My husband and I are separated right now and I have no idea whether or not we’ll get back together. Our story is too complicated to explain for your column, but my question is more about how I respond to my kids. It seems they are feeling responsible for keeping us together, happy, and so on. My kids are between the ages of 4 and 17. They obviously all understand things differently based on their ages, but it seems all of them, in their own ways, feel like they need to do something to fix our marriage. I don’t want them to feel responsible, but I don’t know how to prevent them from feeling this way. They say things to me and to my husband at different times, which puts pressure on me to feel like I’ve got to now deal with them and my marriage at the same time. It’s very stressful. I don’t know what to do to help them back off and let us work things out on our own.
The pressure you feel from your kids won’t go away for a long time, especially if things between you and your husband remain in limbo. They’re not doing anything wrong. They depend on you and your husband to create a secure base for them, and they are going to do everything in their power to stabilize it.
Even though the older children might be less reactive to the separation, recognize they will still be feeling anxious and uncertain about the future. Elizabeth Marquardt, author of “Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce,” found in her study of more than 1,500 young adults whose parents divorced when they were younger, that they had complex emotional reactions to their parents’ divorces that were often overlooked. She said that her research led her to conclude that there is no such thing as a “good divorce.” Even though divorce may be necessary in some cases, the impact on children is still painful, as they are caught between the two worlds of their parents.
Instead of trying to help your children stop worrying about your marriage, I recommend you enter their emotional world to better understand what this is like for them. Even though you have difficult things to figure out with your husband, you can still offer understanding, validation, and support to your distressed children.
As you take time to understand their concerns, fears, and worries, you’ll most likely find their efforts to fix your marriage will decrease. Your children are completely dependent and powerless on the two of you, so the more you can connect to their uncertain world, the safer they’ll feel in your home.
It’s common for separated parents to spend all of their energy on trying to figure things out between themselves instead of balancing the emotional needs of the children. Your children aren’t only reacting to the potential loss of their family. They’re also reacting to the current loss of time and attention from their distressed parents. Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught that “In most marital contests the contending parents should give much greater weight to the interests of the children.”[i] Even though you and your husband are at odds about your marriage, you can still be united in emotionally supporting your children through this difficult time. If your husband won’t work with you on focusing on the emotional needs of the children, they can still count on you to do so.
Plan some fun things with your kids on a regular basis so they can have your full time and attention in a stress-free environment. Your husband should do the same. Even though there are dark clouds hanging over your family right now, your children can’t be locked away in the storm shelter until the clouds clear.
You can also keep your children updated on the truth about what’s happening so they don’t have to face so much uncertainty. For example, you can let them know what they can expect day-to-day with the schedule and visits with each parent. If you’re working with a counselor, let them know you’re getting help to work on your marriage. The more concrete you can be about the things they can count on, the less anxious they’ll feel.
Use their anxiety as a signal to visit with them about their concerns and fears. These moments are perfect opportunities to pull them aside to let them know you see they’re feeling worried about their family. Give them permission to talk about it as much as they need to. Let them know it’s safe to share their fears with you, as they may worry they have to take sides and suppress their feelings.
Your children count on you to provide a secure base for them. Even though you’re not certain about the future of that secure base, your presence and support in their emotional lives allows them to have the security they need. They may be going through the trauma of separation, but it’s better for them to not go through it alone.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University.
He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Dallin H. Oaks, “Protect the Children”. Ensign November 2012