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.



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.

Getting Taken to the Cleaners, the Poorhouse, or Worse–to Jail

As much as your friends and family would love to protect you, it’s really your own job to avoid being betrayed financially, as you’re the one who has all the clues. Be your own detective regarding financially improper or criminal behavior.

But how do you read those clues, and what should you be looking for? My guess is that my readers have a number of ideas, and I’d love to hear them. I offer suggestions I’ve gleaned from my clients who have learned the hard way.

1. When you compliment your wife on her new dress, she tells you it isn’t new, it’s been in the closet for years, you just don’t notice stuff.  If this apparent confusion happens frequently, check it out.  Examine the credit card bills, especially for cash advances, which not only obscure the places where someone spends the money but increases the credit card fees.

2. Let’s say your husband bought you that $3500 purse you’ve been just longing for–with cash. Your antennae go up. If you find your spouse funding very expensive purchases with cash, he may  be laundering money.

3. Make sure that important documents—life insurance papers, certificates of deposit, brokerage statements—are available for you to see. If your spouse is resistant, that’s a clue, detective.

4. Don’t be the person who says, “I don’t get it. I don’t know anything about finances.” Don’t take pride in willful ignorance. It could cost you in many many ways. If you don’t understand something in the financial realm, use the library or  internet, ask friends, or buy an hour of an accountant’s time to ask for an explanation.

5.  If you’re dating and someone throws fairy dust in your eyes with all kinds of fancy stuff, beware, especially if you’re in a vulnerable financial situation yourself.  Yes, if he lends you his credit card, fills up the car with roses on his way to pick you up, and seems to have bought stock in Godiva–that is heavy-duty financial persuasion to win you over. Ask yourself why.

6.  If a person you are dating has no credit cards, be suspicious. Why would that be? It might have something to do with their being unable to handle money–either no credit or fear of losing control with credit cards.

7.  Notice well what kind of friends/associates your new love has. Ask yourself: Are these people I would admire and trust, or do they make me nervous.  Be honest with yourself–if the new man in your life presents as a financial hotshot, but all his friends are not, the situation simply doesn’t compute.

8. All major purchases—cars, large pieces of furniture, timeshares, large payments to adult children, loans to friends—should be discussed before any money changes hands. If you find yourself being left out of these transactions, you need to figure out why–and what to do about it.

And as you’re honing your detective skills, become aware of a few other signs that something’s just not right. If where your wife says she’s going and the computed mileage on the car are vastly different, think about what that might mean. And remember Jane of the gambling boats, whose story of her whereabouts simply couldn’t have been true, as her husband suspected? Well, that’s telling.  Small lies multiply. People might turn out to be somewhere else than where they told you. Use your common sense.

Common sense, more than anything else, can help you avoid getting taken to the cleaners, the poorhouse, or worse–to jail.


Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Low Conflict Marriages

Here’s a statistic from Dr. Paul Amato, sociologist at Penn State University, that I find staggering:  Around 55-60 percent of divorces occur in low-conflict marriages, where hollering is at a minimum, and arguments might even be quite rare.

Dr. Amato calls these marriages “good enough” marriages, with the distinct implication that these relationships could be salvaged. So why DO people in low-conflict marriages divorce? What unique problems do they face that make their marriages seem untenable to them any more?

There are, of course, a multiplicity of reasons that people leave, despite Amato’s believe that their marriages could be saved. One interesting piece of research that could address the issue deals with relationships and self-building–and, of course, my son. Briefly, Eli Finkel worked with his thesis advisor, Caryl Rusbolt, on an international review of papers on  the Michelangelo phenomenon.

Michelangelo said, famously, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” So social psychologists took that and ran with it. A strong partner will see our ideal selves in the raw material that is our current presentation, and, by that partner’s reaction to what s/he sees inside, encourage us to believe in and create that reality of our own best selves.


And here’s perhaps where low-conflict marriages may grind to a screeching halt. The Michelangelo phenomenon is not about supporting your partner, or treating them well. As my son would say [well, did say for his interview with Northwestern University’s NewsCenter],”Even if partners treat us in perfectly loving, supportive ways, if the treatment is not consistent with the person we dream of becoming, we have to pay attention to those red flags,” Finkel warned. “Is that the person you want to be married to 10 years down the road?”

It assuredly doesn’t answer all questions, but I posit it as one theory to why we have so many low-conflict divorces. I have other ones, as well–but this seemed to fit nicely here, be up on current research, and talk about Eli, so I couldn’t resist.

Well, with that out of my system, let’s ask a  final question of those in low-conflict marriages.  Even if they aren’t being properly sculpted by their partner to be ‘all that they can be,’ are they right to divorce, given the hardships they–and their children–will face as divorced entities? I can’t answer the question for any given individual, but I would like to address certain patterns of marriages, and whether it helps to leave, in later posts.

But let’s return for a moment, in the next post, to Maura–and her son’s response to the news of her impending divorce.