Family, Heartbreak

What To Do If You Feel Stuck In An Unhappy Marriage With Kids

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Should I Get A Divorce? Marriage Advice For When To Get Divorced When You’re Unhappy But Have Kids

If you feel like you're stuck in an unhappy marriage and divorce is your only option, then it's important to know how divorce can affect you. However, if there are kids involved, it can significantly complicate the break up and changes what you need to focus on.

Getting a divorce can be scary and overwhelming, but if you feel a divorce is necessary, what do you do? If you stay, the future looks bleak. If you leave, your kids suffer. It’s confusing and complicated, there’s no doubt about it.

It's critical to take your time and do your research before deciding if you should stay or get divorced. The consequences of the decision are far-reaching for you and your children. You must do your best to keep emotions out of decision-making.

RELATED: The Quick-Start Guide To Divorcing With Less Stress, No Drama, And Minimal Chaos

Before getting into the research on divorce’s effect on yourself and kids, here’s an important caveat: If you are in an unhappy marriage with kids experiencing domestic violence, it's doing great harm to your children.

Find a local domestic violence support service to guide you on how to get out of the relationship or, at a minimum, on how to protect your children.

Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., created a landmark twenty-five-year study on the effects of divorce on families, particularly children. Beginning in the 1970s, she followed 131 children whose parents divorced.

She checked in with them every five years and reported these longitudinal observations in a book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce.

At the time of initiating the study (when Wallerstein anticipated only a one-year study), she assumed the findings would validate the common wisdom at the time. That is, that divorce was a short-term crisis that families and children weathered well.

At the one-year mark, the data shocked Wallerstein. Every member of the divorcing families was doing poorly on every measure of well-being. Consequently, they extended the study’s end-date several times.

While most of the parents experienced noticeable emotional healing in the early years, the children did not. At five years, over a third of the children were even worse emotionally than they'd been at the beginning of the divorce.

The data results on the children in divorce disturbed Wallerstein, particularly given how persistent the effects remained over the years.

If you’re in an unhappy marriage with kids and considering divorce, the following may be difficult to read. Do your best to be clear-eyed and level-headed.

Wallerstein found:

  • Children were more devastated by divorce than adults. Children were especially affected because divorce occurred during their formative years. What they saw and experienced became a part of their inner world, their view of themselves, and their view of society — the foundation of their lives.
  • For all children, the loss of the intact family structure stripped away the felt sense of safety and protection provided by the family structure.
  • The loss of the family structure also collapsed the scaffolding upon which the child’s psychological, physical, and emotional growth was mounted. This interrupted the child’s growth process.
  • Virtually all children felt rejected in the divorce because they interpreted the parent leaving the spouse as also leaving themselves.
  • Almost all children in the study were angry at their parents.
  • The children in the study felt intense loneliness. Shockingly, only ten percent of the children indicated an adult spoke to them sympathetically as the divorce unfolded.
  • Children in the study experienced a sense of disloyalty. If they believed they had to take one parent’s side (usually to protect that parent psychologically), they felt disloyal to the other parent. Even if they did not take sides, they still felt isolated from both parents.
  • A significant percentage of children felt guilt and even fault for the divorce and believed it was their duty to mend the marriage. Virtually all children held reunification fantasies for years.
  • Unlike parents, children did not perceive divorce as a “second chance.” Rather, it was the loss of their childhood as they had known it.
  • Children in the study experienced low self-esteem in adolescence at greater rates. This was especially true if fathers became emotionally distanced from the child.
  • Adolescence was a period of grave risk for children in the study. Those who entered adolescence in the immediate wake of their parents' divorce had a particularly hard time given the loss of family structure when they needed it most. An alarming number of teenagers felt abandoned, physically and emotionally.

There were also significant long-term effects of divorce on children as well.

So, knowing this, when should you leave?

Wallerstein’s study indicated two situations where children did better after divorce.

First, when there is chronic conflict, violence, or abuse in the marriage. The second was when there's ongoing addiction in the family.

Divorce in these situations benefited the children. Other studies also have also demonstrated that divorce is better for children in cases of domestic violence.

If you decide to leave your unhappy marriage with kids, prepare them. Give then an honest idea of how divorce will disrupt their school experience, play time, shopping, and possibly friendships.

Make it clear to them that the divorce is not because of anything they did or didn’t do.

If the decision is the last resort after unsuccessful attempts to repair the marriage, let them know. Acknowledge your sorrow over how it affects them.

Tell them just because you're divorcing doesn't mean you're divorcing them. Remain an active presence in your children’s lives, even if they attempt to push you away in their anger.

Keep repeating the messages that the divorce was not their fault and that you're not divorcing them.

Because of how the brain develops in children, especially under twelve, they'll likely believe it's their fault. Continue to talk about the divorce over the years and hear their feelings.

Do your best to keep things as consistent and predictable as possible for the children. The children residing in the same house they've lived in accomplishes much of this goal, if it's financially possible. Ideally, keep them in the same schools and programs, as well.

Support their relationship with your ex. Be open to them communicating with the other parent even on “your” time with them. Work with your ex to have consistency in parenting — especially for adolescents.

RELATED: Sometimes Divorce Is The Best Way To Teach Kids That Fairytale Love Is Real

Options that can help you in divorce:

1. Mediation

If you’re in an unhappy marriage with kids, keep the divorce process as low-conflict as possible by considering mediation.

Mediation is an alternative way of divorcing that allows you and your spouse to design your own settlement and parenting plan. It costs less and is less divisive than divorce by court litigation.

Not every marriage should be dissolved through mediation, particularly those affected by addiction or domestic violence, so consult with a mediator to determine if your marriage is a fit for mediation.

2. Technology

There are a variety of co-parenting apps that assist with communication and scheduling. Utilizing technology like this can help create the consistency your children need to weather this difficult time.

3. Therapy

It’s normal and healthy to feel the need for support during this tumultuous time. Consider therapy for yourself and your children, too, if they're displaying distress. Also, consider creating a self-care regime to help you stay mentally and physically healthy.

You may decide not to divorce; after all, many people choose to stay in their marriage. There’s even some evidence that doing so yields more happiness than divorce in the long term.

Choosing to stay can be to keep the family intact, for financial reasons, or many others. The choice to stay is as personal and as individually valid as the choice to divorce.

If you decide to stay in your unhappy marriage, you have to figure out a new way of being in a relationship that's at a minimum tolerable for yourself and not damaging for the children.

While this will take work, it’s absolutely necessary for everyone's mental health to find a low-conflict “new normal.” No one can thrive in an atmosphere of ongoing conflict and high emotion.

If you’ve made the decision to stay in the unhappy marriage with your kids and your partner is unwilling to do anything, there's still hope.

Forget the idea of "reciprocation" and focus instead on being the best that you can be. By persistently focusing on yourself, not only do you grow personally, but your marriage has a high probability of shifting, too.

As you change, not only do you personally benefit, you also cause the system to shift.

One the system reaches the tipping point, your partner must respond to that shift in order to re-balance the marriage system. You cannot control how your partner will respond, but there will be a response. The good news is those responses are generally positive ones.

Whether you decide to stay in your unhappy marriage or divorce, it's not easy. You'll need support.

Surround yourself with supportive friends, and consider new meetups or regular attendance of a group you're already in, like a church, temple, or mosque. Groups can protect you from isolating yourself and be a source of encouragement, new learning, and sometimes even new friends.

This also may be a time to invest in individual counseling to help support you along the way as you shift to a new normal.

RELATED: 6 Undeniable Signs It's Time To Break Up

Rhonda Kelloway, LCSW, SEP, is a trained divorce and family mediator, and the co-owner and a principal therapist at Life Care Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice in Illinois who specializes in somatic experiencing framework to utilize the body’s wisdom in healing. For more information about how she can help you with the decision to stay or divorce, contact her at her website.

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This article was originally published at Life Care Wellness. Reprinted with permission from the author.