No one would advocate that divorce is good for kids, but staying in a bad marriage for their sake can hurt more than help. Here are 5 reasons why.
Conflict hurts children more than divorce. Studies consistently show that it’s not the divorce that hurts children; it’s the level of conflict between parents. That means that children are more likely to suffer emotional damage by growing up in a high-conflict yet in tact marriage than if their parents divorce and daily conflict subsides.
Children may grow up to repeat the pattern. Whether chaos or disengagement is the vibe in the house, children will become accustomed to that particular dysfunction and seek out – often unconsciously — the same kind of relationship their parents had. You are your children’s role models; by keeping a bad marriage together, you are sending the message that adult relationships are miserable and chaos or disengagement is normal.
Children may try to “fix” the problem. Parents’ marital problems can scare children, who may try to resolve the dysfunction so they can feel safe. Since their parents have big problems, some children may feel there’s no room for them to have their own, so they compensate by striving for perfection or not asking for what they need. Others may morph into what therapists call the “identified patient,” a child whose issues serve to distract parents from their own. Either way, children spend their formative years playing marital paramedic.
Children may become the surrogate spouse/therapist. When couples don’t meet each other’s emotional needs, one or both may turn to their children: sharing adult problems or treating the child as a partner. Children need the structure of a traditional parent-child hierarchy to feel secure. They need to focus on the business of childhood, not the business of keeping a parent afloat. Similar to the kids who try to be fixers, being a parent’s therapist sets the stage for codependence later on. Children should feel that they have intrinsic worth, not value that comes only from making other people happy.
Children may live with ambient anxiety. Although parents may think they’re hiding their problems, children usually know what’s going on. Growing up in a haze of marital tension creates anxiety: children expect divorce and become preoccupied wondering when it’s going to happen. Pretending things are fine when they’re not makes kids doubt their own reality. When children don’t learn to trust their instincts, they can ignore red flags in future friends and romantic partners. Parents worry about the damage divorce will cause children, but they don’t recognize that kids are often relieved when the inevitable arrives.
If the goal of staying together is to provide stability for the kids, these consequences are evidence that it doesn’t always work. Once they’ve adjusted to the divorce, child may feel more stability in separate, relatively peaceful homes.
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