Staying in an unhappy marriage does more damage to your kids than you realize… and I’m a living example.
I can’t remember a time when my parents were happy.
Sure, there are vague memories of “happier” times. Sometimes they would laugh and joke with each other, and there were times when they were openly affectionate. There would be long periods of calm between them, with no huge breakout fights that would come to characterize my later childhood and then teen years.
But eventually, the periods of calm came fewer and farther in between.
When I was a child, the arguments they had were mostly behind closed doors. I can clearly remember one particular argument, when I was eight or nine, and my parents were viciously yelling at each other. I told my younger sister that we should intervene and stop them from fighting. Holding hands, my sister and I went into the kitchen, where my parents were arguing.
“Please stop yelling at Mommy,” we said in perfect unison, and I felt my eyes brim with tears.
My father froze, and I saw a brief look of shame pass across his eyes, followed by embarrassment. He told us to get to school, and the argument was over. I was quite pleased with myself for stopping that particular argument.
Unfortunately, it was the only one that I was able to stop. Anxiety would rise in my chest whenever I heard them arguing behind closed doors, their crackling tension in the aftermath of their fights. I remember trying to watch Saturday morning cartoons in the living room while they argued in the background, trying to pretend like they weren’t there. I began to crave the “periods of calm”, when my parents seemed to get along, and the house was peaceful.
But the arguments became more and more frequent. During one particularly dramatic argument, my parents began to scream at each other in the church parking lot after my cousin’s wedding. I was seated in the passenger’s seat, my two siblings in the backseat, quietly mortified as my parents yelled at each other in full view of friends and relatives. Soon after the incident, I came home from school to find my mother sitting on the edge of the bed in tears.
“What’s wrong?” I asked shakily.
“Your father and I… we’re getting a divorce,” she said quietly.
All these years later, I can remember my heart plunging in my chest at the words, the feeling of dread and panic. At the time, the word “divorce” seemed so awful and final. I didn’t know what to say, and I just stood there helplessly. I finally left the room, hoping that it wasn’t true. It turned out not to be, and another period of calm soon followed.
The frequent arguments again erupted, growing increasingly worse, and I soon found myself silently wishing they would get a divorce, something that had at first horrified me. But once I had the wish, it became a sort of twisted fantasy as I imagined a household free of tension and arguments, free of being drawn into their fights.
I fantasized about living in two households, one with my mother, the other with my father. Two Christmases, two Thanksgivings, two birthdays, maybe even two new stepparents. And most importantly, my parents being happy again, looking at their partner with love instead of anger and resentment.
As their marriage broke down to the point where they weren’t even sleeping in the same bedroom, I was certain a divorce was imminent. But it never came. I began to envy friends of mine whose parents divorced. Friends who got to live with parents who were much happier apart than they ever were together. Ironically, I found the comedy film Mrs. Doubtfire particularly painful to watch, wishing that it was my parents who were mature and thoughtful enough to end their marriage rather than live together in misery.
I suspected deep down that they were staying together for the sake of me and my two siblings, which horrified me. Couldn’t they see the damage they were causing us? How unhappy their mutual misery made their own children? And I learned years later that this was indeed the case… they were staying together for our sake.
I was relieved to escape their turbulent marriage when I went away to college, even though a weekend visit from them concluded in a screaming match in a hotel lobby. I increasingly avoided visiting home, feeling terrible for my younger siblings who remained in the center of their constant battlefield. I dreaded even talking on the phone to them, for each would inevitably complain about the other, and I felt myself being dragged once again into their whirlpool of misery.
As an adult, I entered therapy for the lifelong anxiety that I suffered from. It was only then that I learned the extent of the damage their tumultuous marriage had done to my young brain, and the lasting effect it had in shaping my adult identity. All these years later, I have learned to forgive them and let go of the trauma of growing up in such a way.
Whenever I hear of someone whose staying in a bad marriage “for the kids,” my heart hurts for those kids. For anyone out there whose in a bad marriage or relationship, and only staying together for “the kids,” I implore you to please, for the sake of your kids, to get a divorce.
Children are smarter and more intuitive than most adults realize, and they can pick up on your misery. That misery will be compartmentalized and do more damage than you can possibly imagine. They will repeat the same patterns they observe, staying in bad relationships or marriages down the road, because that is what they observed growing up.
The best and most selfless thing you can do for your children is to show them the life you’d want them to lead, the relationship you’d want them to have. Believe me, by staying in an unhappy relationship, you’re doing more harm than good.
Thanks to months of therapy and introspection, I’ve recognized the destructive patterns I’ve picked up from my parents, and I do whatever I can to reverse them. The very idea of marriage used to terrify me, until I met an amazing man I wanted to share my life with, and I decided that the cycle of miserable relationships would end with me. I’ve used this knowledge to make my own marriage – and my other relationships – even stronger.
Down the line, when we expand our family with children, my husband and I have made a pact that if we grow unhappy with each other, if we fall out of love, if we move in different directions, whatever it may be – for the sake of our children, we will get a divorce. Because more often than not, that is what’s best for everyone involved — especially the kids.
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