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When kids are the only thing holding your marriage together

If you’re in an unhappy marriage, chances are you’ve thought about staying married just for the sake of the children. We spoke with a developmental psychologist to understand the benefits and drawbacks of this approach to marriage.

Little girl caught between arguing parents |

Dr. Nancy Buck knows a lot about child development and parenting. She is a developmental psychologist, writer and teacher, and she works as a parenting coach for her company, Peaceful Parenting, Inc. We spoke with Dr. Buck about the challenges of parenting when couples are considering separation due to ongoing marital problems. She provided us with insight about marriage, divorce and how to make decisions when couples sense that they’re only staying together “for the sake of the children.”

The importance of an intact marriage

Generally speaking, parenting experts agree that the ideal parenting arrangement for child development occurs in the context of a happy marriage. From a practical standpoint, homes with two parents are less likely to experience the financial hardships that are more common in single-parent homes. But Dr. Buck added that the marital relationship between a mother and father also serves as the foundation of a child’s safety, security and feelings of love and belonging.

When parents separate, no matter how amicable the split, a child’s sense of security, safety and love is threatened and changed. Although the impact of the threat varies according to the child’s age and developmental stage, the threat is real and often overwhelming for children. “The stress and dissatisfaction will be experienced and expressed through emotions, physical ailments, worry and increased fears and anxieties,” said Dr. Buck. From a parenting standpoint, it’s best to avoid the threat altogether by building a happy and supportive marriage.

But what if we’re unhappy?

Unfortunately, many parents find themselves in a marital relationship that is unhappy, no matter how hard they try to build support and care for one another. These parents find themselves in a situation where they must weigh the fallout from two undesirable scenarios — divorcing or staying together for the children.

Dr. Buck was very clear that divorce negatively impacts children. Children of divorce, no matter their age, will experience stress and heartache when their home splits in two. But surprisingly, children of parents who stay together just for the children may also experience undesirable outcomes. Dr. Buck indicated that she’s sometimes seen the following problems in children who live in an unhappy home.

  • Flawed perception. Children are extremely perceptive, and they are likely to discern unhappiness even when Mom and Dad are trying to appear happy for the kids. “Children are more tuned in to subtle, covert and nonverbal clues,” Dr. Buck said. “Most parents aren’t fooling anyone but themselves.” The perception of an unhappy home with a happy exterior can cause internal distress for children.
  • Parentification. If Mom or Dad is unhappy, children are sometimes cast in a caretaker role for their own parents. This means that the child may actually try to take care of their mom or dad’s emotions about the marriage, which can negatively impact development and their future relationships.
  • Distrust. Parents who stay together for the kids but put on a happy front are, in some ways, practicing dishonesty in the home. Children may perceive this dishonesty and grow to distrust what they see at face value.
  • Unhealthy role models. Children who grow up in an unhealthy home lack good role models for how a loving and supportive relationship should look. With unhealthy role models, the child may not know how to navigate romantic relationships effectively in his or her own adulthood.

It’s up to parents to decide how they want to manage an unhappy marital relationship, but it’s important to note that both divorce and staying in an unhappy relationship can negatively impact children. So what can you do to give your kids the best possible outcomes in a challenging situation?

How to weigh your options

Many parents want step-by-step instructions for how to manage their unhappy marriage in front of the children. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers because both parenting and marriage are complex and variable. Dr. Buck suggested the following ways to address parental discord, rather than calling the lawyer or sweeping the problems under the rug.

  • Call a third party for help. Whether you and your spouse choose to stay together or to separate, it’s important to call a counselor, pastor or coach to try to work on your issues. “The ideal answer,” said Dr. Buck, “is for two parents to work together with a third party to create strategies for parenting together and handling disagreements together. Unfortunately this rarely happens. But in my experience, if parents know how to figure out these problems respectfully, they won’t head further toward divorce.” Ideally, parents should work together to turn an unhappy marriage into a happy one.
  • Read books or attend classes. Address marital problems head-on by gathering information through classes or books. It doesn’t help children if parents simply pretend that problems don’t exist in the marriage. If you’re able, talk about problems and work through them on your own.
  • Practice honesty. If you choose to remain in an unhappy marriage, practice honesty with your kids. Don’t act as though problems don’t exist and don’t rely on your children to care for your emotions.

Ultimately, the choice to remain married or to separate is personal. But before you make your choice, ensure that you have all the facts and that you’ve tried to make the marriage work. A happy and supportive marriage is always the best-case scenario, but you’ll need to make pragmatic and responsible decisions if a happy marriage is not possible for you and your spouse.

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