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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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
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As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

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The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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