ere’s news that may not surprise you: Children thrive when their parents are in a happy marriage. Among other things, they grow up feeling emotionally secure, and leave home with a positive marriage model.
How much are kids impacted if their parents don’t fall into this happy matrimony category? The equation, say researchers, looks something like this: The greater the conflict between parents (married or divorced), the greater the dysfunction in their kids both during childhood and when they mature. As a result of marital discord, children typically exhibit more emotional and behavioral problems, more learning problems, and more relationship problems (see sidebar, “The Consequences of Conflict.”). The general hierarchy of repercussions can be broken down as follows:
- The best developmental outcome occurs when children grow up with happily married parents. These kids have the greatest emotional stability and least social, intellectual, emotional, and behavioral problems throughout life.
- The next-best scenario for children is an intact home that’s stable, functional, and respectful, if not exactly warm and loving.
- A child’s development is compromised in the presence of regular marital friction.
- Divorce presents a serious developmental challenge, particularly when it’s antagonistic.
- A home that’s intact, but violent, poses the greatest threat to a child’s development.
An increasingly popular parenting belief today is that “the kids are happy when their parents are happy.” But, as these findings reveal, the parents’ happiness is not the most important factor for a child’s wellbeing. Fact is, kids are usually less concerned about their parents’ emotional state than they are about figuring out their own lives and facing their day-to-day challenges. Growing up with stability and security, even in a home in which the parents are not particularly thrilled with each other, does more good for a child’s development than swapping homes between two separate, but happier, parents (provided that the marital home was not characterized by physical aggression).
Even in intact frum homes, the unfortunate reality today is that trouble in marriage is becoming increasingly common. And “troubled marriages” — which are defined as ones with high levels of interpersonal stress — are relatively common as well.
It’s not always possible for a person to give his or her children the gift of growing up in the midst of a wonderful marriage because a relationship is not totally within one person’s control. You have a spouse to contend with — and also yourself, with all of the baggage and childhood wounds that often dictate how you instinctively act and react to stressful situations.
Nonetheless, there are certain things that you can do to minimize the damaging effects of a troubled marriage — and maximize the positive potential of your relationship.
Love Is a Verb
Let’s say you’re in a “lukewarm” marriage (the second category). There’s basic respect between you and your husband, but little or no true affection. You each care intensely for the children and shower love and affection upon them, yet you hold back from acting in loving ways toward each other. Whereas you buy lavish presents for your children’s birthdays, you often fail to acknowledge each other’s, except to give token gifts that lack thought.
Your kids can tell; they feel the emptiness. In such a situation, children might fail to learn the mechanics of building and maintaining strong, loving bonds. When they enter into marriages of their own, their partners may complain that they’re cold and distant.
Even in this type of “lukewarm” marriage, your kids can still learn essential interpersonal skills and positive concepts about marriage. How? In order to teach your children how to love, you don’t actually have to feel strong affection for your spouse. Love, after all, is not just a feeling you experience inside your head and heart. It’s also a verb. It means doing actions of love.
It seems counterintuitive, but even if your husband never responds to your loving gestures, your own behavior can still provide an adequate educational model for your children. This holds true even if your spouse is completely dysfunctional or disturbed. If your kids can see at least one good parenting model, they have a very real chance of growing into healthy adults. On the other hand, if your kids see two dysfunctional, disturbed parents, those chances are far more compromised.
To show your children how love is conveyed, focus on verbs. For instance, to show kindness to your spouse, look for small ways to help out. “You look tired; do you want me to finish putting the kids to bed?” Whether you’re feeling it or not, act with generosity. When your husband randomly mentions how a small item would make his life easier, buy it for him as a “just because” gift. Be an attentive, empathetic listener when your spouse relays stories of aggravation or pain. To express appreciation and/or admiration, offer praise to your husband out loud.
Despite cool feelings, find ways to show affection. This can include anything from smiling to making an occasional reference to happier moments, such as “Remember that trip we took after we got married? I loved that place we stayed at.” Finally, focus on making a good impression. Dress and groom yourself nicely at home, and try to conduct yourself in a pleasant, respectful way, as you might do in a work environment.
By acting in these loving ways, you’ll provide a good model for your children and, at the same time, increase the likelihood that your spouse will act in more positive ways toward you.
Be the Role Model
What happens when parents (whether married or divorced) regularly bicker, argue, and fight? Certainly, their children are exposed to a skills deficit. When spouses raise their voices, insult each other, make ugly threats, and throw fits of temper, they fail to teach their children how to respectfully negotiate differences of opinion, accidental wounding, disappointment, frustration, and other routine marital challenges.
Every couple will be constantly bombarded with issues that require resolution: decisions regarding the daily activities, problems with division of labor in the house, parenting dilemmas, and challenges connected to finances, in-laws, religious activities, communal affairs, guests, vacations — you name it. The list of potential areas of disagreement, difference of opinion, and conflict is endless and continuous. And when parents fight about these issues, they teach their kids how to fight.
If your spouse is the combative one in your relationship, you can still make a big impact on your kids by teaching them how to quickly quell conflict. You have the ability to demonstrate how to successfully avoid, end, or redirect an invitation to fight. As an example, consider these two dialogues:
Angry husband to wife: “Why do you have to argue with everything I say?!”
Wife’s retort: “You’re the one arguing all the time. You just don’t know when to stop talking!”
Angry husband to wife: “Why do you have to argue with everything I say?!”
Wife’s response: “You know what, you’re right. There’s no need for me to argue. I’m sorry. I hear what you’re saying and you’ve actually got a point.”
The second dialogue illustrates the Torah principle of “run from conflict as you would flee from a fire.” The main goal is to end the fight. Issues of who’s right and who’s wrong become irrelevant in the face of an agenda to seek and pursue peace. This doesn’t mean, however, that deflection is always the appropriate response to a partner’s abusive behavior. Another possible ending to the above scenario could be this one:
Wife’s response: “I’d like to finish this discussion another time. Let’s take a break for a bit.”
This form of exit is most appropriate when a spouse is escalating to a point that any further discussion could only become more toxic. Even if (in the above scenario) the upset husband just screamed louder in response to being “shut down,” the children would learn from their mother how important it is to refrain from participating in a fighting match.
Also note that the wife lets her husband know that she does want to finish the discussion, but at another, presumably calmer, time. She’s not ignoring him. By so behaving, the children learn that “discussions” should never occur at high volumes.
At times, the most appropriate way to handle conflict is to say nothing at all in the moment. This is most suitable when a spouse has become verbally abusive. Refraining from answering back to — or fanning the fires of — provocation then becomes the technique that is imparted to the children.
If the children have overheard or witnessed abuse, it’s imperative for them to learn that the parent on the receiving end of this sort of treatment is taking active steps to address the situation. This can be accomplished in several ways. One example is approaching a child later, saying something like, “You heard us fighting before, right? That must have been scary and uncomfortable for you. I just want you to know that we’re sorry to have upset you and we’re in the process of working on this. Hopefully, things like this will happen less and less until they stop happening altogether.”
Suppose you’re not the victim in a conflict scenario, but rather are the perpetrator. What if it’s you who’s always issuing the invitation to fight? This could happen because of the way you were raised and might just be a programmed response to inner stress. If so, you can still be the one to show the kids how to end conflict. It might sound like this:
Angry wife to husband: “Why do you have to argue with everything I say?”
Angry wife, catching herself in the moment: “I’m sorry. Please let me take that back. I’m just upset right now. I’ll talk to you about this later.”
In this example, kids learn that mistakes can be corrected. They learn that people can monitor themselves, repair their behavior, and choose a path of growth. Most importantly, they see that pursuing peace is far more important than proving one’s point.
Violence Is a Red Line
Hitting, slapping, punching, pushing, and blocking movement are all obvious acts of violence. But there are more subtle forms of aggression, too, such as angrily speeding out of the driveway, slamming the door, banging down the phone, throwing things, and even raising a hand as if to strike.
In homes where violence is a routine fact of life, children tend to be traumatized. Many suffer lifelong negative effects including severe emotional and relationship challenges. Children may become violent adults themselves and/or passive victims of abusive partners. One must do everything possible to prevent the disastrous consequences of growing up in an abusive household.
Even rare occasions of aggression can be damaging for children to witness or experience. Learning that a parent is capable of violence erodes the sense of trust and safety that is necessary for a child’s healthy development. When a child sees one parent assaulting or frightening the other, healthy feelings toward both parents may be compromised: the child can lose positive regard for the perpetrator and lose respect for the victim. Feelings of anger, desire for revenge, sadness, and fear may all follow exposure to parental violence.
That said, just as we’ve seen in less severe styles of dysfunction, one healthy spouse can make all the difference. Such a spouse can show children that violent and aggressive behavior is never acceptable in family life. He or she can also demonstrate regard for one’s own safety and value by refusing to accept mistreatment.
Ideally, the healthy parent will be able to take action at the first sign of abusive behavior. But even if that’s not the case, the mother, say, can still make a huge impact by standing up for herself (and ultimately, the children). For instance, in the midst of a violent act, she can say out loud: “This has to stop right now. We’re not solving our problems this way.” She can also give warnings: “If you don’t stop right now, I’ll have to leave the house with the children until you let me know that it’s safe for us to be here,” or “If you don’t stop this right now, I’ll have to call for help.”
You should also set limits in whatever way is appropriate in your situation. For instance, “I will no longer accept this sort of behavior in this house,” or “If this ever happens again, we (or you) will have to get help,” or “If this happens again, I’ll have to let your parents/rabbi/siblings know what’s going on.” The most important thing is for your children to see that violence is not to be tolerated.
It may not be possible to suddenly put an end to unhealthy marital cycles. What is possible, however, is to acknowledge to oneself that there is inevitable damage occurring to the children as long as there is excessive tension, negative energy, aggression, or violence occurring within the marriage. To help your kids thrive, it’s tremendously important to get professional help for yourself — and your children. If your kids are very young, an art therapist or play therapist might be more appropriate. (See sidebar, “Getting the Right Help.”)
For the Sake of the Kids
Parents who choose to sacrifice their own personal happiness to remain married “for the sake of the children” need to understand that just staying together — while a good beginning — is not good enough for your kids’ development. You also have to commit to being the “healthy” parent.
Your kids may not thank you right away for your hard work (nor even be aware of it), but they’ll be immensely grateful down the line. Take the case of a woman named Shifra*: “My father has always been a very difficult person. Now that I’m married myself, I often think about how hard it must have been all those years for my mother. In their day, couples didn’t go to counseling and very few people got divorced — people just ‘toughed it out.’
“But my mother did much more than that. She taught us so many valuable lessons. For instance, she never became bitter. You’d never hear her say things like, ‘I deserve better. Why did Hashem give me this to deal with?’ On the contrary, she’d say things like, ‘Hashem has a plan. Everything is for the good.’ And you could tell that she believed it. There was no physical abuse, so Mom never felt she had to resort to leaving the marriage. She felt that divorce was hard on children and wanted us to have a home. So she worked really hard to make it the best it could be despite everything.
“My parents worked with a rabbi for many years and things got calmer in our house. My mother showed us that with patience, courage, fortitude, trust in Hashem, and hard work, you can handle difficult situations. I learned from my mother what to do in marriage, and, from my father, what not to do. But I also learned from my father that people can change and improve all throughout life. Although I wish that Hashem had given me an easier childhood, I can see that — like my mother says — it’s all for the good. I use everything I learned in my parents’ house to make my own home the beautiful home it is today.”
Some people are blessed with an easy partner and an easy marriage; others are not. Since no one sets out on purpose to have a difficult life, the difficulties are obviously orchestrated by Hashem. Your job is to do the best you can given the circumstances. This may mean that you end up doing all of the hard work in your marriage. Admittedly, it seems a little unfair. You might wonder, “Why should I work so hard on my marriage when my husband does nothing?” Look into your children’s eyes and you’ll find the answer.
The Consequences of Conflict
Growing up in a home with strife, children typically endure a host of short- and long-term problems.
First, living in any kind of dysfunctional family is a shameful experience for a child. The kid always longs for a “normal” home, by which he means a happy, loving, healthy, safe, emotionally stable environment. A child tends to assume that everyone else has a normal home (which, of course, is not true) and, as a result, he feels isolated, alone, different, and even tainted. He keeps his situation a secret, never daring to reach out for help or understanding. He carries a private burden that nestles deeply inside his psyche, affecting his behavior, health, and emotions throughout the rest of his life — or until he actively heals the wounds through a therapeutic process.
Children in troubled marriages also experience high doses of stress. Chronic fighting, intense fighting, or any kind of fighting in earshot of a sensitive kid can overwhelm the child’s nervous system. This can manifest in behavioral problems, emotional “nervous” problems, health problems, sleeping problems, and academic problems. Sometimes, so much of a child’s mind is occupied with the tension at home that he cannot concentrate well at school. His teachers assume he has Attention Deficit Disorder when, in fact, he is highly distracted by internal psychological stress.
Worse, the kid himself feels flawed. He cannot understand why he feels sad, anxious, and overwhelmed. He knows that he’s not being beaten, that no one is drunk, that no terrible abuse is being perpetrated — yet he blames himself for being miserable because he doesn’t understand that he’s suffering from the normal effects of living in an emotionally toxic environment.
Kids living amidst a troubled marriage often work hard to distract or rescue their parents from conflict. They may become “parentified” — little parents to their own parents, trying to help them solve their marriage problems. This backward dynamic puts excessive strain on the psyche of children, one that is only aggravated by the parenting deficits that might already be in play.
Spouses living in a troubled marriage often have insufficient attention or energy for parenting tasks. In pain themselves, they cannot always meet the emotional needs of their children. Sometimes the kids respond by trying to be “perfect.” They hope to receive some attention and validation for being helpful, for doing well in school and sometimes, for offering help and support to their battle-worn parents. All of this striving is unnatural for a child, straining his own emotional resources.
Young children are particularly prone to taking responsibility for the tension in the home; they reason “it’s my fault,” or “it’s because I didn’t go to bed on time.” If the parents are fighting about parenting issues, it’s all the more likely for kids of every age to feel responsible for the trouble in the marriage. Very often, a child reaches adulthood before he realizes that he wasn’t to blame for his parents’ difficult relationship.
Getting the Right Help
Did you know that many social workers, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists have absolutely no training in marital counseling? Although well intentioned, such people may actually harm your marriage rather than strengthen it. Similarly, not all marital therapists feel strongly about the importance of maintaining marriage for a lifetime. So before signing up for marriage therapy or individual counseling to discuss relationship issues, find out what sort of training the therapist has.
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 267)