Marriage Separation When Children Are Involved
If you and your spouse are separated, and you have children together, this is for you. In fact, when I was getting my master’s degree in psychology, I did my final thesis on how divorce (and separation) of parents affects children.
Now, what I’m sharing with you today isn’t going to be all-inclusive, with everything you need to know on this topic, because there are thousands of different research studies about this. However, I do want to share with you three key things you need to understand about separation and children. (Plus, I’ll share a bonus tip that you do not want to miss!)
During Separation, Your Children Will Look To You
The first thing you need to understand is as a parent is when you’re going through a separation it’s already an emotional toll on you as a human- as the husband, or as the wife. You are already experiencing the emotions that come with separation before even thinking about your kids. You, as a human being, are going through a lot right now. So be sure to give yourself grace and realize that you are probably more irritated than normal, more frustrated than normal, more angry than normal, or maybe more lonely and more depressed than normal.
While it’s important for you to realize this so you can be self aware and find support, you also need to realize how this might be affecting your children.
There’s a lot of different things that go on when you’re separated. Like I just said, you have parts of you that are relational- and this is your marriage that’s on the rocks. But at the same time, you have children who are looking to you for support and emotional guidance.
Object Permanence Starts At An Early Age
One thing we know from psychology is that when children are young- even babies, right out of the womb- they begin to have object permanence. They see and recognize their parents, and begin to look to them for how they’re supposed to react to situations.
For example, children look to their parents when they fall and scrape their knees. If mom or dad are freaking out, then the child is going to freak out because they learned to respond based on the parents’ response. Object permanence starts when children are young, but it continues through adulthood.
And Object Permanence Continues Throughout Life
As adults, whether we realize it or not, we still look to our parents to see, are they worried about this? Are they upset? Are they happy when this is happening? And if so, then we reflect that emotion.
Your kids are doing the same to you. If you’re frustrated, angry, sad, terrified, or worried, they are going to take on those emotions too. Now, I’m not saying that you need to shove your feelings and emotions down, marching forward as if nothing happened. But there has to be a middle ground.
You Must Find A Support System Outside Of Your Home
Here’s what that looks like: You need to be able to go to the right people for support and encouragement during the relational issues you’re going through; for your loneliness, anger, and all those feelings. At the same time, you’re not bringing this into your home for your children to see.
Now, I’m not saying that they don’t see you sad. I think that’s okay. But if they’re always seeing you sad, they may begin to worry about their future. Maybe their schoolwork or their job is affected. They’re not able to focus. They’re just constantly worried about you. That’s going to take a toll on them emotionally. So be sure you’re not looking to your children to be your emotional support during this time. Find another adult to help you do that.
Now, quick tip here. If you’re looking to another adult for that, try not to make it a friend or family member who will speak negatively about your partner. Here’s why: you don’t need any more negativity in your life. You need to find someone who understands, who supports you in wanting your marriage to be saved.
Now you could find a counselor or a therapist, but be SURE to read the reviews about specific counselors/therapists before you do that. You could also get connected with one of our Marriage Helper Certified Coaches. Our Coaches will help you stand for your marriage. They will encourage you to do things that will help you move forward and give you the emotional, individual support you need.
If you decide you would like to find a support group, then the Save My Marriage Course has an amazing support group that goes along with it. You’ll connect with others who have walked in your shoes, experienced what you have experienced, and all are wanting to save and stand for their marriage.
How To Deal With (And Navigate) Marriage Separation When Children Are Involved
1. Don’t “Bash” Your Spouse
Here’s the first tip: Do not bash your spouse in front of your children. If you do that, it’s as if you’re turning to your kids for emotional support. You’re opening up to them about things that they shouldn’t be privy to know about.
Now, I’m not saying you keep things from your children. To an extent you do, but clearly, if your spouse is gone, they’re going to know that. And they do deserve an explanation, but not an explanation with accusation. That is the key difference.
“They do deserve an explanation, but not an explanation with accusation. That is the key difference.”
Your spouse is still your child’s mother or father, and will be for the rest of their lives, no matter what happens in your marriage. Therefore you need to treat your spouse with respect. So at any time, if your kids can hear you, then you need to speak well of your spouse.
That does not mean you approve of everything they’re doing. It also doesn’t mean you’re just sitting on the sidelines silently while they let their lives go up in flames. What it does look like is using your words wisely about how you speak about your spouse.
(Because, what if you reconcile?)
There’s another reason why you should not “bash” your spouse: Reconciliation. Hopefully, you and your spouse reconcile. If you do, do you really want those hurtful words you said about your spouse to come back to them? For them to hear? It will just cause another layer of mess that you’re going to have to clean up later.
I understand you probably don’t think very highly of your spouse right now. And you probably have a lot of choice words you would like to say to them. I’m not saying you’re wrong for feeling that way. It’s human nature. And it’s completely understandable. What I am saying is don’t share all your colorful thoughts and ideas about your spouse in front of your children. It is your children’s father. It is your children’s mother. They need to be able to love them, to go to them, and to not feel like they have to “choose” who they should love, or where their allegiance lies.
In psychology, it’s called triangulation when you put the child in between you and your spouse. The child automatically feels like they have to make a choice. This is extremely negative for the child. It leads to a lot of issues that they have to deal with later on in life. So don’t do it.
And if you have been doing it, now is a great time to go back to your kids and say, “The things that I’ve said about your father, the things I’ve said about your mother have been wrong of me. They are your father, they’re your mother. And I know that you love them. I love them as a human, even though I am not happy with some of the things that they are doing right now, but I do want to speak well of them and see the good and positive things about them. ” That’s one way that you can clear that up now.
2. Don’t Make Your Kids Choose
The second point, which goes right in line with what we’re talking about already is don’t make your kids feel like they have to choose. Don’t make your kids feel like if they want to go and spend time with their father on Easter weekend, that they are going to hurt you. And therefore, they don’t know who they have to choose.
Instead, make it very easy for your children to be able to express their wants and needs. When they want to go and spend time with your spouse, their other parent, make sure they feel like they can come to you and tell you. Make sure you’re making it easy for them to choose whether or not they want to spend time with one of you.
“Instead, make it very easy for your children to be able to express their wants and needs… And, make sure that you’re not making them feel bad for it.”
And, make sure you’re not making them feel bad for it. Encourage them to spend as much time as they can (or as much time as they want to) with their father or with their mother. Encourage them to call their mom or their dad, and encourage FaceTime, visits for the other spouse to come to soccer games, or dance recitals, etc. Never make it feel like your child has to choose.
Focus on Forgiveness
I’ve heard so many brides talk about how much they dread their wedding day. Why? Well, for many of them, it was the worst day of their lives because they had divorced parents and they didn’t know who to choose to spend time with that day. Don’t let that be your child’s future. In order for that to happen, there’s going to have to be a period of forgiveness where you forgive your spouse; where you’re okay being in the same room as them. Because here is the truth. No matter what happens with your marriage (and at Marriage Helper, we want it to be saved) you’re still always going to be a co- parent with that other person. They are always going to be the parent to your son or your daughter.
Ask yourself this: How can I look longterm now and say, I want my child to have the best possible future, no matter what happens in our marriage? And, act in ways that lead to that.
Now, it might mean having to keep your mouth shut more than you want to. It may mean difficult decisions. It may mean times where you feel hurt because your child wants to spend Christmas day with their mom this year, or they do want to spend Thanksgiving with dad. But don’t take that out on your child, please.
3. Be Emotionally And Physically Available For Your Children
The third point is this: Be emotionally and physically available for your children. Just as you are going through a loss and a period of confusion right now in your own life, your children are experiencing it as well. It is very common for children to wonder if they had a part to play in their parents’ relationship dissolution. And I don’t think they ever outgrow it.
When a separation or a divorce happens, it is a form of loss. Even though the person is still alive, it is still a change in an expected routine and behavior. And therefore your child may react to it and grieve it the same way that they would grieve a larger loss in their lives. So be aware of that.
Just like you need support, your kids need support. So be sure that you make yourself emotionally available to them. Allow them to come to you and tell you how they’re feeling without trying to attack them or bash your spouse.
Also, be physically available as much as you can. I understand that you may be having to work more than one job, or maybe you’ve never worked before and now you are, and you’re just trying to make ends meet. And you have no idea how you can fit one more thing in your life. I’m so sorry that’s going on for you right now. Don’t make yourself feel bad about it. But as much as you can, be a physical presence to your children; hug them, hold them, give them human touch. That’s one of the most soothing things that you can do, and it will help them process what they’re going through.
And Encourage Other Positive Relationships For Your Children
Also understand that your children may need external people in their lives to be there for them. A youth pastor, family, and friends, maybe even some parents you trust as great mentors and resources for your kids. Encourage those relationships to happen too. It may be even easier for your child to talk to someone that’s not you because they might fear hurting your feelings. Understand that they’re not choosing other people over you. When you’re encouraging your child to be the best they can, and to get help when they need it, they are going to remember that. It’s going to benefit your future relationship with them more than you even know.
“What if giving up time with my children makes my spouse angry?”
Never give up time with your children because you feel like it might make your spouse angry. Many of our coaches at Marriage Helper have had clients ask this question. And, we’ve had many others ask the same question, which is, “Should I fight for 50-50 custody? If my spouse is really fighting me against it, and I’m wanting my spouse to not be mad at me?”
This is basically saying, “Should I give up time with my children, forfeit my rights to have 50-50 custody just so I can appease my spouse. And therefore, maybe they’ll be happy with me and then maybe they’ll come back?”
And the answer is, no. You should never give up time with your children because you’re trying to appease your spouse or to not make them angry. They’re going to be angry no matter what. And you should never give up time with your kids that you may never be able to get back.
I do believe that the relationship between a husband and a wife is the most important relationship in a family. That being said, when a marriage is on the rocks, you shouldn’t devalue your children. You should not put them at a lesser degree of importance in order to just try and save this marriage. Why? Because if it doesn’t work out, then you’ve lost that time with your kids indefinitely. It’s not worth it. So instead of thinking, “I don’t want to make them mad,” be thinking, “What is it that are the natural consequences of their actions that I should let them experience?” And let that guide your decision.
Now I know all of this is a lot to think about. You may have many questions right now. I encourage you to connect with one of our Marriage Helper Coaches who can guide you through what this looks like and answer your specific questions.
If you’re saying, “I understand the principles, but here’s my specific situation. And I need to know what to do in my situation.” Our coaches won’t tell you what to do, but they’re amazing at asking you questions so you can come to the best solutions for you and your situation. They also help you see things from multiple angles and different perspectives. They will help you realize the long term impacts of your possible choices.
Your Children Need You. And You Need Support Too.
Your kids need you. And I know that you need support too. That’s why Marriage Helper exists. We have the Save My Marriage Course that you can join from anywhere in the world. You can go through the videos on your own time which will teach you exactly what you need to know to navigate this very difficult circumstance in your life.
What we’re best known for also is our Turnaround Weekend. Now, you might think, “We’re separated. There’s no way my spouse is going to agree to do a weekend long turnaround workshop with me.” Understand we hear similar concerns from the majority of people that contact us. We know the value of what we talk about in our workshop and how it applies.
Whether you’re separated or divorcing, it’s extremely important for you to learn the principles that we teach in our workshops. If you see yourself co-parenting even after divorce, you may be surprised that your spouse may agree to attend with you because they do also want to be great co-parents to your children.
Remember, we want you to be the best that you can to be. We want you not only to be the best wife or husband, but also the best mom or dad you can be. My big takeaway for you is this: Be there for your children. They need a strong presence in their life right now, a stable presence in their life right now. They need you.