The Risks of Staying in a Toxic Relationship for the Kids
In my work as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I always inquire at the beginning of working with a couple what their goals are in therapy. Couples usually say things along the lines of improving their communication, increasing their level of intimacy, and repairing broken trust. However, it always causes me pause when I hear the words, “we want to figure out how to stay together for the sake of the kids.”
Okay… stay with me on this. I am completely pro-family and believe that it is a wonderful and valuable goal to develop a stronger and healthier relationship for you as a couple, and for the benefit of your children. Where things get dicey is when couples commit to stay in an unhappy, unhealthy, and sometimes downright toxic, relationship.
Here are some reasons why staying in a toxic relationship can be damaging to your kids:
- Continuous conflict negatively impacts kids emotional and physical health. Kids can feel the tension! Even young children can sense when their parents are arguing or unhappy and it causes children to have physiological stress responses.
- Growing up watching parents struggle in an abusive relationship provides an unhealthy model. Children who grow up in abusive households tend to either a) become an abuser in their future relationship or b) allow themselves to be abused in a relationship.
- Children thrive when their parents are happy and fulfilled. Healthy co-parenting has a better chance of happening if you get out of the toxic relationship. You can provide your children a healthy environment that provides emotional safety!
- Sometimes it can lead to parents subconsciously resenting their children, or even relying on their kids for comfort or direction. This is called parentification and it can be profoundly damaging on your kids now and in their adult lives.
If you choose to stay together (which there are valuable reasons for this choice), it is important to prioritize demonstrating healthy conflict management techniques. This teaches children positive relationship behaviors. Some healthy conflict management techniques include:
– Stay calm and respectful during arguments.
– Create an environment where open communication is welcomed.
– Find some space where you both can agree.
– Agree to disagree and choose your battles.
– Pay attention to whether arguments are simply out of a need for control.
It may also be productive to reframe your relationship from a romantic marriage to a “parenting marriage.”This simply means you’ll still be legally married and live in the same house, but it’s no longer an intimate relationship. You decide to now have a platonic marriage.
Divorce can be traumatic for all involved, but living through daily conflict can also cause long-term harm. Despite what you may have thought, getting out of a toxic relationship can actually be the most healthy option for your kids.