Ask Allison: 'Is divorce always harmful to children?'

Q Is separation always damaging for children? I am married with two small children and have been with my wife for 15 years. To be honest, I got married mainly because everyone else did.

I was in my mid-thirties and so I married the woman I was with at the time. We get on fine but there is no intimacy. There is just very little there. I can’t bear living a half-life for the rest of my life and I have no real interest in rekindling things with my wife. I would love a chance at a new partner, I adore my kids though and want only the best for them. What do you advise?

Answer: How much consideration is given to the psychological and emotional impact upon children living within an unhappy household? Research has found that when children are living in a home with high levels of conflict and tension, it impacts their levels of anxiety and depression. A study saw children displaying anti-social behaviour such as lying, cheating and bullying before and in the run-up to the divorce with a decrease in these behaviours afterwards.

Your instinct is to protect your children. Within the complexity of a family, conflicted emotions can make it feel so difficult to see what is the best thing to do, and for whom. It seems, from what you have said, that you do not love your wife and maybe never did.

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It is wise to consider the long-term implications upon your children. We are all built for connection, to feel understood, wanted, desired, worthy and to belong. Family is a wonderful place for this to flourish and it can also be the breeding ground for all that is opposite to that. A loveless marriage teaches children a lot, with the long-term implications hardwired from learning what they see and feel.

It’s important to note that your home doesn’t sound like a battle field, but the lack of conflict isn’t reason enough to stay and the damage is no less impervious. Children absorb what is around them and this is often shown in the non-verbal. Tension creates its very own tone within a home.

Are you supportive, respectful, kind, engaged or a happy husband? How do you speak to your wife? This is what children learn, home is relationships 101. They learn what healthy and unhealthy attachments look like. They watch and see the dance of give and take or possibly emotional distance and avoidance. They also know when their parents aren’t happy or in love, this hurts all involved.

Identifying your relationship belief system:

⬤ Reflect on the relationship you saw between your parents

⬤ What did you like about it?

⬤ What did you not like about it?

⬤ What are your relationship norms that you have taken from your family of origin?

⬤ Ask and write out what you value in relationships.

⬤ What are your core beliefs about love?

⬤ What is intimacy to you?

⬤ What makes you feel connected and loved?

You mention you don’t want to live a half-life and I’m very much inclined to agree. Is this half-life relating to the absence of sex and/or intimacy? The emotional connection that precipitates a healthy and happy sex life happens predominately outside of the bedroom. I’m wondering have you looked at your part within this?

Taking personal responsibility for being in a healthy relationship requires and asks a lot. Being passive and going along with the crowd is something many people do. Our culture is very focused on ‘what is your next step’ in other peoples’ relationships. My concern for you is, if you knew that love wasn’t there from the start and married the ‘woman you were going out with at the time’ what will be different the next time? I’d strongly advise you to think about this and consider doing this within a safe and supportive therapeutic environment.

It may seem like I haven’t addressed your original question. The truth is when considering your children it is imperative to explore it through the family dynamic and the relationship, or lack of, between you and your wife. If you feel there is no relationship worth working on, you are the best judge of that, you know your relationship. ‘

Does your wife know anything about how you feel? How do you find expressing these difficult and vulnerable emotions and feelings that you have been having? If you are taking steps to physically leave the relationship, remember that you psychologically left a long time ago. This, however, may come as a surprise to your wife. Tell her how you are feeling.

I’d say there are two lonely, isolated people in this relationship. The goal and your desire, should you separate, is to do what’s best for the children and this is best done together. Co-parenting in a healthy way would help the children transition as you decide and try as best as you can to be on the same or at least similar pages.

Divorce researcher and psychologist Judith Primavera explains that “children often fare better emotionally when embattled parents divorce”. She adds that in families that do not fight but where each parent is living separate lives to each other, this is causing damage. Asking the incredibly hard question of ‘what am I teaching my children about relationships’ is often motivation to start making changes that you have been thinking about for quite some time. Wishing you all the best of luck.

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