Growing up in a stable home is good for children, as it protects them from many mental, social, physical, and educational problems . For this reason, many couples attempt to keep their marriage together for the sake of their children, even if their relationship has become toxic.
Parents who try to keep their family intact have good reason since divorce can have damaging effects on children. Children of divorced parents tend to have trouble with relationships later in life and are more likely themselves to get a divorce . They also tend to have more difficulty in school, experience more behavior problems, have lower self-esteem and more trouble getting along with their peers and their parents .
But does this mean that parents should remain in bad marriages for the sake of their children? Not necessarily. While divorce can be incredibly difficult for all parties involved, staying in a toxic marriage could actually be worse for the children than going through a divorce.
Toxic Marriage and Childrens’ Health
When children are raised in an environment where their parents are constantly fighting, it can lead to depression, stress, and anxiety. This is because children need a safe place where they can learn how to deal with stress, and this place is usually their home. When home becomes a place of conflict, however, it is no longer safe. This, in turn, creates even more stress for the child, and they begin to perceive even ordinary situations and small conflicts as threatening [4,5].
Being around conflicts gives children low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness. They will feel the tension and anger in the household and often blame themselves for it. Thoughts such as “maybe if I had better grades they’d stop fighting”, are common, which makes kids feel like it is their responsibility to resolve the conflict between their parents .
Some children will act out as a result of the trouble at home, and might become aggressive or start bullying other kids. They are more likely to engage in destructive habits, such as drugs or alcohol, and run a higher risk of getting involved with gangs and other troubled people. Other children will begin to withdraw and become depressed or even suicidal. [4,6].
A toxic home environment can negatively affect kids’ physical health as well. Children who are exposed to prolonged adversity are at a greater risk for cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. As previously stated, it can also increase their risk of adopting unhealthy or risky habits such as smoking, drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, STI’s, and domestic violence .
As one mother who found herself in a toxic marriage put it, she was unable to shield her child from stress because she could not even protect herself from it:
“My best intentions were feathering the nest for the toxic stress they were growing up in.” .
Children in Unhappy Homes Struggle to Build Healthy Relationships
Children who grow up watching a marriage full of yelling and verbal aggression, door-slamming, or physical abuse will end up modeling that behavior as they enter adulthood. If this is the only kind of relationship they have ever known, they will grow up thinking that it is normal, and will expect a similar dynamic in their own relationships .
If children have never been shown a good example of healthy communication and conflict management, they are more likely to become afraid to say anything wrong that could cause a fight, which can make it difficult to open up to others. Not only will it be hard for them to build healthy romantic relationships, but they will also struggle to develop close relationships with friends, family members, and colleagues .
Resources if You Are in a Toxic Marriage
If you know you are in a toxic marriage and you are worried about how it might be affecting your children, there are resources available to help you in your situation.
If you are still hoping to keep your marriage together, there are thousands of marriage counselors across the country that could help you and your spouse work through your marriage problems together. Marital education programs have also been shown to be effective in helping couples strengthen their marriages.
An example of one of these programs is the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), created by Dr. Markman and his associates at the University of Denver’s Center for Marital and Family Studies. It teaches couples communication and problem-solving skills, as well as setting ground rules for handling conflict, forgiveness, speaker/listener techniques, and how to preserve and enhance the fun, friendship and sensuality .
If, however, you have decided that your marriage is beyond the point of saving, and divorce would be better for you, your spouse, and your children, it is important to handle it in such a way that does not cause further damage to your kids. According to the American Psychological Association, cooperation, communication, and mediation are the keys to a peaceful divorce .
Using mediation services as opposed to going through court proceedings can help you and your partner work through divorce negotiations in a more civil manner since discussions can often dig up problems that contributed to the divorce in the first place. Research has shown that meditation can lead to better emotional satisfaction, improved spousal relationships, and can benefit children’s needs [9,10].
Talking things through with a psychologist can also help you navigate some difficult emotions that could cause unnecessary conflict during your negotiations with your soon-to-be ex. Preparing ahead of time by writing down the points you would like to discuss while you are feeling calm can help you to stay on track and keep emotions at bay while you work out the details .
Think of the Kids First
No matter what you do, as parents, your relationship will have an impact on your children. If the relationship between you and your spouse is no longer working, it is almost inevitable that your children will experience at least some amount of emotional trauma. The way you handle the situation can have a dramatic impact on their well-being, and it is of utmost importance that you consider their emotional health above all else.
Whether you choose to work on your marriage or you decide divorce is the best option, remember that your kids are watching, and the way you work through difficulty and conflict will teach them valuable life lessons that will help them develop healthy relationships later in life.
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