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Should We Stay Together for the Kids?

November 3, 2009 | The Main Dish | 27 comments

Last night, one of my best friends called my cell phone twice in one minute—our signal for distress, the indication that I needed to pick up the phone right then, even if I was in the middle of dinner. I'd gotten previous distress calls when she found a suspicious lump (the biopsy was, thank goodness, benign) and when her daughter was in an accident. I knew that whatever was coming on the other line wasn't good.

"He is SO MEAN TO ME," she sobbed into the phone. "It's the same crap year after year after year. I'm at that breaking point where it doesn't seem sane to continue to take it."

Oh boy: I hadn't seen that coming. This is the friend whose marriage sustains my (perhaps delusional) romantic belief in matrimony—the marriage I point to as evidence that big love, deep connections, and truly equal partnerships are, in fact, possible.

But here she was struggling with the same question I've wrestled with for years: is it better for our kids if we stay in less-than-happy marriages?

Holy cow, is that a big question. And if you've ever seriously asked it, you know it can be an agonizing one. In the coming weeks, I'll be blogging about how I've answered this question for myself.

I know it's tempting to answer the question of whether or not we should stay together for the kids with a simple "yes." As a society we tend to think that kids will do better if parents stay together; that's what our grandparents' generation did, or tried to do. A mediocre marriage is better for kids than no marriage, right? We might believe this at least partly because of a hugely flawed—but very influential and well-publicized—study by Judith Wallerstein that "showed" that kids don't notice that their parents are unhappy in a marriage. Wallerstein argued that unless domestic violence is a part of the picture, kids are worse off when parents divorce.

Thinking that an unhappy marriage is better than no marriage—whether the belief comes from our family or religion or a study like Wallerstein's—has kept a lot of unhappily married Americans in their marriages. The study, by the way, while embraced by the press and published as a New York Times-bestselling book, has been rejected whole-heartedly by social scientists because Wallerstein didn't use a random sample of families that had divorced or stayed married; instead, she looked at a group of divorced people with mental health problems. Her study doesn't meet accepted standards of scientific research, and its findings shouldn't be generalized to families that aren't struggling with the same things for which Wallerstein's tiny sample was being treated (usually histories of mental illness, clinical depression, and suicidal tendencies).

Here is what I've gleaned from the many good studies I've read on the subject: It is the quality of parents' relationships with each other, rather than whether they are married or single, that matters most for kids' well-being. Parental conflict isn't good for children's happiness, whether or not you are married.

"Studies of two-parent families have consistently found that when a couple's relationship is characterized by unresolved conflict and unhappiness, their children tend to have more acting out aggressive behavior problems, more shy withdrawn behavior, and fewer social and academic skills," write UC Berkeley researchers Phil and Carolyn Cowan.

Furthermore, when couples aren't getting along, their irritation or anger with each other often spills over into their relationships with their children. "Some children get a double whammy," write the Cowans. They suffer the consequences of both the "heated or frosty emotional tone of their parents' relationship" and the frequent result of co-parent conflict—"harsh or ineffective patterns of caring and discipline."

I've lived this: When my husband and I would fight, I would have a hard time managing the powerful negative emotions that surfaced—anger, disappointment, hurt—while trying to keep Fiona and Molly's routines on track effectively. And I could usually win all the awards for crappy parenting if I also needed to handle a situation with the kids that required calm, consistent discipline. When I'm already upset, I tend to discipline the kids in a way that is, uh, not calm or collected.

So should you stay together for the kids? It depends on how high-conflict your marriage is, how unhappy you are, and whether or not you can fix these things.

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

References:

Cowan, P.A., and C.P. Cowan. "Strengthening Couples to Improve Children's Well-Being: What We Know Now." Poverty Research News 6, no. 3 (2002): 18-21.

Morrison, Donna Ruane, and Mary Jo Coiro. "Parental Conflict and Marital Disruption: Do Children Benefit When High-Conflict Marriages Are Dissolved?" Journal of Marriage and the Family 61, no. 3 (1999): 626-37.

Wallerstein, Judith S. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study. New York: Hyperion, 2001.

So many bloggers talk about this it is hard to know where to start (wish I had time to read them all!). LousySpouse.com is kind of funny, though not too helpful. Penelope Trunk cites the Wallerstein research like it is the last word; it isn't. Please suggest other websites in the comments!

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Tough, tough issue. Probably best addressed family by family. Unresolvable conflict takes a toll on everyone, literally upon their nervous systems, often raising and sustaining glucocorticoid measures way beyond acceptable levels. One result can often be serious cognitive and physical illness, as evidenced by Robert Sapolsky’s, Bruce McEwen’s, Doug Bremner’s and Arthur Janov’s individual works.

Mark | 8:27 am, November 4, 2009 | Link

 

Important subject–one that many parents struggle with, thanks for bringing it up. I just want to comment on the statement: “Parental conflict is not good for children’s happiness.” I would change it up to “Acting on the anger/strong emotions that result from parental conflict is not good for children’s happiness.” This is why: Shying away from conflict and putting on a facade that everything is always OK provides a disservice for children. Conflict is part of life and inherent in human relationships. If we can work to manage strong emotions and model how to work through some of it, this is helpful. Of course, many adult conflicts are better left unseen/unheard by children. At the same time, we can teach by modeling, “We’re having a disagreement, I need to calm down first and then talk about it.”

Thanks again for bringing up this important issue.

Nancy Prisby, MSW | 10:06 am, November 4, 2009 | Link

 

From a mother’s perspective…Three very real issues you do not at all address:

A. What is the level of the mother’s ability to provide ECONOMICALLY? Statistics on divorce and childhood poverty?

B. Think parenthood nowadays is overly busy, hectic and over-extended? Try single parenthood. When do you ever get time to play, hang out, enjoy your children and show them that you enjoy being with them? Almost never.

C. Potential nightmare STEPMOTHERS. Stepmothers have a lot of say in what your children experience growing up.

Sofia | 12:09 pm, November 4, 2009 | Link

 

One more issue I forgot to mention:

SERIAL parenting. What are the statistics on serial divorce? Isn’t it OFTEN not just an issue of a one-time divorce??? If you have serious issues with a spouse, consider what the spouse’s level of good judgement is going to be in choosing their NEXT spouse, and the one after that? etc. etc.

How much instability is REALLY okay for the children? Isn’t divorce the ultimate role-modeling for how NOT to get along?

Sofia | 12:30 pm, November 4, 2009 | Link

 

Wow did this ever hit home.  I don’t know about staying in the marriage for the kids but trying, with everything you have, to make it better and to make it work, for the kids is definitely something you should consider.  It is so easy to give up, to give in and to head out, telling yourself you did your best, you tried your hardest as you pat yourself on the back for finally “getting out.” In the long run, everyone fights, everyone can be “mean” and everyone has issues.  When you look back after 10 years, the commitment

you made to happiness, to your family, to try, to love and to dedicate your heart to your husband and your life together will matter more then anything else.  Then, 10 years later, all the work, all the progress you’ve made, it pays off in the end, it is worth it for you, for your children for your home.  You can rest assured I’ve been to the breaking point, I’ve had the thoughts, the moments where I want out, where I want better, easier, happier but the commitment has to be there or else how can anyone ever accomplish anything in the long-term.  You really have to sit back and look at what is going on, what you are doing, what could be better, who could change and sometimes you have to suck it up and try a lot harder than you want to for a lot longer then you wanted to.  I am NOT saying to stay in an emotionally/verbally or physically abusive relationship, but make sure you did all you can before you stop doing anything.

While it isn’t fun, a time comes when you have to really review what is going on, what your thoughts are and why they are there.  The life you give to your children should matter more to you then anything else and if you can make a life work, a family work and a home work long-term, they will be better off than you’ll ever know.

Brandi | 12:35 pm, November 4, 2009 | Link

 

As you point out, parental conflict is not good for kids whether or not the parents are married.  Seems like one question to ask oneself might be: Will getting a divorce really reduce the conflict between us?  Once you have kids, it’s not like you can get a divorce and just walk away from the person and have no more contact.  (Well, OK, it’s possible, but we are talking about what is good for the kids here, and obviously that isn’t!)  Will there really be less fighting, or will a contentious marriage become a contentious divorce?

Chris Cicchetti | 2:31 pm, November 4, 2009 | Link

 

What a question! I am currently struggling with it my self. I putted off for a long time, and now the roosters are coming home to roost. I watched my own parents struggle and I always told my self I will never do that, I will never stay in a relationship just for my kids. Now, here I am in their shoes and is such a taught decision to make. Although, my parent had their fair share of issues, their relationship was never the abusive kind. I guess it was somehow easy for me to say “mom, why you do not divorce him?” when I had no clue what having divorce parents mean. My husband comes from a divorce family and I can tell you it was not fun for him. But what is that breaking point where you decide that is does not longer work? When do you stop fighting and trying? Is having an abusive relationship the only thing that should count on getting divorce? How about loneliness, feeling like a furniture in a house, emptiness and abandonment? Is it really going to be better with someone else? These are all questions I find my self constantly trying to answer. I see my parents now, luckily they have overcome a lot of the issues and they seem happier than ever.I do not know if that will be my case or not but at least it shows me that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Ana | 3:22 pm, November 4, 2009 | Link

 

Christine, You are very brave to take on this topic! I also appreciate your willingness to share your struggles!

Sofia-these are all questions i struggle with…my counselor essentially said that she would no longer work with me if i decided to “suck it up” and stay in my marriage.

Brandi-It is not possible to stay in a relationship with someone when one person is doing all the work and the other person refuses to participate…or the way they interact is by constantly criticizing, yelling, etc. and you’re not even allowed to say a word…

I was so afraid to tell my daughter that daddy was moving out, but then she started a major campaign to get him out! She’s 9… this was another sign that i could not continue the relationship. Not only is it damaging me, her relationship with him is not healthy. Because of fear of all thethings you mentioned, I would probably have stuck it out. the realization of what his actions/behavior are doing to her is what made me finally take action.

He wants everything his way, he wants us to be perfect. There’s a double standard going on. He’s refused counseling for nearly a year.

This is a very complex issue…My mother had no options/education so she stayed but i prayed most days that we would be free of my father’s tyranny…Ironically, we only left when he beat on her but he was allowed to beat on my sister repeatedly…so you can see, I am reliving my childhood and now that it’s in my power not to participate in an unhealthy relationship, I have to stick up for myself (and my daughter) and learn not to be a doormat…

I have found that now that the contact is limited to once or twice a week things have improved a little.

I would say that the reason many divorces are happening now is that women have more education/options and are no longer willing to put up with being treated as second class citizens. Many men need a serious wake up call that we are no longer living in the 50s… OK, will get off my soapbox and take my kids to the playground now…

Elizabeth | 7:59 am, November 5, 2009 | Link

 

I am so glad to have seen this post. We are struggling in our house as well, though we have a few other factors beyond cruelty and fights.
I know I love him, but am not in love anymore. He is not able to just be himself anymore. He has depression, ADD and anxiety, and theses illnesses impact every single day. Sometimes just a little, sometimes alot. He is also not able to economically sustain himself. He is wonderful with our child. We know we are lucky, we have a place to live and the money I earn, but the day to day is killing me. So much rests on my shoulders, so much accommodation for his illness. I am a changed woman because of it. I feel like we both would be better off if we had space from each other, but our child seems happy with us both there. He gets his father’s love and camaraderie and my love and groundedness. I am not able to fully convey it all here, but some days I just want to cut the tie. I am tired, lonely, overburdened.
My child means more to me than life and I will do whatever seems best. And part of that is taking care of “Dad”. Having him in dire straights with shelter and such wouldn’t be good for any of us… And yet I still grapple with this question.
I am curious if there are others out there like me dealing with these things, and what their strategies or decisions have been.

chris | 10:37 am, November 5, 2009 | Link

 

Here’s an article worth wading through that some folks might find useful. It’s written in academic-ese, so it’s not such an easy read, but it might help make sense of how and why we marry the people we do – essentially in a convoluted attempt to heal our own personal histories …
The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma

http://www.cirp.org/library/psych/vanderkolk/

Mark | 11:11 am, November 5, 2009 | Link

 

Well, when is divorce NOT complicated?  While I appreciate that concept, it seems as though the people who refer to their situations as “complicated” are somehow assuming that others aren’t complicated.  The whole issues of marriage/divorce is absolutely complicated.  Because of whatever issues my husband has (personal) it makes our day to day interactions varied from loving to distant to angered to confusing.  Yes, I realize fighting is bad for the kids but find me a relationship where there is no fighting?  Okay, I’m not saying stay, suffer and be miserable, I’m just saying TRY.  Try everything before you give up.  I’m of the wonderful generation of women who were blessed with education, independence and the ability to live on my own.  That blessing has also given me the ability to constantly think that I don’t “need” someone else, nor do I need to put up with someone else’s problems/issues.  It took three years of marriage for me to finally sit down, suck it up and just give “marriage”, “Partnership”, “patience” and “love” an actual chance.  I always had one foot out the door.  Oh, you are going to yell at me, well then I can just leave.  I never made a true sacrifice for my marriage.  I felt like I was, I felt that everyday was a struggle, to get out of bed, to see him, to talk to him to go to sleep next to him, it drained me of all life/energy/love that I had.  Finally, when I stepped back and took a long hard look at what I was doing, I stopped feeling SO sorry for myself and decided it wasn’t about me.  It was about our family as a whole.  Our lives together with our children.  Was that enough to figure out what to do to make it work?  It has to be, if that’s not enough, what is?  The important side note is that my husband does try, he tries as hard as he can and puts in as much effort as he can.  On some days it is enough, on other days I consider putting my foot back out the door.  But that’s the whole problem, once you start thinking about leaving, you aren’t giving anyone a fair chance at anything.  You can’t commit to a life together when you have the door open to allow everything else into it.  All babble aside.  Some days I give 100% and some days he gives 10% or even some weeks it works that way but in the end the math evens out.  I learned to create happiness NOT just for ME, but for my family.  I have hobbies, I work, I exercise but not in the sense that I want those things for ME, I want to be a healthy, happy, successful wife, mother and friend.  I want to be good to everyone in my life.  Have you ever stopped and tried treating your husband as well as you treat your best friend?  I noticed that I was always forgiving, patient and loving with my girlfriends.  I was fun, energetic and active.  I could blame that on my husband, saying he didn’t allow me to be that way, but I don’t think I had ever tried.  Why would anyone assume marriage itself should feel natural.  Combining your existence with anothers takes years and years of work, that’s the commitment you made.  Forever is the time you’ve dedicated to making it work.  No one says you have to stay, you have to keep trying or you have to suffer that is absolutely for YOU and only YOU to decide but know that it is a decision.  You decide to stay and try or you decide to go.  You decide to wake up and give it a shot, keeping your patience up, love up and anger down, sometimes more than you want and yup, sometimes it doesn’t feel “good” to be nice but tough.

I was in a marriage where I was ready to go, I suffered, I was miserable, I hated every single waking minute of my life.  Was I in love with my husband, I don’t even think I was involved enough to be in “hate” with him.  He tried, he did his best but I always felt like he owed me more.  I don’t want to be yelled at, critisized or unliked by someone, but here I was living with someone who thought he had the right to constantly give me his opinion.  I could barely manage to function, get out of bed and I thought that this was it, if this is how marriage is then I’m done, out and gone.  I thought to myself that I finally understood my mom wanting to leave.  Then someone pulled me aside (thank God) and said, stop thinking so much about yourself, about what you need to do, stop thinking that the entire day and its results are resting on your shoulders.  Let it be what it is and see how to deal with that.  Pray.  Yes, she said Pray and I said YA RIGHT.  I’m done trying, praying and being patient.  She told me that’s the point, I need to be done, just let things be and handle them from there.  Bad/good they aren’t always my fault.  Dedicate yourself to your marriage for one month.  I did it, and half way through my husband said he wanted divorced.  He didn’t feel “right” because I was being so loving and patient, he said it wasn’t normal and he was uncomfortable, he thought I was pretending.  Well, truth be told, I was for a little bit then the days got easier and loving him felt better and our family functioned a little more patiently together.  There are still days when I HATE everything about it but there are more days when I’m so grateful that I was given the chance to do the right thing for me, for my husband, for my marriage and more importantly for my kids.

AGAIN- MY HUSBAND PUT FORTH THE EFFORT as well, I do not think that being battered, being hateful/hurtful and mean are acceptable.  I just think sometimes you have to try beyond what you think you are capable of, if that still doesn’t work, then you make that decision.  But always know, it was exactly that, your decision.

Brandi | 12:36 pm, November 5, 2009 | Link

 

as with all things, this is a question of severity.  There is no simple answer because an argument that might seem heated to some would seem downright mild to others.  Also, kids have different levels of tolerances for argument.  After all, this is why divorces happen in the first place.  Two people don’t have a meeting of the minds and cannot agree on mutually acceptable standards for their marriage.  Kids are not the same, women are not all the same, and men are not all the same.  There is no universal answer.  Sometimes it is right to stick together even during conflict, and sometimes it is not.  It’s pointless to even try to answer it.

Keith Wilcox | 9:45 pm, November 7, 2009 | Link

 

Chris,
I totally identify with your situation. When my husband started to de-compensate, not able to earn, depression, anger etc.  It damages the family and I am not sure if its better out or in. We are in couples therapy but I know he needs to work on himself. I am hanging in hoping we can work it through but wonder most days if I am doing the the right thing.  Thanks for speaking up.
Sharon

Sharon | 6:14 am, November 19, 2009 | Link

 

I think Sofia and Brandi raise important points.  I also think, though, that this discussion is missing a couple of crucial components:  The first is an acknowledgement that problems in a marriage are only very rarely the entire fault of one party.  “Fighting” takes two people. I have seen a lot of couples fight bitterly about issues that they could have shrugged off–things that seem utterly trivial to me.  Obviously, they didn’t seem trivial to those couples, but maybe if the couple had different priorities (say, marital peace rather than who left the cap off the toothpaste again or whatever it is), they wouldn’t be fighting.  My husband has some issues that I could fight with him about if I chose (and he would say the same about me), but we don’t fight:  I know how he is, and he knows how I am, and we know what issues are important to us.  We’ve established these things a long time ago, and fighting about them isn’t going to do any good.  I do not believe our children need to see that we’re 100% in agreement on every issue; I just explain to them that there are issues where mama and papa are not the same, and that it’s OK to have disagreements.  They’re OK with it, and there is a very low level of conflict in our house.
The second component that should be addressed in these situations is that, really, however much you love your children, the relationship between the two adults is the primary one.  That’s the relationship that, for good or ill, started the family; without that relationship, there would have been no children.  In some cases, there is a real change in one person that creates chaos in the family.  In many cases, though, the personality flaws that are now intolerable were always there, and still you chose each other, still you chose to come together and start a family and envision a future together.  Some parents begin to, for lack of a better way to say this, love their kids *more* than they love their spouse and forget to nourish and tend the primary relationship.  Marriages or any similar relationships take work and attention.  But those were the relationships that existed before the children came and that is what you will be left with when your children move out of the house.  I think there is something wrongheaded in sending the message to children that the family unit is basically only individuals, and those individuals can gain or lose favor depending on another individual’s happiness at the time.  And that is the message when you say that one member of the family is not necessary or can be removed.  I’m not saying that children directly apply this to themselves and believe that “well, if mommy can stop loving daddy, then maybe she can stop loving me, too” although I know some kids who have done so, especially when the divorce is full of conflict and the mother (or father) frequently says negative things about the other parent.  For my family, I promote the image that the family is a unit greater than the sum of its individual parts and that we’re a family forever, that we will all love each other despite our failings and disagreements. Our children feel pretty secure with that knowledge.

Julie | 5:24 pm, November 19, 2009 | Link

 

Well said, Julie. It does take two to tango. And some people believe that we unconsciously choose the partners we do as a way to move us each in the direction of spiritual, emotional and psychological maturity; that attending to and successfully resolving conflict is a central and significant part of that journey. It is often the things that upset us most that indicate the places where the work needs to be done.

Mark | 4:32 am, November 20, 2009 | Link

 

Julie,

All I can say is that the point you made

“I think there is something wrongheaded in sending the message to children that the family unit is basically only individuals, and those individuals can gain or lose favor depending on another individual’s happiness at the time. And that is the message when you say that one member of the family is not necessary or can be removed.”

is so moving and so meaningful to me right now, that I almost feel like you wrote it TO me, right at this moment.  The entire concept is so hard to accept but yet can be the savior of all and any marital conflict, if you can reduce it to just one thing.

I know that every point can be argued and not everyone will agree, but that is the biggest issue I faced in dealing with my parent’s divorce.  Feeling as though one of my parents just decided that what was best for “them” was what was best.  Not thinking of anyone but themselves, not giving the chance for anyone to make things better.  Who can you count on when you think that the individual trumps the group?

That was a great comment, thank you.

Brandi | 5:18 am, November 20, 2009 | Link

 

This topic is very important to me right now and there are many good thoughts here.  I am in the very beginning of a separation from my husband of 6 years (we’ve been together for 14 years since we were 22) with our two children ages 1 and 4.  We have always had issues, stemming from immaturity in ourselves and our relationship amongst other things, but I have kept going for all the good reasons listed above by everyone.  He’s a great guy, a good provider, a wonderful person.  He’s also a sex addict, and has been for years, in addition to being a very anxious type-A person and a workaholic.  It’s been internet/porn addiction, and we’ve dealt with that a lot, loads of therapy and conversation etc etc, and I’ve tried to work with him with it even though it’s caused me pain. 
But what has caused me to separate now is that he has crossed a line by going outside of our marriage with someone physically.  Even though I am trying to be nice in front of the kids, when we are living together I just can’t.  And my daughter is proof of that “double whammy” that someone was talking about – I am usually a really good mom, but since I found out about this I have no patience, I am angry and irritable at him all the time, we argue in front of the kids…and my daughter is acting out. 
So that’s why I asked him to move out.  He still comes over every morning and most evenings to see the kids, and I find I am not angry with him. It’s not like I haven’t seen this possibility coming.  And, surprise, surprise – my daughter’s behavior has COMPLETELY changed over the past week.  She told my mother that she was happy again.
That’s how I know I’m going in the right direction right now, even if I really don’t want to get divorced.  He says he wants to stay together, and I believe him.  However, I can’t put this aside anymore and pretend like it doesn’t shake the foundation of our relationship.  But I refuse to make my kids unhappy by trying to make them happy staying together!  That doesn’t make any sense!
This is a very confusing subject, and I truly feel it can only be addressed by being completely honest and compassionate with each other, and trying to take anger out of the equation, as impossible as that seems.

alison | 3:38 pm, January 5, 2010 | Link

 

This is such a hard one for me.  It’s been a little over two years since my marriage ended somewhat abruptly.  We didn’t have time to have the nice calm sit downs with our three kids rehearsed and practiced and done together.  A myriad of circumstances prevented it, however, I believe I did the best I could.  Divorce is hard on kids – bottom line no matter what the relationship between the parents is – then or now.  My 8 year old daughter watches her father and me like a hawk during custody exchanges.  I make a herculean effort to always be nice and chatty in front of the kids.  They have no idea the battles being fought behind the scenes in court etc . . . While I know some will argue that the kids always know in this case they really don’t know because of how hard I work at it as do my family and friends.  I lead by example.  I often say that it is easier to take the high road and be nice for a few minutes – then it’s over.  I don’t want to be that unhappy anymore.  Shortly after I left my ex-husband I ran into a woman I had known since childhood.  I had grown up with her daughter and knew her to say hello.  She grabbed me in the market and told me that she was proud of me for leaving my marriage.  She went on to tell me she stayed for her kid’s sake and really felt that it so harmed them and was reflective in the relationships which they had chosen as adults.  I want my three kids – 8, 8 and 16 to look back at this time whether in 10, 20, 30 + years and say to themselves and each other, “wow, all that was going on and mom gave us a childhood.” Tensions were high in the months before I finally left.  My six year old twins watched hours of tv, and I sent my older son off to camp for six weeks knowing that our household was not a great environment.  I am not delusional to think it will all work out perfect, but I truly believe that my children will have happier and healthier lives than if my ex-husband and I had stayed together.  We have a polite but strained relationship, but deep in my heart and soul I truly believe I did the right thing and not just for me.  That thought is what helps me sleep at night.

A.M. | 4:22 pm, January 9, 2010 | Link

 

I have come back to this website a couple times to read what others have written. i am desperately trying to do the right thing for my son who is 5.5. when tensions between my husband and i were really high, i was so overwrought and i began to be really impatient and angry with him. he began to act out a lot, huge fits of temper, sarcastic remarks (very out of place for a 5 year old), being mean to his friends,etc.) we both realized how bad this was for him and began behaving nicely to each other (playacting) in front of him. it has made a huge difference, but i feel like it has affected him deeply.  he is my life and i am desperate to do the right thing for him.  i keep saying to myself that its his life and if i have to suck it up for a few (?) more years, then so be it. 
however, some days that seems so unbearable that i am literally at my wits end. my husband is an alcoholic in denial. he hasnt had a drink in 3 years, but the last episode (when my son was 2.5) was a period of months (perhaps a year) of “secret” drinking, that became more and more flagrant until i was able to confront him with evidence.  i couldnt bring myself to kick him out then but he wont go to aa, wont go to therapy, has other awful habits (hoarding, porn) and i dont trust him at all.  there is a ton more, but suffice it to say, internalizing all of this is what led to the angry outbursts and the taking it out on my son. i have made it a condition of staying that we go to couples therapy and through that i have been able to let the anger go enough to be able to live without being in a fury all the time and to make things better for my son.  as i said before, it is much better now for him and i have stopped getting so enraged because it was literally making me physically sick, but i also have to live in a very odd, parallel world in order to function.  there is much more and i am so desperately sad that my own failings and extremely unhealthy relationship with my parents, as i see it, has led me to a place that is so arid and without joy. my husband has a history of where he basically abandons the kids, so i am also afraid he will vanish from our sons life – and possibly fall apart himself – if we split.  we have been in therapy for over a year, but he has not engaged at all. i thought perhaps it would be a place where he could confront some things in his own lif and maybe we could get to a point where it would be tenable but he says nothing other than pleasantries.
I wonder if there is anyone else who has felt it so hard to leave somethng that is so outwardly awful because of the great fears about what will happen to the kids – and what did happen? Maybe he will be better because he is somehow reacting to the negative things under the surface now, but he (my son) gets so angry and so demanding, also very physical that i am afraid it might be worse at least until he is mature enough intellectually to understand what is happening. now all of his reactions are pure emotion. Thank you all.

Nelle | 8:44 pm, January 10, 2010 | Link

 

This thread is so helpful to me.  I am in similar situation to many of you.  Married to a man with pscyhological problems that prevent him from working, make him angry and irrational.  We are in couples therapy.  I believe it takes time.  I see tiny changes along the way and his abusive language has been greatly reduced. I think it takes time and if you are comitted to this path, I think you need to give it more than one year.  I lived with constant anger and the damage it was creating for us all. I finally realized the impact my anger was having on the situation and am learning to cope with and manage my anger.  After two years of therapy we are getting more results on his end.  I am confirmed in my own personal misery in the relationship – is that a good model for the kids? He is good with the kids often but has verbally abusive incidents and poor judgement with all of us. Which reality should I focus on the good moments or the bad?  This email thread is a great comfort to me. Thank you.

Lynn | 7:21 am, January 11, 2010 | Link

 

Anger, abusive language and irrationality can be very tough to live with. They are often signs of brain disorganization – the brain has insufficient connectivity to be able to handle the circumstances a person is confronted with.

Some things that can help with improving neural connectivity – some kind of regular ongoing body practice like yoga, MBSR (Mindfulness based stress reduction) or a martial art like aikido or tai qwon do. The body really has to be included in most attempts to improve brain function and emotional intelligence.

Mark | 9:28 am, January 11, 2010 | Link

 

It’s really interesting and comforting to me that many of these posts have to do with moms struggling with dads who are suffering from emotional and addiction problems.  These are serious problems to grapple with, not just people who have maybe decided the relationship isn’t “right” for them.
What that says to me is that we are all searching for ways to stay in a marriage and to create a safe and fulfilling family life for our children, ourselves and our mates.  However, living with someone with serious issues is extremely challenging, to say the least, if not downright frightening sometimes.
That isn’t to say that I don’t recognize that I play my own part in struggles in our relationship.  The difference is that I’ve gone to extensive therapy, considered my issues, work on them constantly – that’s being a grown-up, living and learning.  If a person’s partner won’t participate, though, then the question is what are you left with?
I also want to say that Mark’s comment about brain disorganization is right on.  A couple years ago my husband was in intensive therapy (individual and group), going to SAA meetings AND meditating daily, and let me tell you, he was a different person.  It was a LOT, for both him and me, because that takes a LOT of time and energy, but it was worth it.
After our recent second baby and an increase in workload, all that fell by the wayside, as it does, and we’re back where we started.  The difference is that I saw that those things worked for him, and I’m still willing to give him another chance because of it. 
Meditation is HUGE, and it really works.

alison | 10:24 am, January 11, 2010 | Link

 

As Lynn says, reading what others have to say is very helpful and comforting since a part of me feels tremendously guilty and disgusted with myself that i am continuing in a situation that is so untenable. It helps to know that i am not totally alone.
As i reread my first post, i thought “i must be mad to stay in this.” For me, i feel like whatever brought us together (love, lust, attraction, shared interests) has been completely destroyed. I DONT love my husband so i feel like there is no hope for us. 
My wish going into couples therapy was that he could engage enough that we could at least recapture some respect and trust enough to have a family life for our son that wasnt a total farce.  If there has been no change for 1.5 years (although he is not drinking)i dont believe it will ever change. 
I too wonder if maybe i am deluding myself that this is better for my son than leaving the marriage. while its true that understanding that i couldnt sublimate my anger but had to really let it go, because the impact on my son was so intense, was critical – it also didnt make me happier or improve the situation. So its possible that growing up in this, no matter how much we both try to “act normal” in front of him, is really damaging too. Is there anyone who was so torn who has done it? Is there anyone for whom it was really hard for your children, yet they are coping? thank you all again.

Nelle | 7:23 pm, January 11, 2010 | Link

 

I posted earlier in the thread… I feel so badly for those of you who are attempting to cope with spouses who are not able to cope with life’s realities/responsibilities.

My counselor has been working with families for 30 years. She insists that it’s better for the kids to not be in a dysfunctional family. That is ultimately why I asked my husband to leave. Forget being “happy”, it’s not even healthy.

My counselor also has found that most fathers become better parents once they’re not in the home. This has been the case with my husband. Now that i’ve finally refused to accept his bullying behavior he is trying harder to be respectful.

There is an awesome book that we are using called “Should I stay or Go: How Controlled Separation Can Save Your Marriage”. Of course, both people need to be open to reading it and trying it.

I kindly disagree with a previous post stating that it takes two to tango… when someone is being bullied or is trying to maintain control of the relationship or family and the other person is not fighting back at all, then it’s hard to say that it’s both people’s fault. I think there can be situations where it’s one of the people who “opt out” while the other one still wants to make it work… as in the case when someone has an affair.

I’m honestly not sure where we go from here now that he’s trying to change his behavior because i’m not sure i can trust it… but i am glad i asked him to leave.

Elizabeth | 9:40 pm, January 11, 2010 | Link

 

I agree with you Elizabeth, wholeheartedly.  There was something earlier about people in relationships “reliving” their childhood (or something to that effect) by their choice of partner.  While a part of me wants to deny that, as I think of myself as an intelligent, thoughtful and conscious individual, another part has to acknowledge the truth of it. 
What I did take from my childhood is that I was not unhappy that my parents divorced.  I never thought they made a bad decision with that.  I can remember very early on thinking that if they weren’t happy together, then they shouldn’t stay together.  They divorced when I was 5, and I remember being happy at my dad’s house, and happy at my mom’s house. 
My later unhappiness came when my dad got remarried to an awful woman when I was 8, who then systematically ruined many parts of many lives for the next 12 years.
I am not so much afraid that my children will suffer because their parents live apart – I truly think kids can deal with the fact that their parents don’t want to live with each other any more, as long as the parents can treat each other with civility and make sure the kids know they are well-loved.  My fear is that my husband will check out of his relationship with my kids, or that he will marry someone truly awful and that she will create problems for them.  I fear that they will suffer at the hands of someone else, and I won’t be able to stop it.
So I guess maybe that’s a control issue for me.  But it’s a valid one.

alison | 2:43 pm, January 12, 2010 | Link

 

I am afraid that my son will be devastated by our breakup and that his behavior problems (which i think are due mostly to the tension and anger in our household) will get worse.  While i wont be as tense and angry anymore presumably, the behavior evidences itself in low frustration tolerance, sarcasm, refusal to do things like get up for school that have become almost reflexive. So i am worried about that continuing as he adjusts. I think he will blame me for Daddy leaving.
Plus he loves his dad and looks forward to spending time with him. One of my biggest fears is similar to Alison’s in that i think my husband will check out.  Not that he wants to conciously, not that now he thinks he will – but because that is his pattern.  I think he is very damaged and that when his protective cocoon is shattered he has to move on to sustain himself. He has never confronted his pain, his alcoholism, etc so he has to abandon the situation. I have been trying to keep him here, manage him, manage the situation, keep the veneer of a normal family – that is my “control” issue. i think a year and a half in couples therapy made it really clear that to me that he cannot change and that i dont really have control – just if Im vigilant enough it keeps things within the bounds of (surface) normalcy. Today he said in the session “There is nothing that I can do.” so that says to me that whatever denial he is in is more neccessary for his survival than anything else and he will repeat the pattern of leaving and loss (he has adult children he has never seen in all the time we have been together) yet again. 
Please forgive my going on and on. Its been so helpful to me to feel that I am not alone.

Nelle | 12:02 pm, January 13, 2010 | Link

 

I relate to so much of what you’re saying, Nelle.  I don’t agree with people when they say that every partner of an addict is a “co-addict”, because that somehow implies blame on the partner for their spouse’s addiction; but I do feel that over time in living with addiction, even the best of intentions on behalf of the partner becomes warped and twisted. 
This comes out for me in exactly the words you said, “I have been trying to keep him here, manage him, manage the situation, keep the veneer of a normal family…”  It’s just so slippery a role to get into, that once you’re there, it feels incredibly difficult to see the way out.  You are constantly living in a soup of what-ifs, mixed up hope, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That’s actually why in the case of addiction (and I’m only speaking from my own experience), I feel that it is nearly impossible to see clearly what’s going on unless you are not living with the other person.  Only then can you detach enough to see how you really feel, and to regard the situation from a place to make proper decisions.

alison | 12:43 pm, January 13, 2010 | Link

 
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