The best way to get a real insight into the consequences of a damaging relationship or divorce is to talk to an adult whose parents went through one. You will hear stories of hurt, desperation, betrayal and lost dreams. Tales of sadness, withdrawal and never-ending bickering.

In the case that these were of those parents who decided to stay together ‘for the sake of their children’ despite the fact that they were unhappy and couldn’t stand each other, you will then see how painful and traumatizing it is to spend most of your childhood, witnessing the two people you love the most hurt each other every day.

Deciding to get a divorce could be one of the most emotionally and psychologically damaging experiences your children have to live through. Staying together and fighting constantly is no better. The harmful effects are of the same magnitude. When children are daily exposed to their parents’ resentment for each other, the outcome can be equally catastrophic.

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Lengthy research has shown that is not so much the parents’ disagreements themselves that determine the deterioration of their children’s emotional well being but the way they handle those disagreements. When the parents are actively present in their children’s lives, and behave with empathy and emotional understanding they can teach their children to deal with problems, parental fights or even divorce in a productive and healthy way. Only through emotional intelligence and awareness can the children learn to handle such situations without receiving its damaging results.  

Children who are raised in aggressive families, are more likely to show the same kind of behaviour towards their friends. The same children find it more difficult than others to understand their emotions, to concentrate in tasks or to be able to relax. Their mothers will often complain that they are always ill with flu or other medical issues.

They will be more antisocial than others, finding it difficult to work as a team at school, usually fighting with the other children and being introverts. Not being able to express themselves, understand the way they feel and why, they find it difficult to make new friends, which will eventually lead to the development of psychological issues. It has also been outlined that those children were showing lower performance at school compared to children who belonged to happier families.

Divorce is NOT the problem

Parents, absorbed by their own problems and personal turmoil, do not pay  attention to the way this is affecting their children and their future development. They spend little or no quality time with them and thus they are left on their own to cope with their feelings. Later on, these children will start mixing with other unhappy teenagers, they will show premature sexual behaviour, drug abuse or be involved in other criminal activities. Psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington supports that an emotionally disturbed and depressed parent and an unhappy, demanding child cannot possibly help or comfort each other. On the contrary they ‘damage’ each other more than they soothe and embrace one another.

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Unfortunately, without realizing it, these parents become the worst role models for their children. They become witnesses to their mother and father treat each other with disrespect, verbal, emotional or any kind of abuse, despise, sarcasm and aggression. They are bound to display the same exact behaviour to their friends and family. Without someone to show them how to solve their problems with empathy, active listening and understanding, they inherit their parents way: being angry and upset is the only way to deal with a problem and screaming and shouting will always get you what you want in the end.

So, is it wiser for parents to decide to stay in such a dysfunctional and unhealthy marriage for the sake of their children? The answer is absolutely not! Putting the children through an unhappy, destructive environment is the same as getting a divorce. Divorce is not what emotionally destroys the children; the bad and harmful communication between the parents before and after the divorce,  is.

The four signs you are heading towards disaster

Psychologist John Gottman and his team of researchers, after years of working with dysfunctional  and separated families, discovered that couples who weren’t in happy marriages or ended up getting a divorce, follow similar descending paths. They possess similar emotional and behavioural characteristics that lead towards marital death.

Criticism. They are negative judgmental remarks made against one partner and should not be confused with complaints. A complaint is usually a healthy part in any relationship, especially when one of the partners feels like their needs are not met. Criticism is negative and feels like a forceful attack on someone’s personality. For example:

Complaint: ‘I feel lonely when you go out with your friends every Friday instead of coming home after work’

Criticism: ‘You are so irresponsible, you go out every weekend leave me alone at home with the children. Obviously you don’t really care about your family at all’

Complaint: ‘If you spend so much money on clothes, I am afraid our financial situation will suffer’

Criticism: ‘How can you spend so much money on clothes when you know we can’t even afford to pay the bills? You are selfish and arrogant’  (John Gottman, 1997).

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Whilst complaint describes a fact, criticism is usually accusation and what someone should have done. It implies handicap on your partner’s ability to do right. One way to avoid such behaviour either in marriage or after you have divorced and you need to still communicate with your ex concerning child support etc, is to deal with problems at the moment when they happen. By waiting until anger and negative emotions build up before having to face an issue that bother you will only make things worse and you’ll end up saying things that you don’t want or should say.

Concentrate on the now and present and on your partner’s behavior rather than his personality. Women are using criticism more than men and this is due to the fact that they feel that most of the marital chores are their responsibility. Men, on the other hand tend to deal with problems only as a last resort. Women react negatively to their non responsive attitude towards their anger and complaints.

It is an unfortunate combination that could lead to a breakup. Men could view their wives anger as an opportunity to fix their marriage, therefore responding to their partners complain before it mounts up and leads to criticism.

Contempt. This is one step further than criticism. It takes place  in a form of hatred and intends to insult and really hurt a partner. While you feel like you are fed up and totally had enough of your partner you will always think of them in a negative way. The longer these negative thoughts stay in your head the further apart you will grow from your partner.

The most common signs that contempt has taken over your relationship are swearing, insults, emotional abuse, humiliation, and feelings of hatred. Some partners tend to grammatically correct the other partners during an angry conversation. Sarcasm and feelings of disgust is another.

divorce2Contempt kills enthusiasm and admiration and increases the feelings of dislike abandonment towards our partner. Some couples find it useful to try and remember how they used to be like and what was it that attracted them to their partner in the first place.Take a trip down memory lane together and make an effort to relive those moment. Invest some time, alone or together attempting to heal and close some of your open wounds. It will definitely improve the way you communicate for the better.

Defensiveness. Being defensive is a really big problem in a relationship. The partner who acts in a defensive manner stops listening altogether feelings like they are in a war zone. Denying any kind of sensibility or being full of excuses is a common behaviour for that partner.

The defensive partner will not take into consideration new information and a change of situations but will keep bringing up the same argument over and over again.

Although feeling defensive is totally understandable when both partners are in a state of contempt, it is counterproductive and causes friction in a marriage. Try to receive and accept your partner’s comments not as a personal attack but as a useful information that can help you although it was just expressed harshly.

Flooding. Another sign that signals a marriage breakdown is when one partner becomes flooded. ‘Flooding means that your spouse’s negativity whether in the guise of criticism or contempt or even defensiveness is so overwhelming and so sudden that it leaves you shell-shocked’ (John Gottman, et al).

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The majority of people protect themselves against feeling flooded by disengaging or stonewalling. In 85% of the cases its men that exhibit this emotion who tend to withdraw from unpleasant situations, choosing to keep quiet rather than consciously engage in conversation with their wives. On the contrary women, when are not able to discuss problems with their husband they seek help and understanding from their social environment and friends and this is one of the reasons why women will usually stay in a failed marriage although it is bad for them.

This emotional disengagement can protect one from these intense feelings of negativity, but at the same time it can also lead to divorce.

Children should not be used as ‘weapons’ against each other

Knowing how precious their relationship is with their children, parents are often tempted to use that fact in order to hurt each other, especially in moments of anger and frustration. A divorced partner is very likely to limit visitation rights to the other partner as a means of revenge. Usually mothers engage in this kind of behaviour in an effort to hurt their ex husbands since that is the only tool they have been left with.

Bad mouthing and turning the children against the other partner is also a tactic some people use without realizing the devastating effects this has on their children. They ended up feeling powerless, confused and discouraged. Especially through a divorce is the time children need stability and love the most. They need support, understanding and empathic attitude from their parents in order to process what is happening.

Divorced parents should distinguish between their two roles, that of a parent and that of a ex partner. As parents they should fulfill their vital role and offer their children much needed reassurance and security.

Depending on their age, try to be honest with your children, assure them that you still both love each and it is better for all of you if you don’t stay together, Show the you are still united and most of all you are still a family.

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Unfortunately, although divorce, separations and internal family problems are sad, frustrating and mostly unfair for one partner or both, they are still part of life. When there is marriage turmoil and fighting but both partners want to fix that, visiting a licensed marriage counselor is advisable. You have to make sure you  stay emotionally available for your children so as to protect them from the negative consequences of marital difficulties.

You have to be also aware that although you are going through a very rough time, life for your children goes on. They will need extra attention and comforting attitude from their parents through daily changes they might need to embrace. From a new baby sitter, a new bed and a new house to adjusting to a different way of life and routine, children need constant reassurance and understanding through these changes.

Your children won’t just disappear or put themselves on hold while you indulge in arguments and bad communication. They won’t understand the big traumatic changes in their lives on their own. Above all else, your job is to be there for them, because you’re living through the results of the choices you made as an adult. They are innocent.
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Psychologist, world citizen, mother - Effie is one half of the alwaysladies.com founding pair. She can bring to life any party with either a smile, or a strong opinion. If like us you can't get enough of Effie, visit her blog at www.thethinkingmomblog.com

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