High Conflict Marriages Worse Than Divorce for Children

Justin worked hard to try not to see what was before his eyes.  The mileage on Jesse’s car didn’t add up to what it should have if she had been where she had said she was going, and he even, feeling sneaky as he did, once called a friend where Jesse said she was, only to find out, as he feared, that she had never been there.

But he was stuck. Aside from a fear of divorce for himself, he felt he simply couldn’t ‘do it’ to his children. He didn’t want them o have divorced parents. Even more, he didn’t want them to be with Mom alone. That didn’t keep him from heated arguments with his wife, however, who screamed back and sulked for days.

This was the same life-time sentence that three other dedicated parents had chosen.  Jennifer lived with bi-polar man, whose rages alternated with depression, who cut her off from her family or origin, and whose threats of suicide or taking the children away terrified the household. Yelling, pushing, door slamming–these sounds kept he children up a night.

Jordan’s wife turned away from the religious life-life into which the couple had brought six children.  She refused to shop or cook for the kids or her mate; the couple fought over the household chaos.  Jiesse was out with men when the children came home from school. The oldest son–merely 13–babysat every afternoon til Dad came home.  Dad and the kids divided the household chore, and awaited Mom’s return, ofter at 2 or 3 in the morning.  The fighting continued nightly, and then some more by phone during the day.

Jose’s wife couldn’t get out of bed. Dad was in charge of getting the kids up and out each morning. When they returned, Mom was in bed with a headache.  Jose and Jocelyn fought daily over his anger at being the working Dad plus the home-making “mom.”  What enraged him even more was her hoarding.  Periodically, he’d become furious enough to gather carload of stuff to dump in resale or thrift shops.  Then Jocelyn’s rage kicked in.

Each of these parents, knowing their own needs would never be bet by their disfunctional spouses, believed that their children needed them to stay in the marriage.

And despite some of the more ‘positive research,’ if we can call it that, on divorce’s impact on children, there is still a general societal sense–and research to back it up–that divorce is difficult on children.   [See the New York Times article from 2005 entitled, “Poll says even quiet divorces affect children’s paths,” for just one example.]

But the question we need to address here is not that of ‘quiet divorces’ and low-conflict marriages. Rather it is what is the impact of high interparental conflict on the children, even among intact families.


In a somewhat older but still relevant paper, DR Morrison from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and Department of Demography at Georgetown University and MJ Coiro from the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health wrote that separation and divorce are indeed associated with increases in behavior problems in children. “However,” they continue in their paper entitled “Parental conflict and marital disruption: Do children benefit when high-conflict marriages are dissolved?” in Journal of Marriage and the Family (August, 1999), “in marriages that do not break up, high levels of marital conflict are associated with even greater increases in children’s behavior problems” [italics mine].

Even further, they write, “Indeed, the adverse effect of frequent marital quarrels is larger than the deleterious effect of separation and divorce.”

I saw it again when  sociologists Alan Booth and Paul Amato from Pennsylvania State University asserted in their February 2001 article in the same publication that “. . .divorce among high-conflict couples appears to have a relatively benign or even beneficial effect.”

But wait–there’s more!

David Mechanic & Stephen Hansell, sociologists at Rutgers University, found in a 1989 study [decades ago, when divorce retained more of its bad name than it does today] entitled “Divorce, Family Conflict and Adolescents’ Well-Being , “. . .that those in high-conflict, married families had significantly poorer adjustment than those in low-conflict, divorced families.”

AND, Constance Gager, Associate Professor of Child and Family Studies at Montclair State University, said in an interview that “[t]he basic implication is, ‘Don’t stay together for the sake of the children if you’re in a high conflict marriage.'”

In other words, Jordan was doing his children no favor by staying. If you’re living in a high-conflict marriage, with significant amounts of screaming and yelling, with emotional and verbal abuse, the answer to should you stay or should you go, if you’re considering your children, might just well be a vote for the “go” side.



All in the Family: The Identified Patient

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

You only had to make it through the first chapter [first line, to be honest] of Anna Karenina to find this out–and there will be no quizzes assessing your knowledge of the novel after, so you’re home free now.

Despite Tolstoy’s assertion that unhappy families are distinctly unique, family systems work often finds a recurring pattern among them. When there is a disorder within the family, everybody plays a role. And, then, subconsciously, someone agrees to be the identified patient.

Someone–often a child or adolescent–takes on the family’s illness and acts it out, through drugs, alcohol, anorexia, bulimia, school refusal–through any number of unacceptable behaviors. This ‘sickness’ on the part of one of the family’s members may serve the role of distracting the parents from their own dissatisfaction with each other, protecting another sibling from parent anger, hiding a parent’s drinking, etc. This ‘patient,’ and the family response to him/her, throw people off the trail of the real problem.


See the identified-patient-handout for further clarification of the identified patient.

The Bronte family is well-known for some serious ‘mishegas,’ and one of their unspoken rules was that no one was allowed to leave home. As McGoldrick points out in Genograms in Family Assessment, if one of the children should venture out, she developed symptoms, become the temporary identified patient, and was forced to return home. Clearly the identified patient in the Brontes served the purpose of keeping the family in tact and insular–and the symptomatic sibling acted out this profound dysfunction. In fact, the two sisters who died in childhood developed the diseases that would kill them during their first times away from home. Only one sister, Charlotte of Jane Eyre fame, actually had real relationships outside the family. And only she was able to marry.

But if you’re beginning to understand the dynamic of the identified patient, you will know that Charlotte’s ‘escape,’ coupled with this family’s beliefs about leaving home, had to end badly, and, sure enough, Charlotte became ill soon after her marriage and subsequent pregnancy and died a mere nine months after her marriage.

As is clear from the Brontes, families, like so many entities, fight change, especially so because change in one family member, given the interconnectedness of the system, will force change in other family members, and change is uncomfortable. Thus, should the identified patient start to break the bonds of illness that keep him in his place as ‘patient,’ the system becomes stressed, and the other parties work to keep the that member ‘sick,’ so that the family can continue to function as before.



Of interest:

Is My Spouse Rigid, Controlling, or Abusive?

So you’ve read about Connie, about Kyle, about Norah, Diane, Tali, and Janice, and I’m confident you’ve gotten the ideas from these case histories that all is not right in the state of Denmark.  You probably also would like to make sure your marriage or relationship doesn’t turn out like the relationships of any of these couples.  So what are some warning signs you can and should learn to pick up on early in the relationship, signs that the person you are with is a controlling partner?

In each entry I’ve mentioned several behaviors, applicable to the case histories, that should alert you that you’re involved with a controlling partner. I’d like to compile and generalize those here, and suggest a number of additional indicators.

As a general indicator, a huge warning sign that you’re involved with a controlling partner is your own emotional response to partner interactions. No one wants to disappoint their spouse, but if you feel very nervous about making your spouse upset or angry, you need to think about your relationship. Part of a controlling spouse’s technique is to make you afraid of their anger. If you find yourself walking on eggshells in your own house, chances are you are in a controlling relationship.

Also, all people want to be accepted for who they truly are. If you feel you need to put on a facade to please your partner, or be the person he’d like you to be–that’s another serious sign right there.


Other questions to ask yourself:

1. Does my spouse have a set of rules that are abnormally rigid, and to which strict adherence is required? Henry demanded such strict adherence to his own quirky rules that when Henrietta left a print magazine on top of the wood credenza, as he’d asked her repeatedly not to do before, he declared it “a declaration of war.” In another controlling move, Henry wanted eight roses for their 8-year-old’s birthday, and sent Henrietta out at the last moment to purchase some. Being near the end of the day, the flower store was out of nearly all roses, but Henrietta felt herself lucky that there was a full selection of sunflowers. When she returned with the bouquet, Henry was furious. “You know this family hates yellow! You did this on purpose.”

As a sub-sign: If I do not follow my spouse’s rules, or do as s/he wishes, am I ‘punished,’ perhaps through withdrawal of sexual favors,  via restrictions on financial expenditures–or, as per Henry’s modus operandi, a declaration of war?

2. Is my spouse chronically angry? Does my spouse have rages about small things–losing a parking space, my being late, a child interrupting their TV program? Is there a huge display of temper during bill-paying time?

3. Is my spouse particularly insistent upon his/her honor? Am I–and the children–required to pay homage to my spouse, perhaps by through serving him/her hand and foot or  maybe by making sure his/her wishes become our commands, as they say?

4. Does my partner control me–and others–with how bad his or her mood is? Is it not worth asserting myself or doing something that would please me because it will just make me more miserable? And do I even prevent my children from full free self-epression in order not to make my spouse mad?

5. Does my spouse want to completely control the finances? Does my spouse want to completely abdicate control of the finances to the point where s/he refuses to manage or even know about any piece of our financial situation?

6. Does my spouse not want me to be with my friends or my family? Am I forbidden to be with them or to take my kids to them, either constantly, or when they get upset with me?

7. Does my spouse demand to decide every activity in household—when people get to eat, when to have company, when people should go to sleep. . .? I worked with one quite musical family where the husband asserted that he always picked the songs and tunes for what would be sung–or hummed–in the house.

8. Is my spouse controlling of my whereabouts? Do they call frequently, ask me repeatedly where I am or was, and demand to know why activities took so long?

9. Is my spouse completely un-nurturing to me when I am sick?

10. Is my spouse almost willfully naive about how to take care of business, so I must take care of almost everything related to our lives myself?

11. Is my spouse highly critical of me–my looks, behavior, performance in the marriage?

12. Does my spouse make threats that I’m particularly afraid of—crashing my car, taking our children, committing suicide, embarrassing me if I have my parents over, making a scene in public?

13. Can I say no to sex without being afraid of repercussions?

14. Do I feel forced to say “I love you” to my spouse, even if I’m not currently feeling that emotion, simply as a way to avoid suffering and achieve peace?

15. If a task is in ‘my domain,’ do I feel comfortable asking my spouse to help me out if I’m in a pinch? If you a woman in charge of the food prep you  should feel comfortable saying you couldn’t swing it on a certain day; no home-cooked meal. If your husband is cold and critical that’s bad. It’s worse if he punishes you by eating out at a restaurant every night until you make amends.

These behaviors on the part of a spouse or partner sound pretty dreadful.  Why, someone might ask, why don’t the controlled partners make a change, or, if it comes to it, leave? I’ll address that issue in my next post.

Privacy, Shame and Secrets: Hidden in Plain Sight, ct’d

So we return to secrets hidden in plain sight, and particularly to Miriam’s* mentally unstable father, Max,* whom everyone seemed to know about, but no one actually mentioned.

Max didn’t come out during the day. Ever. When there were certain things he wanted–usually food requests, he never wanted clothes or books or gifts for the grandchildren–Molly had to take him after 11:30 at night. He came out with sunglasses and a baseball hat scrunched over his eyes, and then twisted his body down in the car so his head was below the window.

And somehow, in a circle where everyone knew everyone else’s business, Max’s conspicuous absences–and his even more conspicuous appearances, when he did venture out [stuffing not just the rolls but also the silverware, a dirty coffee cup, the pats of butter, and the Sweet-&-Lows into the bag he always carried around, after he was coaxed out for his eldest granddaughter’s bas mitzvah, he was left alone to tend to his inside hoarding projects and TV-watching for some time] went unnoted and un-asked about. I couldn’t say why.  Max was simply never remarked upon by the community.

I was close enough to the family to know that there come a time in each child’s life that the child asked mom or dad, “Hey. What’s wrong with Grandpa?” and the answer was always the same: “HE suffered during the war and isn’t always well now.” And clearly Miriam had easier-going, less inquisitive–or simply just less nosy–children than mine, for that worked–seemingly forever.  He was the Jane Eyrian equivalent of Bertha in that attic, except unlike Rochester’s wife, he really was hidden in plain sight.

I could leave the examples there, as I think they make their point, except that there’s one story about Max that Miriam loved to tell, and it really is worth sharing–not just for entertainment value, but for what it says about secrets, as well.

Max was allowed to keep up his hoarding, TV-watching, and occasional forays under cover of dark for several more years, until it was time for Miriam’s eldest son’s bar mitzvah.  Miriam and her husband were very proud of their son, who had come a long way since getting ejected from first grade for 3-1/2 weeks. He had grown physically, had cut the time spent tormenting his younger sisters in half, and had spent invested signficant hours into learning for the occasion. Max should come to the event, Molly and Miriam decided. He would ‘schep nochas,’ be so proud–and they would work to clean him up–and then they’d get him out and home early.

So Operation Clean-Up Max got underway. Max wouldn’t dream of venturing out to a clothes store, so Molly and Miriam picked up 4 suits and allowed Max to select the one that he felt he would be most comfortable in. They picked up 5 black hats–all looking exactly the same–and again brought them in the house for Max’s delectation. They even broached the topic of the bag–but were met with a shifty look in Max’s eye, indicating they had pushed too far.

So as of day D-1, Max had a new clean suit, had showered–and shampooed his hair, under Molly’s strict supervision–had a spiffy new hat, and looked, as his wife told him, like the charmer he had been in Krakow, so many years ago.  Miriam came over, and, crying, told her father she was so proud of him. She was living in anticipation of how proud she would be of the three major male players in her life in a public arena–her husband, her son–and, finally, her father.

It’s hard for me to imagine what Molly went through the day of the bar mitzvah, but to make what I’m sure was a long, painful story short, Max decided that wearing his new outfit would bring down the powers of the Evil Eye, and refused to leave the house in new suit or hat. Molly had hidden his grey ensemble with blue belt, but, despairingly, brought it out, and drove her husband–sunglasses on–to the affair.


I never probed too deeply into how Miriam and family felt when her family saw Max and Molly step into the hall for the affair, but Miriam, who never discussed her father with me, shared one story about the day, and it brings me to this point: Sometimes a secret is completely yours, hurts no one, and truly IS no one’s business. This is true even if everyone has some inkling that something is wrong, and is quite curious. If the secret is yours, and only public curiosity would require you to share, you’re under no obligation to reveal it for enquiring minds who want to know.

So when Jillian, the Fiddler-on-the-Roofian town yenta, tapped Miriam on the shoulder and said, “I heard your father is be here and I’m so excited to meet him!! Tell me–which one IS he?”, Miriam, working hard to keep her spirits up on this special day, pointed to the table where Max sat and said, “There he is, my special Dad.”  Jillian looked perplexed and said, “Wait. Do you mean the man sitting next to the street person?”

And Miriam thought for a long while, and then she thought some more. And then she answered with one simple word: “Yes.


**As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Max or Miriam, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.