Divorcing for the sake of the children

There are families where notions such as love, respect, understanding, acceptance are replaced by contempt, abuse, insult, disrespect, conflicts, scandals, indifference etc. Nevertheless, the partners continue to relive each day the same ordeal, especially since there are children caught in the middle, saying that they remain together for their sake. But this thing creates more drama and the effects are devastating mainly for the children.

There are people who think that getting out of a toxic relationship is a sign of cowardice, that they should continue to live that ordeal hoping that one day they will save their marriage, therefore proving they are strong fighters. But this is not true. There are indeed couple relationships that can be saved -  in this case it may be about some communication problems, wrong approach in relating or positioning to the partner, misunderstandings based on insufficient knowledge of the partner etc. and there are relationships that can no longer be saved - where for years there have been abuses, resentments, lack of compatibility, and where humiliations, disrespect, invading person’s dignity and freedom  have already become relational patterns. In this case, we are talking about survival strategies in a dysfunctional and difficult to change relationship, not about the joy of living our lives with each other and evolving together. So, staying in that relationship and enduring suffering is not a proof of power and courage, on the contrary, but many people choose this path, one of the reasons given being children’s well-being. But there are parents who use their children as an excuse - they say they don’t separate because of them, but the truth is that this decision has much more to do with their own insecurities, fears and needs than with their children’s well-being.

And afterwards, what well-being are we really talking about? The quality of the couple relationship inevitably affects the interaction with the children and their care. A family environment dominated by conflicts, emotional coldness, verbal and physical abuse, impinges upon the child's further development and on his physical, mental and emotional health and integrity.

A child living in a family where there is violence lives in a state of permanent terror and is a child mistreated because of his parents’ conflicts and quarrels. In addition, the aggression felt towards the partner is directed to the child. Whether this is happening consciously or unconsciously, the parent gets to wreak his anger upon the child, that anger felt for the partner - in fact, the child is the reason (the one who is blamed in an unconscious way) for remaining in  that marriage.

Often children feel responsible for their parents’ fights and conflicts, they feel like is their fault, that they did something wrong. This thing makes them doubt of their own value, they become fearful and anxious, depressed, ashamed, helpless, confused and they try to find different strategies to reconcile their parents. They are the ones caught in the middle and they feel they have to do something to solve the conflicts, but their confusion grows when the mother and the father induce them the feeling they have to take their side, because that often happens.

Another negative aspect is related to the model that children learn from their parents. They learn that it’s normal to offend, to hit, to undermine a person, that a relationship means conflict, disrespect, fear and mistrust, that it’s okay to be aggressive, and that it’s okay to accept abuses. The child will then need help to assimilate new healthier and more functional relationship patterns between a man and a woman, because he has already formed a distorted vision of how it’s normal for people to behave with each other.

In a family environment affected by violence the child feels emotional insecurity because everything is unpredictable, he fears for himself, for his siblings and for the abused parent. Also, his learning ability, his school results, general and emotional intelligence, his confidence and self esteem, the ability to manage stress are also affected. Physical pains - headaches, stomach aches; sleep disturbances - insomnia, nightmares; behavioral problems - aggression, running away from home, adaptation problems, relationship problems can appear.

Research shows that these negative familial factors can affect the development of a child's brain and predispose him to the emergence of psychiatric problems later in life. A study conducted in 2014 by Walsh, N.D. & Co. shows that those who lived in a family environment dominated by conflicts, being exposed in childhood to the tensions between their parents and to lack of affection, had a smaller cerebellum. This part of the brain, among other functions, plays an important role in controlling movement, maintaining static and dynamic balance, and is involved in regulating fear and stress.

The coordinating author of the study says that children and adolescents’ exposure to various forms of abuse, neglect and maltreatment and to other moderate problems can affect their brain development, and that a smaller cerebellum may indicate mental disorders later in life. A low exposure in childhood to unfavorable social and family environments helps the brain to develop normally and significantly reduces the risk of mental disorders.

Many parents wonder if their divorce will hurt children more than staying together under the same roof. The truth is that not the divorce itself affects the child, but all the conflicts and dramas he has been forced to witness over time. It’s best for children to live in a peaceful environment in order to feel safe, in order to be able to develop optimally, acquiring the mechanisms and abilities so much needed for the adult life, such as managing stress and frustration or emotional self-regulation. Children are resilient and it’s important for them to have good relationships with both parents, but those parents don’t necessarily have to be married or to live together. Children need stability, predictability, discipline, love, and their parents to be emotionally available and responsive to their needs. When parents are engaged in a destructive, conflicting marriage, their willingness to give children what they need decreases dramatically. And the longer they continue, the worse the situation will be. Therefore, children’s needs can be much better satisfied when parents break up and the family environment turns from a toxic one into a harmonious one. Let's not forget that conjugal violence is emotional abuse on children.

Any child who grew up in such a family environment once he became an adult he said he would have preferred his parents to get divorced than to have stayed together, thus having to endure the psychic terror every day.

But if the parents get divorce, there is a change in the family dynamics and relationships are renegotiated. Parents can cooperate to raise and educate their children. They no longer have a direct connection, but that connection it’s limited to issues that are strictly related to the children. Thus, they get to collaborate and the conflict diminishes. But it’s very important that the parents try to solve for themselves the problems that have contributed to the escalation of conflicts, to take time for awareness, acceptance, healing, detachment.

As a parent, talking bad to your child about the other parent or denigrating him it’s not a viable solution because the responsibility of a relationship belongs to both partners, not only to one of them. In addition, the child still needs both parents.

If we become aware of all these things, "to stay together for the children’s sake" turns into "divorcing for their sake."


Dr. Ursula Sandner



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