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4 Ways Bad Marriages Are Worse for Kids Than Divorce

When I was a kid, divorced parents were given the evil eye. Heads shook, tongues clicked; divorcees were home wreckers, selfish and unloving, they destroyed children’s lives. Churches banned them from services (even God wasn’t a fan). The message to married couples: Keep your family intact by any means necessary.

Today, with nearly half of all marriages in the U.S. ending in divorce, times have changed. Whether divorce hurts or helps children depends on how it is handled by their parents. One thing is certain: staying in a toxic marriage is certain to cause more damage to children than good.

Living in a Combat Zone

Kids forced to endure loveless marriages and tolerate emotional tension day after day, bear the full brunt of their parent’s dysfunctional relationship. They intuitively feel their parents’ unhappiness, sense their coldness and lack of intimacy. In many cases, children blame themselves, feeling their parents’ combative relationship is somehow their fault. In such cases, staying together “for the kids” is a cruel joke.

Here are four ways kids suffer through gloomy and despondent marriages:

1. Chronic Tension

Parents’ relationship leaves an emotional imprint that never fades. A natural part of children’s development is internalizing both their parents. When parents are consistently at odds, their kids internalize their conflicts. Rather than feeling soothed or comforted when they are with both parents, they feel tense around them. Such ongoing tension can produce serious emotional, social, and physical ailments in children such as depression, hopelessness or chronic fatigue.

2. An Unstable Sense of Self

As James Dean cried out to his bickering parents in the movie Rebel Without a Cause,“Stop it! You’re tearing me apart!” the war between parents takes root inside children’s minds. The strain eats away at their security and leaves them with little internal peace, putting them at odds with their own impulses. For example, they long to be loved but reject closeness; they yearn for friends but choose isolation; they will have great intellectual or creative abilities yet sabotage their own efforts. The external conflict between their parents eventually becomes an internal battle with themselves that complicates their life and hinders their emotional development.

3. Fear of Intimacy

Children raised by battling parents have great difficulty getting close to others. Intimacy triggers the traumas they suffered when witnessing their parents’ dysfunction, so they avoid closeness to steer clear of getting hurt. If they manage to establish an intimate relationship, they remain cautious or guarded. When conflict arises, they’re most likely to flee or reenact their parents’ conflicts with their own partner.

4. Mood Problems

Warring parents produce children who struggle with serious mood problems, such as dysthymia. These problems, left untreated, may fuel personality disorders or substance abuse. At the root of their problems is a profound lack of hope. They learned at an early age to abandon optimism and expect the worst. Sadly, bad marriages cause kids to mature too quickly and lose out on their childhood.

Before You Consider Divorce

Ending a marriage is a brutal undertaking. Divorce should only be an option after all efforts to save a relationship have been exhausted. So before you call your lawyer, here are a few suggestions:

Couples Counseling

Couples counseling works best when it teaches parents how to work through their conflicts without resorting to emotional warfare (see “Hate Me in a More Loving Way: A Couples Guide to Better Arguing”). It also gives ill-tempered parents a place to work through their differences rather than expose their kids to them. The goal of couple’s therapy is to enrich communication and enhance intimacy. But be warned, couples therapy can be treacherous. The wrong therapist can spell doom for your marriage. Gather trustworthy recommendations, take your time, and interview several therapists. Make sure you both agree on the therapist you choose, otherwise the therapy will become just another bone of contention.

Individual therapy

Nothing stirs up unresolved childhood issues like marriage. Too often, couples have unrealistic expectations of marriage, and become disillusioned when they discover that good marriages take work. So before you blame all the problems in your marriage on your partner, get some help for yourself.  A skilled therapist can help you identify problems that stem from your past that are resurfacing in your relationship.

Support Groups

The best outcome of group work comes from sharing your feelings and discovering that you’re not alone.  Hearing about other couples’ struggles, the difficulties they face, and how they work through them, can bring much-needed inspiration and relief. It also provides you with a community of people who can inspire you with new choices in your marriage.

Zoe’s Story

Zoe, a shaggy-haired thirteen-year-old with sad eyes, glares at me, arms folded, and jaw set; a therapy hostage if I ever saw one. Parents exert their executive power when it comes to therapy, so I don’t expect Zoe to cooperate, especially during our first tumultuous session. To kids like Zoe, therapy is an insult.

Zoe, however, offers me a deal: “I’ll be in therapy with you only if you promise one thing. I want you to convince my parents to get divorced.”

I was flabbergasted by her request, but it opened my eyes to something I had never considered: the positive side of divorce

Zoe suffered on-going humiliation in public, in school, and in front of her friends due to her parent’s combative relationship. The verbal abuse she witnessed her mother suffer at the hands of her father never let up.  As a result, Zoe struggled with ongoing headaches, depression, and weight problems.

After meeting with Zoe’s parents and witnessing their sneering contempt for each other, I understood Zoe’s request.  If I could barely stand them for thirty minutes, what must it be like to live with them?

Within a year after her parent’s divorce, her depression lifted; she went from failing school to being on the honor role. She also had her first boyfriend and became socially outgoing. In fact, I was amazed at how much better life became for everyone.

Bad Marriage or Healthy Divorce?

Divorce, like marriage, is something that you should never enter into recklessly. Depending on how a divorce is handled, it can lead to positive or negative outcomes. While separating can reduce tension and conflict in children’s lives, a hostile divorce that drags on for years damages kids even more. Working on your relationship is key to a positive outcome for your kid, whether you stay together or not. You may no longer be husband and wife, but you are parents forever.