When you are in an unhappy marriage and have children...
Being in a tough marriage is not easy... especially on your kids. Find out how to protect your children from the impact of a difficult relationship, how to break the news of a separation and more...
I’m a mum of an eight-year-old little boy who is my life and soul. Over the past five years or so, my marriage has deteriorated to a point where it just can’t be mended. All my husband and I seem to do is argue and fight; I am so miserable in this relationship.
But I can’t — and won’t — leave my husband for the sake of our son. You see, my partner, for all his shortcomings as a husband, is a great father.
So I have decided to stay in this marriage, as unhappy as I am. Sometimes I feel so low, but then I tell myself that I’m doing the best for my son, and that helps me go on. – Penny*
When the reality of raising kids, paying bills and juggling careers strikes a couple, it can hit them hard. Some relationships, like Penny’s, struggle to survive when the rose-tinted glasses of love come off.
Everyone would agree that making a marriage thrive takes a lot of work. Some couples, when caught in that hard place of discord and disagreement, sit down, thrash it out and move on. Others let resentment simmer and build up; separation becomes an option.
But how about the child caught in the middle? Do you stay for his sake or do you end the marriage that’s making you unhappy?
Should you stay or should you go?
When deciding whether to stay in or leave a difficult relationship, Winifred Ling, Director and Principal Psychologist at W3ave Ptd Ltd, says that it depends on the age of the children and on how challenging the marital issues are.
Like Penny, many couples choose to stay together despite being in a difficult marriage, at least until the children are old enough to understand. Some even wait until the kids reach adulthood.
Whatever you decide to do, protecting your child from the impact of your stressful relationship is crucial to his wellbeing and must be a priority.
Protecting your child
Dawn*, a divorcee, shares, “I think the best piece of advice I got was that I should not try and make my daughter into my confidante, sharing my unhappiness with her, simply because she is around.”
Indeed, making your child a sounding board is not a good idea. Knowing too much details might lead him to misinterpretation and self-blame. He might come to think he caused the problem between you and your husband. Winifred says, “Assure your child that your challenging marriage is not his fault.” It can be a terrible burden on a young child if this is not clarified.
Your child might also unconsciously side with you when you pour your heart out on him. Yet, it’s unfair to put him in a position where he thinks he needs to pick between his father and mother.
On the other hand, even if it may be tempting to “lie to protect” your child, it is recommended that you stay as honest as possible. “Children are perceptive and can sense the negative emotions even when parents tell them that things are okay”, says Winifred.
You should also avoid saying things like, “It’s adult stuff that you don’t understand”, as this negates a child’s feelings and makes him feel helpless.
Lastly, if you have something you need to talk about with your spouse and you think you might end up arguing, try to wait until your child is asleep or away from home.
Warning signs to look out for in your child
If your marriage has been on the rocks for some time, it’s inevitable that your child has been affected by it, even in a small way.
According to Winifred, a sudden or drastic change in your child’s behavior is usually the first warning sign. Some examples are a boisterous child becoming withdrawn, a decrease in appetite in a child who enjoys food, and temper tantrums in a normally calm child.
Older kids may display their stress and anxiety in different ways, such as getting into trouble at school, or exhibiting behavioural issues like truancy.
You can help your child manage his feelings by “constantly checking in, showing concern and keeping the communication line open at all times,” says Winifred.
She also suggests that you work on building a safe space for your child, where he can share what’s on his mind — even if it’s through an angry outburst — without being judged.
Mending a broken relationship
When children are involved in a difficult relationship or marriage, experts highly recommend that the couple get professional help. A marital therapist or relationship coach can help you in your attempt to repair your relationship before finally calling it quits.
According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development, a marriage counsellor can help you and your partner:
- understand what could have gone wrong in your marriage
- improve your marriage by working through the issue with you
- discover the internal resources and strengths you both have to make it work
- communicate and re-connect
- regain trust and commitment that both of you started out with
Winifred explains that even if you’re the only one willing to seek professional help, you should still pursue it. Sometimes, the change that happens in one partner can have an influence on the other.
In the instance that both of you don’t want to seek professional help, then try talking to a trusted friend and/or family member. At the very least, read relevant books and articles.
In the event of separation
The kindest way of telling your child that mummy and daddy will no longer be together is to “explain in simple terms why the marriage cannot continue, making sure to remind him that both of you will continue to love and care for him, but just not together in the same household,” says Winifred.
If handled properly, it is possible for a divorce or separation not to affect a child negatively. Take the example of Anna*, a mum who has joint custody of her five-year-old boy with her ex-husband.
She explains that when they first decided to split, they gently told their son that “mummy and daddy still care for each other but won’t be living in the same house anymore.” Anna reassured her son over and over again that both she and her husband would not stop loving the little boy, despite the decision to go their separate ways.
Now, the little boy looks forward to weekends with his father where a fun son-dad activity is always planned, and happily returns to his mum’s home for the rest of the week.
If you do decide to separate, Winifred advises that both you and your partner should accept that it is going to be challenging for a period of time for everyone, and you should be understanding if your child expresses anger or frustration. However, if you feel the need for it, you could also seek professional help for your child to help him come to terms with your decision to split.
*Not their real names for privacy reasons.
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