5 Ways to Help Your Kids When Your Marriage is in Trouble
- 2008 17 Apr
April 17, 2008
“It’s not you, Jayne,” I said to my daughter. “Your dad’s just dealing with some things."
“Does it have anything to do with you sleeping on the couch?” My son Christopher’s gaze poked at me.
“I was restless,” I said. “I didn’t want to disturb him.”
"Looks like you disturbed him anyway. I heard him cussing in the garage.”
Jayne began to tear her toast into confetti.
“We’re having issues,” I said. “You two don’t need to worry about it.”
“Dad throwing tools isn’t about ‘issues.’ It looks like Mr. Goodwrench went ballistic out there.”
I nearly scoured the logo off the bottom of the Tupperware container.
“So, yeah, Mom,” Christopher said. “What’s going on?”
“Maybe it’s none of our business,” Jayne said.
“I have a right to know what’s going on when I’m afraid to walk around in my own house.”
Jayne pushed her plate across the counter and slid off the stool.
“Okay, listen,” I said. “I did something to upset your dad so he asked me to sleep downstairs until we can sort it out.”
“Geez, Mom, what did you do?” Christopher said. “Cheat on him?”
I felt the shock register on my face, too late to see from his crooked smile that he was kidding.
He stared at me. “Dude, that’s it, isn’t it? You cheated on Dad.”
~ from Healing Stones
That scene, from my recently released novel, Healing Stones, was written with psychologist Stephen Arterburn. Though it’s fiction, it rings all too true. Character Demitria Costanas is obviously handling things badly, but are any of us much better when our marriage is crashing against the rocks and our kids are watching?
We can learn from Demitria’s mistakes. Every family is different, so there is no simple step-by-step plan, but five God-shaped guidelines can help you walk your children through a tough time without leaving them unnecessarily scarred.
Your kids come first. No matter how much you’re hurting from that last argument or that devastating discovery, your children are still your top priority. Even adults who suffered through their parents’ divorce years ago will tell you their first reaction was fear that they weren’t going to be taken care of, especially when Mom was basically non-functional and Dad withdrew into his pain. Whether they’re teenagers who know every bitter detail of the strife or little ones who simply sense the tension, reassure your kids that you are there for them, that their needs are going to be met, that they are still the most important thing in your life. If you need alone time to process, make fun arrangements for them to be out of the house for a short time and convince them you’ll be right there when they return.
Keep the fighting private. Your offspring may know you and your spouse are going at it, but they don’t have to be privy to the sniping and the words you’re sure to regret later. Don’t count on their sleeping through a knock-down-drag-out. Make sure they’re out of the house before you discuss your issues. If that’s impossible, fight fair and with dignity – which you need to do anyway, for the sake of your relationship. Make name-calling, insults, accusations and foul language taboo, whether the kids can hear you or not.
Be as honest as you need to be. While your children shouldn’t get an earful of the marital transgressions, even the smallest of them knows something isn’t right. Don’t count on them asking you; they know. Your denying it is crazy-making. Something basic is all young ones need: “Daddy and I are having some arguments, but we’re talking things out. It’s going to be okay.” Older kids benefit from a little more information: “I know you’ve heard your mother and me fighting about money, and I’m sorry you had to hear that, but we’re doing everything we can to come to an agreement. You don’t need to worry about it.” Saying everything is fine when it isn’t assures them they can’t really trust you to tell them the truth.
Watch for warning signs. Some kids will be satisfied with the explanations above. Others will still struggle. Be aware of any changes in their behavior. When my husband and I were having trouble, our three-year-old chewed all the feet off the Barbie dolls at day care. Grades may take a sudden nose dive. Teenagers may decide it’s time to break curfew or take the family car for a joyride. Withdrawal is the hardest to deal with, and the most telling. Don’t buy, “I don’t want to talk about it.” That usually means, (a) “I’m afraid of what you’re going to tell me,” or (b) “I’m so angry I’m scared I’m going to hurt you with what I really want to say.” Take any unusual behavior as an opportunity to sit down and get it all out, even if it takes prodding, even if it results in emotional outbursts. They are children. Their feelings are fragile. Handle with care.
Remember, they’re kids, not confidants. It’s a real temptation, especially when you’re especially close to a son or daughter, or he or she is precociously understanding, to use that young’un as a sounding board. Not a good idea. That puts a burden on a child, even a teenager, who has her own stuff to deal with in this situation. And once you get into that, it’s hard to resist running down your spouse, that child’s other parent. It’s a recipe for future resentment.
None of us wants to put our kids through a marital mess, but let’s face it, we’re all there to some degree at some point in our relationships. It doesn’t have to be a disaster for our kids. It can instead an opportunity to teach them that even people who love each other have disagreements, that no relationship is ideal, and that sometimes it’s hard to sort things out.
Nancy Rue has written more than 100 books and is a frequent contributor to magazines such as Woman’s World, Focus on the Family, Brio, Breakaway, Clubhouse, Christian Living for Teens, Youth Teacher and Counselor, and Career World. She has won many national awards from the Evangelical Press Association in both the fiction and non-fiction categories. Nancy spends much of her time teaching workshops, conducting seminars and speaking at conferences hosted by Virtuous Reality Ministries, a national outreach organization that has reached more than 150,000 girls providing them the tools to navigate today’s promiscuous culture. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, she was a public school English and theater teacher for 16 years. She resides with her husband near Learn more at www.nancyrue.com.