Couples come to therapy when they are hurt, angry, sad and confused. Before they even begin to launch into the barrage of typical complaints, it is unmistakably clear to me, that they do not like each other at that moment. Their emotions fill the room and hang like a thick cloud around them. They feel so much animosity toward each other that they can't remember when they felt happy together. Although I feel badly for them, I am momentarily aware of how grateful I am that I don't have to go home with them. Unfortunately, their children do. Imagine the impact that cloud of emotions has on the children.
I know that the couple created their situation and they must make the repairs. I do not take their anger or sarcasm personally and from a position of compassionate detachment I can help them figure out some solutions. Young children however, do take it personally and they feel responsible for causing the pain. They do not have the emotional maturity to compassionately detach. Older children do detach, but usually in self-destructive ways.
One of the most troublesome insults I hear couples hurl at each other is, “If it weren't for the kids, I would have left a long time ago.” This type of comment lets me know that the children in the household are under a great deal of stress. Their parents have essentially arranged a marriage that is held together by children. It is a child-centered home. Children are put on a pedestal and saddled with adult responsibilities. Children under this type of strain are prone to develop disorders like depression, anxiety, and drug addiction.
The only way to help this couple, is to convince them that the best thing they can do for their children is to love each other. If it is a single parent I must convince them that they need to put themselves first. A drowning man or woman can save no one. Children must be taken off the pedestal. This immediately relieves the children of the burden of responsibility and creates a safe, loving environment for them. They will see that their parents respect and love each other and they will have a model for future relationships.
The following patterns are indicative of a child-centered home. In a child-centered home no one knows what the rules or consequences are. In a child-centered home, children can play one parent against the other or whine and beg until they get their way. Children are allowed to sleep in their parents' bed. Children decide what and when they will eat and they get their parents to prepare meals just for them. In child-centered homes, going out to dinner is a nightmare because the children will not sit still, and scream and fight with each other. In a child-centered home, parents act like their child's friend. In a child-centered home parents do not have dates or alone time. In a child-centered home the schedule is dictated by children's activities. Parents who run a child-centered home say, “We don't have time to do things as a couple”.
If this sounds like your home, don't despair. Do something about it. It requires a shift in priorities. Put each other first. All you give to each other, you give to your children. If you focus on a loving, respectful relationship with each other your children will inherit peace, self-esteem and confidence. They should not be in a position of making sure mom and dad love each other. They need to focus on making friends, having fun and doing well in school.
If you put your children first, you will set them up for an impossible mission. They are not ready to hold a marriage together. Remember, you promised to honor and cherish each other. Demonstrate your love for each other in front of your children.
Be affectionate with each other and withhold harsh criticism. Be gentle and forgiving. It is the love you give to each other that creates an environment in which children can thrive.