Divorce & Children: How Toxic Relationships Cause Harm

Sitting in her therapist’s office, Birmingham mom Janet* choked back a sob, “I am so unhappy in my marriage, but I don’t want to hurt our children!” Janet’s therapist smiled compassionately, took a deep breath and uttered the words that Janet would carry with her through her divorce and beyond: “Leaving a relationship that’s causing you this much emotional anguish is not going to hurt your kids.”

When put in these direct, simple terms, Janet knew in her heart that her therapist was right. She and her husband fought bitterly — often in front of their eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. Despite efforts in couples therapy and time apart, their differences were irreconcilable. For Janet to remain in the unhealthy relationship would only cause more anxiety in her, and, especially in her young children.

Indeed children in unhappy homes suffer in obvious and subtle ways. In his article on Psychology Today.com, Sean Grover, L.C.S.W outlines four specific ways kids are harmed while their parents remain in gloomy and despondent marriages:

1. Chronic Tension
“Our parents’ relationship leaves an emotional imprint on us that never fades,” says Grover. “A natural part of children’s development is internalizing both their parents. When parents are consistently at odds, their kids internalize those conflicts.” This 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
Children are too often the casualties when parents wage war on each other. “The strain eats away at their security and leaves them with little internal peace, putting them at odds with their own impulses,” Grover says. “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
This arrested emotional development can cause problems down the road, too. “Intimacy triggers the traumas they suffered when witnessing their parents’ dysfunction, so they avoid closeness to steer clear of getting hurt,” Grover says. “If they manage to establish an intimate relationship, they remain cautious or guarded. When conflict arises, they’re most likely to flee or to reenact their parents’ conflicts with their own partner.”

4. Mood Problems
Children who grow up in turbulent homes where parental bickering (and worse) is the norm may struggle with serious mood problems, such as dysthymia. “These problems, if left untreated, may fuel personality disorders or substance abuse,” Grover says. “At the root of these problems is a profound lack of hope. They learn 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.

If you’re divorcing or divorced and concerned about the mental and emotional welfare of your kids, seek the help of a skilled therapist or psychologist who specializes in work with children or teenagers. But remember to “put your oxygen mask on first.” Divorcing parents (like Janet) should seek emotional and spiritual guidance to help them through the difficult transition of going from married to single life. By seeking out help for yourself, you’ll also model responsible, proactive behavior for your children, which may make them more amenable to receiving counseling themselves.