Unhappily Married: What’s Best for the Kids – Together or Apart?

Unhappy Marriage: What's Best for the Kids - Together or Apart?

Deciding whether to stay in an unhappy marriage or leave is possibly one of the hardest decisions a parent could make.

Sometimes despite the greatest ‘happily-ever-after’ intentions, a relationship can become a tense, unhappy, conflicted union. If this is the case there’ll be no hiding it from the kids – they’ll know and according to a growing body of research, they’ll wear the impact.

A number of studies have pointed to the negative impact of divorce on children but there is compelling research suggesting that many of these problems have their roots in the conflict and tension that preceded the breakup. It is widely accepted that parental conflict does damage, particularly when it is any of the following:

  • frequent;
  • heated (verbal insults and raised voices);
  • physically aggressive;
  • unresolved (in the child’s eyes);
  • about the child;
  • brings on the silent treatment between parents.

Parents will do anything for their children and this may fuel the decision to stay together in an unhappy marriage. Conflict though, might do more harm to children than divorce:

  1. Harm to the parent-child bond.

    In an unhappy marriage, where tension and conflict is the norm, parent-child interactions also seem to show signs of strain. As explained by researcher and psychologist Chrystyna Kouros, ‘…if mom and dad are fighting, it will show up initially – and in some cases on the second day – in a poorer quality relationship with their kids.’  The exact reasons for this are unclear but there are a number of likely explanations. Conflict drains the resources of a relationship and in doing so, can give way to ineffective or inconsistent parenting. Parental energy is also strained, leaving less to invest in the children.

  2. The trigger for psychological and behavioural problems.

    Marital conflict is associated with a range of internalising (such as depression, anxiety, withdrawal) and externalizing (such as aggression, non-compliance) outcomes in children.

  3. Poorer academic performance.

    Children who report higher levels of hostile, intense or unresolved conflict between their parents show poorer academic performance. 

  4. Poorer interpersonal skills.

    When there is ongoing tension and unresolved conflict between parents, there is likely to be minimal modelling of effective ways to resolve conflict. Disagreements are a part of life and the first place children learn how to handle them is in the home, by watching their parents. If there is limited modelling of successful conflict resolution, there will be limited learning of successful relationship skills.

  5. Trouble with their own future romantic relationships.

    Children who are exposed to frequent marital conflict are more likely to have trouble with their own romantic relationships in adolescence and through to adulthood. For children from high conflict homes, their experience with romantic relationships and is a negative one, effectively limiting their knowledge on how successful relationships work.

  6. Leads to emotional insecurity.

    Research has found that when parents are in an unhappy marriage, the conflict compromises the social and emotional well-being of children by threatening their sense of security in the family. This in turn predicts the onset of problems during adolescence, including depression and anxiety.  

  7. Causes cardiac stress and an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone).

    Tension or conflict between parents causes a physiological response in children. According to research, when children see conflict between their parents, they experience cardiac stress and a significant increase in the level of cortisol in their body. This physical response can harm their stress response systems and interfere with their mental and intellectual development.

  8. Non-verbal and verbal conflict cause similar responses.

    In a study conducted at the University of Notre Dame, it was found that children responded similarly to both verbal and nonverbal forms of conflict between their parents. Yelling, name-calling and verbal spite induces the same stress response in children as eye-rolling, heavy sighs, silent treatment and non-verbal intimidation such as finger pointing or glaring.

  9. Increases the likelihood of adult children divorcing.

    Research has found the highest rates of divorce occur for adult children whose parents divorced after a high conflict marriage. The second highest rate was for those whose parents stayed together but had a high conflict relationship. 

How to Disagree Well – Even if it’s an Unhappy Marriage

Disagreements are a fact of life. Disagree well, and you’ll provide your kids with the opportunity to learn some valuable life skills that will hold them well throughout their lives. Here’s how:

  1. Don’t fight dirty.

    Reduce the hostility and don’t fight dirty. No name-calling, yelling, personal attacks, eye-rolling, glaring or silent treatment. If a dirty fight is all you have in you, just keep it away from the kids.

  2. Resolve the argument and let the kids know you’ve made up (they’ll be able to tell if you’re faking).

    Make sure you let the children know that the argument has been resolved. Research has shown that conflict is particularly damaging to kids if they believe it to be unresolved. Let them know that you and your spouse forgive each other and have made up. It’s important to do this respectfully and warmly. Children are sharper than we often give them credit for and if you’re faking the make-up, they’ll know it straight away.

  3. Keep the effects of the clash separate from the kids.

    Be deliberate in keeping the effects of a marital clash on you separate to your relationships with your kids. Conflict takes its toll on even the strongest person. An unhappy marriage will drain your energy but its important to stay patient, sensitive and consistent with your kids. Do whatever you can to make sure your children feel that you still have enough energy for them. 

  4. Be alive the possibility that the kids may blame themselves.

    Let them know that grown-ups sometimes get cranky with each other and that it has absolutely nothing to do with them. Let them know they are actually the biggest reason you love each other or care about each other and that no matter what, they’ll never be the reason for the fight. They might blame themselves whether the argument is over them or not – it’s just the way it is. If you are arguing over something to do with them, do everything you can to keep it away from them or at the very least, do whatever you can to shut it down.

Not all marital conflict is unhealthy. It’s important for children to learn how to effectively manage conflict and one of the best ways for this to happen is for them to see their parents doing exactly that – loving each other through the bumps. Conflict that is resolved respectfully and with warmth and empathy will have a positive effect on kids and equip them with valuable tools for their own lives.

 Children of divorced parents can flourish and be as successful as children from families where the marriage is intact.

Nobody but you can decide whether it’s best to stay together or separate but what we know from the research is that if you stay together, it’s critical to minimise conflict, especially in front of the kids. Constant tension and arguing can harm them more than divorce. 

I’ve never met a parent who went to divorce as anything but the last option – but it is an option and perhaps a sound one if the marriage is one of tension or high conflict. 

Showing respect to your relationship doesn’t always mean staying. If you’ve fought to keep it intact and it continues to fall apart, respecting it might mean ending it rather than sending it to a slow cold death. Only the couple involved can make the decision and it’s not for anyone else to judge.

Every family is different but there are common reasons that relationships fall apart. If you have more fight left in you, see here for the 6 most common reasons relationships come undone and ways you might be able to get them back on track.

There’s a big difference between giving up and knowing when to walk away. Deciding to divorce in no way means you have failed or that the relationship wasn’t important, right or wonderful in its prime. What it means is that it has run its course and has little more to offer either of you. Think carefully before you decide to stay together for the kids, they may be the reason you need to make the heartbreaking and brave decision to walk away.

How children deal with divorce depends heavily on how the parents deal with it. See here for ways to help  children safely and soundly through to the other side of divorce.

70 Comments

EstherC

I know this article is old but the topic is still so relevant. My marriage will too be just another statistic, a tale as old as time.

Met him at 32, he proposed 6 months later and within the year we married our only daughter was born.

We have been married 7 years and for the last 6, he has not had sex with me. I never rejected him but he always rejected me. Initially it was in a joking manner, he would let me touch : tickle him and then after a few minutes he would say he’s tired. I asked him why no feeling he would say tired or didn’t want me to get pregnant again so soon etc etc. after 3-4 years sexless I still asked he would joke he has achieved nirvana.

Eventually I couldn’t even touch it he would just flick my hand away rudely. While I have been celibate for 6 years, There has been some small hint and incidents that has led me to suspect he is cheating while I am busy with the kid’s activities. He tells people I’m fat but stops me from working out then says he likes me fat. He doesn’t give me any allowance even when he is earning much more now. I married him when he was earning peanuts and now he’s doing well he’s keeping it for himself.

I have finally commenced divorce proceedings and I pray to god it will go smoothly. I believe it is for the best. I am only 39 and cannot continue to waste my life like this. I owe it to my kid to show her what a healthy happy strong and independent woman in mind body and soul
Is.

Reply
Sunny

I am a married man aged 34 and i have been in this marriage for 3years. When i met my wife she didnt disclose that she has 2kids (boys). When she told me i was shocked and i tried to be strong and thought God has a purpose for the 2 of us. We were blessed with a baby girl 2years ago. The problem is that we are always fighting in front of kids. when the boys do wrong she doesnt want to correct them and it affects me as i dont want to see wrong behaviour in them. Also she talks too much about how much she loves them and that she will do whatever it takes to be with them and make them happy. The other problem is she seems to be caring about the kids more than me. Personally i care about her a lot and also the kids. Of late she shouts at my face in front of kids and even tells me to go to hell. what should i do. I have even developed red eyes because of stress and crying

Reply
Ryan

I’m in kind of the same situation and I’m seriously thinking about leaving, Life is just too short and kids shouldn’t be watching their parents fighting and not loving each other. IMO

Reply
Aderonke

@Ryan it’s well…Am a lover of happy homes.. But you know what for a marriage to work the two involved have to come together and make it work..It’s not a day thing..It’s something you never graduate From…When you think of divorce..How are you sure you will find peace or fulfilment where you are going to…For me am a broken woman..I love my husband so so much..Have been married for 8yrs plus now but I notice that he doesn’t have My time anymore… Little things piss him off..We might be joking for example and I say something that doesn’t go well with him…He will just start shouting..This is a man that use to worship the ground I stepped on before…I have been thinking of leaving.. But am scared because of the boys.. I don’t have a job…..And even if I leave.. Where will I start from.. Please what should I do??

Reply

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Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️
The behaviour that comes with separation anxiety is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there is at least one of 2 things: attachment with another trusted, adult; or a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe - it’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for your child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more illuminated.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note. You will always be their favourite way to safety, but you can’t be everywhere. Another loving adult or the felt presence of you will help them rest.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say or whether to say anything at all. It doesn’t matter if the ‘right’ words aren’t there, because often there no right words. There are also no wrong ones. Often it’s not even about the words. Your presence, your attention, the sound of your voice - they all help to soften the hard edges of the world. Humans have been talking for as long as we’ve had heartbeats and there’s a reason for this. Talking heals. 

It helps to connect the emotional right brain with the logical left. This gives context and shape to feelings and helps them feel contained, which lets those feelings soften. 

You don’t need to fix anything and you don’t need to have all the answers. Even if the words land differently to the way you expected, you can clean it up once it’s out there. What’s important is opening the space for conversation, which opens the way to you. Try, ‘I’m wondering how you’re doing with everything. Would you like to talk?’ 

And let them take the lead. Some days they’ll want to talk about ‘it’ and some days they’ll want to talk about anything but. Whether it’s to distract from the mess of it all or to go deeper into it so they can carve their way through the feeling to the calm on the other side, healing will come. So ask, ‘Do you want to talk about ‘it’ or do you want to talk about something else? Because I’m here for both.’ ♥️
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