable communication problems.
Divorce and Good Communication
Children are harmed when they are used as pawns by hostile parents: for revenge, for example, or to increase support payments. If the primary wage-earner in the family is resentful of having to pay spousal support, and seeks to reduce payments by asking for more physical custody of the children, when it is not in their best interests –this battle once activated drains emotional and financial resources—creating tension for everyone.
Kids pick up the negativity, so how you show your respect and love for their parent is important. If you are showing verbal or non-verbal signs of irritation and disrespect when talking about or to your ex, you child will be harmed. Then there are more blatant reasons, such as use of child pornography, repeated DUIs, and other criminal behaviors.
Sure You’re Getting Divorced? Couples Counseling Can Still Help
Couples counseling can be useful in learning what went wrong, not to assign blame or fix resentments, but from a perspective of taking appropriate responsibility. Doing a post-mortem of your marriage serves several important functions.
1. It helps you help your children to cope with the changes brought about by divorce. When children of divorce see their parents bickering about money, possessions, or time with the kids, they feel bad. It’s common for kids to feel guilty or responsible for the breakup. Being able to talk with your partner, calmly and respectfully, models good communication. Children pick up behaviors from their parents. Little ones are like sponges, picking up not only the crumbs but the bacteria as well.
2. If you leave a marriage without understanding what lead to its demise, you are likely to make the same mistake in your next serious relationship. In the many years I have done couples’ therapy, I have often heard this refrain: “I married someone so much like my previous partner—why didn’t I just stay?” We can’t run away from a bad marriage and assume it will be perfect with someone else. Spending time with your spouse trying to understand the complex dynamic you wove will save you from making similar mistakes in the future. Plus, couples often will decide to stay together once they realize and repair what got them to the point of divorce in the first place.
3. And, lastly, you will be co-parenting for the rest of your life. Learning better communication will help you as you raise your children in separate households. There will be many times you will have to consult each other about issues, school, friends, and problems that come up over the years. You will both need to be present at graduations, weddings, or grandchildren’s birthdays. It is a lot better to be friends working together to provide the best post-divorce environment for your kids possible.