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How does a troubled relationship affect the whole family?

Relationships are tricky things to navigate and so is creating a family. Adding little people to the mix often creates a whole new dynamic that can put stress on the couple. While many couples adjust well and continue to thrive in their family life, many relationships struggle – perhaps with financial difficulties, or perhaps with parenting differences. Either way, the relationship becomes troubled and conflicted and this can have an effect on the entire family.

Many couples believe they should stay together “for the sake of the children” and feel that separation is only an option when the children are grown up and out of home. But what is the consequence of this? A relationship that is volatile, where the parents are living as flat mates, living past one another under the same roof, and where family arguments become the norm rather than the exception. Of course this is going to have a negative impact on the family.

It is not only the couple that suffers when the relationship is troubled.

The most important factor in a healthy happy family is the unity between the parents. The loving relationship between the parents is the foundation of a happy home and forms the basis from which children learn how to live, and love, in the world. In this sense, it is the single most powerful gift you can give your child – showing them what a respectful, happy and loving relationship looks like.

When children see love and respect, they mimic love and respect. They will learn how to be respectful, supportive, loving and caring adults through the modelling of their parents’ relationship. The converse is true, too. When a child sees fighting, disrespect, name calling, swearing and even physical aggression then this is the blueprint that they form for their ‘being’ in the world. This is the behaviour they will mirror and you will notice your child acting out more often, getting into trouble at school and even showing aggression at times. Mirroring their parent’s behaviour is not the only impact that a troublesome relationship can have.

When the parental unit is stable, happy and content, then the home and family atmosphere is secure and content. The feeling is one of predictability and control and of knowing where the boundaries are. Children, in many ways, rely on their parents’ emotional responses to temper their own so when they see a parent in a state of anxiety or distress then they too begin to feel this way. As such, a troubled relationship between the parents will inevitably leave the family unit in a state of insecurity and instability.

The children will, of course, be affected by this and they, too, may begin to feel anxious and insecure. Understanding that a relationship in crisis affects more than just the couple involved is essential in keeping the family healthy.

All couples have problems and this is normal.  Choosing to resolve these issues in a respectful way and move out of crisis as soon as possible is the best gift parents can give their children and themselves.  Support is available through relationship counsellors and psychologists.  The individual adults, the couple and the children each need to understand what’s happening, where the boundaries are and what needs to change.

Often, a family that chooses to resolve their issues may seek multiple psychologists rather than hoping to find one that can address the needs of the individuals as well as the couple and family units.  Perhaps a child psychologist, a couples counsellor and a separate psychologist for each adult.  Whatever approach is decided upon, the objective is to find the right support for everyone involved.

Delany Skerrett | CFHP
Delaney Skerrett

Delaney is a senior registered psychologist working with people of all backgrounds and with a special interest in LGBTI+ people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and Indigenous people.

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