Relationship Connection: My kids feel they must fix my marriage, how can I help them back off?

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Question

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.

Answer

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,” did a study of more than 1,500 young adults whose parents divorced when they were younger. She found that they had complex emotional reactions to their parents’ divorces that were often overlooked. 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 on the two of you, and powerless, 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.

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.

Stay connected!

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Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Facebook: facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.

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5 Comments

  • Household March 5, 2014 at 9:00 am

    If like typical Utah households, the kids probably already demand and dictate what goes on in the house. Odd how in southern Utah, the kids are the bosses, and the parents dote, fetch and ketch and completely revolved their spoiled, self-centered, selfish brats.

    • Household March 5, 2014 at 9:01 am

      Correction “completely revolve around their spoiled, self-centered, selfish brats.”

    • Brian March 5, 2014 at 6:03 pm

      How long have you lived in southern Utah? This is a trend that is happening everywhere. It’s very possible you’re ascribing it to southern Utah in particular, when it is really just the rapidly changing times (and the increasing age difference between you and said kids).

      It doesn’t help that we have an administration that lies and cheats (so the kids think they can lie and cheat, too) and that insists on treating everyone on earth as children. Apparently we’re no longer grown up enough as a nation to decide what to eat, whether to work, or how big our soft drinks should be. And they’re trying very hard to convince young people they are entitled to everything on earth without working for it. Heck, they even get to stay on their parents insurance until they’re 25! Treat them like entitled 2 years old and we shouldn’t be surprised when they act that way.

      • Bub March 5, 2014 at 8:55 pm

        LOL, I wonder how many times a day Brian tries to slide a right-wing anti-Obama rant into everyday conversations… Might wanna give that AM radio a well-deserved rest? 😀

      • Household March 6, 2014 at 10:32 am

        Southern utah parents are weird. They talk about church and live their lives vicariously through their kids’ activities. Utah parents must be the most boring people on earth, unless you enjoy talking about what their kids are doing and about church. Plus they think it’s like this everywhere else. They are illiterate to anything else, because they are too busy acting like groupies following their kids’ every activity and profusely worshiping them and coplaying with them to have a life of their own.

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