Staying Together for the Kids
And why that's a really bad idea.
The picture above is what is considered the 'norm' and is referred to as a nuclear family. A nuclear family consists of Mom, Dad, and two kids. Why one, three or more kids would be a problem I don't understand, but let's leave that to the experts. A nuclear family is what is considered the 'ideal' for raising well-adjusted, healthy and happy children. Some argue that keeping the family structure together is of the utmost importance. I argue that this is total bull***t. Not only can I speak from personal experience, as a child whose parents 'stayed together for the kids', but having completed a psychology degree I've come across a lot of research that supports it. These are some, just some, of the reasons why divorce can sometimes be a blessing.
1. Children aren't as Dumb as People Think
No matter how much you smile, how many tears you wipe away, how sound proof your doors are - they will know. Children are like sponges, they can pick up on any negative atmosphere as well as any grown person, sometimes better. I could tell as young as five when my parents had been arguing just by entering the room.
If you or your partner are unhappy, they will know. If you don't truly love each other, they will know. If you have argued, especially if it's gotten physical - they will know. If you lie to your child about what's happening, even if they believe you at the time, they will figure it out eventually. One of my early memories is walking into my parent's bedroom after hearing shouting to find my Mum sat alone, crying and bleeding from her eyebrow. She told me she'd bumped her face on the bedside table. Do you think I believed her? Did I hell. I was no older than eight and I had the sense to put two and two together; I knew he'd hit her.
You may be able to fob your neighbours or even your parents off with excuses and fake smiles, the ones who live with you will know what's going on no matter how well you think you're hiding it. It is impossible for a relationship or marriage gone bad not to affect the children.
2. Bad Memories Last Longer than Good Memories
The human brain is programmed to hold onto negative memories over positive ones. This is evolution's way of teaching us a lesson so that hopefully we won't repeat the action that leads to a negative memory. For example, if you trip over your untied shoelaces and you feel embarrassed, you will remember this years later. This will remind you to keep your laces tied to stop the same feeling being recreated. This process is the same whether the negative memory is associated with pain or distressing emotions, which is why it is so difficult to forget any traumatic experiences.
The downside is that regardless of how many times you tuck your child in or tell them you love them, these aren't the things that they will remember as adults. What they will remember is that one time Daddy hit Mommy or that time Mommy shouted so loud the police came. Whilst you cannot prevent your child from ever making bad memories, you can protect them from some of them. These kind of memories, which I can recall at nearly 24, are the memories that lead to years of therapy.
3. What are You Teaching your Children?
Children learn from example; they imitate everything they see and hear. This is how they learn everything, from walking and talking to emotional control and relationships. Most of what children learn is reinforced through play and through the reactions of those around them - they learn from not only how others respond to them, but how they respond to others. Children learn from everyone around them; from parents, siblings and peers whether these influences are positive or negative are only registered by the response these actions receive.
Situation 1: A young child sees their older sibling purposefully knock over a carton of milk. A parent or other adult tells the older child off for spilling the milk and asks them to clean it up.
Situation 2: A young child sees their older sibling purposefully knock over a carton of milk. A parent or other adult sees that the older child spilt the milk, but doesn't react. Later the adult cleans up the milk.
In situation 2 the younger child has learnt that making a mess on purpose is acceptable and that the adult will clean up after the children. In contrast in situation 1, the child learns that this is unacceptable behaviour and they are expected to clean up their own messes. This piece of information will not just apply to spilt milk in the child's mind, but to all similar situations.
This principle is the same when a child watches the relationship between their parents. If you do not interact positively with your significant other, such as hugs or pleasant conversation, the child will interpret this as normal behaviour in a loving relationship. If the child witnesses (or hears) arguments or domestic violence, they again will see this is 'normal' behaviour in a romantic relationship. Meaning that when they are beginning to develop their own romantic relationships, at best they don't know how and at worst they either are abusive or expect to be abused. In either situation, they have no idea what a normal, healthy romantic relationship is like and will struggle to see any issues in their own relationships for what they are. You are also telling them to settle for less; to accept that they are unhappy but to stay in that situation anyway. This is not what we should be teaching our children.
4. What is This Doing to You, Your Partner and Your Children?
Being in a loveless relationship will have a negative impact on your life satisfaction, your mood and your self-esteem. The combined effect of this can lead to stress and other health issues, such as depression. By remaining in an unhappy relationship you are denying yourself and your partner the emotional warmth and intimacy that humans crave. This leads to loneliness and in some cases infidelity because people have looked to fulfill these needs outside of the relationship. Remaining in an unhappy relationship means that you are depriving yourself of the chance to find a different partner with whom you may have a more satisfying, loving relationship. You may eventually resent your current partner for the time you spent with them, feeling as though you wasted years being unhappy when you could have found a better life for yourself.
It's not uncommon to be unaware of how much your relationship with your partner effects your children. Not only are the issues previously discussed a concern, but other less expected issues may be present. I think a lot of this is because kids know what is happening, but they don't understand why and try to figure this out alone. Children often blame themselves for their parents not getting along, they may even blame themselves for you being unhappy. I came across one woman's story whose daughter was convinced her mother disliked her as she was always unhappy when the child was around.
Unhappy relationships make for unhappy, often bitter and depressed parents. This will impact on the children in less noticeable ways; you may not want to play with them as often, have a shorter fuse or might not notice them at all. When parental depression starts to become extreme it may even lead to emotional neglect; the parents desperately try to find some way out of comfort for themselves forgetting their child's needs in the process. My parents are guilty of this, although I'm sure they never meant to. They both sought solace on the internet by talking with strangers and living their lives in a virtual world. This resulted in me having to fight for their attention, spending hours alone and not really having a relationship with either of them. I can remember being around 12 and asking my Mom to cook dinner, 4 hours later I threw a tantrum because it was 10 pm and she was still on the computer. I admit this is a rather extreme example, but this is the kind of thing that was a near daily occurrence for me and it goes to show how easily depression leads to neglect.
5. Finally, the most important reason of all.
You deserve to be happy. Your partner, whatever they may have done, deserves a chance at happiness. Your children most of all, they deserve to be happy. Divorce is messy and unpleasant, usually for all those involved. It is agreed by the majority of adults whose parents 'stayed together for the kids', that they did more harm than good. Many scientific studies support that living in an environment filled with tension and hostility is more damaging than splitting up the family unit.
There is generally some trauma experienced by children when their parents' divorce, especially if the divorce isn't a quick and clear-cut process. It's often easier when both parents have decided that a divorce is the best option, but either way, it is important that you act in the best interest of your children. Just remember that this is all temporary, that things will get better and one day they might even thank you for it.