Why Staying Together for the Kids Can Backfire

We’ve all heard it, and possibly even thought it. “I’ll stay for the kids’ sake”. I will confess that this is the very reason I stayed in my marriage as long as I did. I was determined to not let my children experience the pain of separation and divorce. I did not want to have them live a “split life” with time at mom’s house and time at dad’s. I wanted them to have a duel parent household. The research showed this was best and I wanted to give my children the best.

Well, I will also be the first to admit that I probably stayed too long. It did not help my boys to see an unhealthy marriage and hear the way their father spoke to me. I began to see that my sons were starting to imitate his language and behaviors, often showing me disrespect. Having many narcissistic traits, my ex often showed unstable and unloving behaviors towards the kids as well. He was not acting as an equal member of the family, rather the sole person everyone had to tip toe around. This stress and instability on a daily basis was far worse for the kids than the stress of having divorced parents.

As I write to you, I’m also aware this this is my experience and each divorce story is different. That’s why I want to take a look at both sides of the coin here. I want to go on record and say that I’m not a proponent of divorce. I do believe in marriage and do not take those vows lightly. I also don’t believe that the decision to get divorced is for everyone. I believe that children DO in fact benefit from seeing a loving marriage that demonstrates healthy communication, boundaries, and healthy conflict resolution. If you and your partner are both secure enough to admit faults of your own, identify things you BOTH need to work on, and can agree to work together to make the marriage work, then by all means- run to your nearest couples counselor and get to work on that marriage!

Now, on to when staying in the marriage might be an unhealthy option for both you and your children. Stable marriages require both partners to be mentally healthy. If you are struggling in a marriage with a partner that has unaddressed mental health concerns, you may find yourself in a losing battle. If mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and PTSD are left untreated, it can create an unstable environment for the entire family. Other disorders that can wreak havoc on a marriage are in the Personality Disorder family. Disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder are both common and very difficult to manage. As with all personality disorders, the person does not see their behavior as a problem and feels that everyone else is to blame or in need of change. They don’t see their actions as part of the problem at all and often can’t see the need for treatment. This is the opposite of someone experiencing depression or anxiety. Those symptoms cause discomfort to the person and often lead them to seek treatment. Nothing is more frustrating than wanting to help someone who does not want to be helped. If your partner is refusing treatment, they are also refusing to be fully present in the marriage and family life.

The same can be said for addiction as well. If you are in a marriage with an alcoholic or addict that does not want to stop using, you are a living example of the saying “being stuck between a rock and a hard place”. This may not be the person you fell in love with. You may remember them before the addiction and want to hold out until that person returns. Just know, you cannot make that happen for them. It is impossible to derail the train that they refuse to get off. An addict is not able to be the parent they need to be while using. The kids are not getting a stable and healthy environment that you are wanting to provide by “staying for the kids’ sake”.

The problem may also be something that doesn’t require a diagnosis. Infidelity, physical abuse, emotional/verbal abuse, and rage can cause a breech in trust and safety that is not repairable. The hurt and pain that are caused by such a betrayal are often more than a person can forgive. While these seem like clear deal breakers, the offender often tries to guilt the other person into staying by bringing the kids into it. “Are you really going to leave and do this to the kids”. I can say that quote with conviction because those exact words were said to me. As a mother, that statement messed with my head. It had me feeling like I was to blame because I was not willing to accept the affair and the emotional abuse. I started to think, “Maybe I should just stay for the kids”. Then I realized what that would end up doing to them. They would see a broken marriage full of hurt and resentment. They would eventually figure out what was going on and get a completely warped sense of what marriage means and how to treat their future spouses. That’s the moment I realized I was not to blame and I would do what needed to be done for myself and my boys.

All of these seem so cut and dry from an outsider’s perspective, but when it’s your marriage and your children, everything gets muddled. Your brain is foggy and it’s so very hard to make such a decision that will not only impact your future, but the future of your children. I know it’s one I wrestled endlessly with in my mind. My ultimate solace was realizing what I could and could not change. I could NOT change him no matter how much I wanted to. I COULD change my situation and what my children would learn from my example. You cannot force someone to change who does not want to do so. With that said, it is also ok for the rest of those involved, including the children, to not become collateral damage to their self destruction.