Save Marriage, or Divorce Now: Which is Better for Children?

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Reader’s Question

I have a 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son. My husband is verbally abusive to my daughter, and he often calls her “stupid”, “idiot”, “worthless”, and “a brat.” He has been this way since I married him. My husband and son are very close and rarely does he verbally abuse him. He mostly abuses my daughter who has grown up to be totally defiant, disrespectful and abusive, mostly with me. There are times when my daughter is very trying. She refuses to do chores, and she makes messes and refuses to clean up.

About a year ago I approached my daughter and told her that I was going to leave my husband and she and her brother would live with me. My daughter broke down crying and asked me not to leave him. She said she didn’t want to come from a broken home. She is extremely bright but her grades keep going down. She has a few good friends but they don’t get together often and she is home a lot. My son is very popular and constantly goes out. It is very clear that my daughter is jealous of her brother.

My heart breaks for her, and I feel responsible for not leaving my husband earlier, which would have prevented this toxic environment. Does it make sense to leave now when she’ll be going to college in about one and a half years? What would be the effect if I divorced now?

Psychologist’s Reply

I am sorry to hear about the turmoil you and your family are experiencing. It sounds like you are worried about the effects your husband’s verbal abuse has on your teenage daughter, yet you are also equally concerned how a divorce would negatively affect her. Children and adolescents can suffer a host of emotional reactions in response to parental separation. Some of these reactions might include feelings of anxiety, fear, shame, and guilt, as well as feelings of rejection, sadness, and depression. The stress of parental separation is also often compounded by the financial and legal issues involved in divorce, as children and their families are suddenly faced with child custody issues, financial burdens, and various other stressors.

The negative effects of divorce on children often leave parents wondering whether they should remain in the marriage. It is important to realize that remaining in a troubled marriage involving high conflict can sometimes be worse for children in the long-run. Some research, for example, suggests that divorce can actually improve well-being, parent-child relationships, and future emotional adjustment. So, how do you make a decision whether to divorce or not? First, keep in mind that staying in a dysfunctional marriage solely for the sake of the children may not be the best solution. Remaining in an unhappy marriage can put an enormous strain on children, especially as children very often realize things are not “right” at home. In addition, children who are repeatedly exposed to verbal abuse can have problems with self-esteem, problems in relationships and at school, and may even negatively act out at home or at school.

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You say that your daughter hates the idea of you divorcing because she does not want to come from a broken home. It might be worth talking further with her to find out what it would mean for her to come from a “broken home.” Does she dread the possible stigma involved with being a child of divorce? Would she feel responsible for you and your husband divorcing? She may not be willing, or even know how to talk to you about her feelings. A therapist could help her sort out her feelings and assist her in coping with the current family chaos and any pending divorce.

Your daughter seems to be struggling emotionally, as evidenced by her being defiant at home and by her falling grades. Your husband’s critical words and general family dysfunction could account for her problems. This means that there needs to be some form of intervention to help you, your daughter and your family, regardless of whether you choose to divorce or remain married. A therapist skilled in family therapy would be appropriate for your situation. Therapy will probably address many family issues, including your husband’s verbal abuse toward your daughter and his preferential treatment toward your son; problematic boundaries in the family; and your daughter’s defiant behavior. Therapy can also help you sort out your feelings about your husband and children, and can help you make the decision whether to divorce now or not. Should your marriage and family relations improve through therapy, you might feel that divorce is no longer necessary. Alternatively, if you determine marital separation is the best option, therapy can assist you in arranging a peaceful divorce instead of an acrimonious one.

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