Are You In An Unhappy Marriage Just For Your Children?


For those considering whether to stay or go . . . please note: the section in bold was highlighted by me.  This is because I believe my adult children were seriously affected by being raised in a sexless marriage.

If you are in an unhappy marriage, is it better to stay married just for the sake of the children-or to divorce? Are the affects of divorce on children always negative? What really is best for the children?

Mary is a successful professional who works with couples in the throes of separation and divorce, helping them to separate with as much dignity and respect as possible, and as little harm as possible.

Besides extensive training and education for this work, Mary brings the painful experience of helplessly watching her parents' marriage self-destruct.

The usual marriage-enders had been there since she was about eight. Mary recalls the late-night shouting, the blaming and criticism, the defensiveness and the utter contempt at times each seemed to hold for the other. She recalls the icy silences and her mother crying. The parents tried to hide or deny their unhappiness, but children always know.

Mary loved her father, but from about age nine she began to pray that her father would leave. He stayed and the conflict continued. Mary was at university when her parents finally divorced.

Mary resented both her parents for staying together and putting her and her brothers through all that turmoil. It took her another ten years and a couple of children of her own to get past that.

So why did her parents stay together in a marriage that was not working? Their explanation was they did it "for the sake of the children." They didn't want to "unravel the family."

Many couples manage to turn a souring relationship around through counselling, but often the deterioration has gone beyond the point of no return before they seek counselling.

What is the damage from staying?

When children under ten see their parents in open conflict, they tend to blame themselves. They tend to put their own lives on hold. As they get older, they may just withdraw and become increasingly isolated from one or both parents.

A few will develop behaviour problems: acting out, defiance, deteriorating grades, bullying, etc.

However, the biggest long-term damage comes from their internalizing what they see modeled. It is the parental modeling that years later leads to the 26-year-old mother handling conflict with her husband by screaming at him, or her husband handling conflict by bullying. It is what they saw their parents do. At an intuitive level, they don't know any other ways of resolving family conflict.

What is the damage from separating?

The issue for the children's health and development is not whether the parents are together or apart, but how well they handle conflict. If separating gives them space to cool down and co-parent with mutual respect, the children, as children, will be better off than when their parents were together.

Later, as adult children of parents who were separated, they can draw on a model that says you don't have to go down with a sinking ship. Their parents didn't unravel the family by separating. Rather, they separated because the family had already unraveled.

Would you want your daughter or son to stay in a chronically unhappy marriage? Then be careful what you model.









Psychologist Dr. Neill Neill maintains an active practice on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada, with a focus on healthy relationships and life after addictions. He is the author of Living with a Functioning Alcoholic - A Woman's Survival Guide. http://www.neillneill.com - http://www.ConquerAlcoholism.com.







enna30 enna30
56-60, F
24 Responses Feb 19, 2010

Bumping this for the current members to consider . . . .

Oh how my heart is aching.... Can you send this to my parents please?I feel like if they'd just say "I understand" I'd feel free to do as I need to...

DF, maybe you could share it with them? I understand how hard this decision is, even if you have support from family. It is even harder when you don't . . . {{{hugs}}}

He and I no longer fight. We barely talk really. We talk to the kids and about the kids. We talk about the schedules. I don't know how we got like this. I mean, I guess I do... I saw it happening... I just never thought it would get this far, my heart so hardened to his now awakening to our situation. It makes me want to throw up.
We are fantastic roommates.

Bumping this up for the current "staying for the kids" discussions.

TY Enna. Still a great story.

I am at the point in my marriage where I am no longer happey. I used to be able to day that when things were good they were very good and when they were bad it was only a few time. I have been with my husband for 12 years married 10 years. And the last few months thing have gotten bad. Thanks to his mid-life criss and losing his job. I have been divorced once before and unforunately at the time I did not make enought $$$$ for the judge to give me custody of my 2 older children. I have children with my current husband. Money to raise kids would not be an issue in a divorce but my husbands family would bank roll an atternry for him. Plus he has family support system when all my family is gone. Both my parents are dead and I am an only child of only children. I know from 1st divorce that outside family support system adds point to who gets custody.<br />
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Up until a few days before valentines day I loved my husband, but know I don't think i do....... He ignores me, ignores when i talk to him, and has slept on our couch for several weeks now. The children rarely see our arguements, but in a recent arugement he crossed the line. He called me names that can never be taken back, Names that belittled me and showed what he thinks of me. He know that my worst fear is to lose the children i have with him so he always threatens divorce and taking our child (making sure he would get custody in a divorce). He rubs that in the moist.<br />
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And as I said in a recent fight he crossed the line. I look at him and now i hate him. What little bit of love I had he killed in out last fight with the name calling. FYI - I never call name in a arugement as I grew up in a house that did and it was heart breaking to hear parent rip each other apart that way. <br />
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I realize I dislike my husband on valentine day. He gave me gift that should have meant something to me (a favoriate item from my childhood), and it meant nothiang to me at all.<br />
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But I have to stay I can't love my small children. How do I make my self feel better about the situation? How do I tough it out till all the kids are 18? I am completely lost, i never thought he would ever sink to point of calling name and i never thought he would squash the part of me that loves him, but he has. So what is next?

Kids would rather be from a broken home that to live in one

WP - You said:<br />
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"I grew up in a home where my parents slept in separate bedrooms from the time I was ten and when I was very young there was a lot of fighting and screaming going on. After they moved into separate rooms the noise and the conflict died down pretty much but there was never any sort of affection between them."<br />
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You just described the state of my marriage - right this very moment - separate bedrooms, no affection, lots of arguing and yelling early on but now has died down due to being "separated" and me living my own life with my girls.... THIS IS NOT WHAT I WANT MY CHILDREN TO HAVE OR TO EVEN THINK IS NORMAL!!<br />
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You just made me even MORE sure that this marriage has got to end and that it IS the best decision for our children!!!

Wow, there are some powerful, wise words here. I couldn't agree more. My STBX's parent's marriage totally set us up for failure.

"I would never recommend to anyone trying to fool kids into thinking they have parents who are normal when they don't have a solid relationship because kids are smarter than a lot of people seem to think and they do model their behavior on what they see in their home life. So playing let's pretend we are a loving family is a waste of time and may do more harm than good in the long run. "<br />
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WP, I truly support every word of your post and most especially this last bit. Thank you.<br />
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Parents are often unaware just how much their children know or recognise, simply because their children do not necessarily verbalise their knowledge. Example: over the years I've been a teacher I have had several parents tell me their children are not at all interested in sex because they never ask questions about it . . . Hence these same parents feel their children are "not ready" to have information about sex.<br />
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In some instances these children have been teens! I have pointed out (as gently as possible!) that ALL children are interested in sex, and what keeps them from asking questions is an innate sense that this is something their parent/s do NOT want to hear. . . . <br />
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In families where parents "pretend" all is well, the children are never going to verbalise their own thoughts or impressions that anything is NOT well, because they will have absorbed the unspoken lesson that "we do not talk about anything that is not right in our relationships".<br />
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Frankly I think this is a recipe for disaster! I'd MUCH rather have a child asking "Mummy, why do you and Daddy fight?", than a child who senses all is not well but feels unable to ask about such issues. . . . ..

good to read for us in that situatio

Wow - thanks Enna - I feel the same about YOU - you seem so wise and strong and you are willing to share what you have learned and be real with people. You also seem to have a gift (must be the teacher in you!) for explaining things in a clear and concise and logical manner! I am very hopeful for a bright future of possibilities ahead of me...<br />
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I really enjoy reading your stories!<br />
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Maybe you could read the one I posted and the comments (in this group - late last night/early this morning) and let me know what YOU think - it is frustrating me a bit!! : )

Dear Dot, what an incredible woman you are! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your story - it resonated deeply with me. I had a different dynamic in my family of origin - but it did similar damage IMO. My mother was the one who seemed to e the victim when I was a child - but as I grew up I saw how manipulative she was . . . and how my father rebelled to keep "himself" from becoming subsumed by her . . . . <br />
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At 57 I finally found a relationship that is healthy - after two failed marriages. I see my two adult children, both strong and well balanced individuals, resist intimate relationships - and I truly believe it is because they have witnessed both of my marriages at first hand.<br />
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I think you are wise and strong in leaving your marriage - and I am confident you AND your children will be the much better off and happier for it . . . {{{Hugs}}}

For so long, I had this position, was told this was the RIGHT position, was made to feel guilty that I wanted something for myself to the "detriment" of my kids, etc... i.e. to stay married for the sake of the kids - it's what my parents did - so it has to be the right thing to do, right?!<br />
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After a lot of soul searching, prayer, talks with parents, friends and counselors (and reading lots of information and studies on the internet), I can honestly say, for me, the answer is NO - it is not the right thing to do - it is not the right thing to do for MY kids, and I am not sure that my parents realize the negative effects of them staying together has had on me or my brother.<br />
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"However, the biggest long-term damage comes from their internalizing what they see modeled. It is the parental modeling that years later leads to the 26-year-old mother handling conflict with her husband by screaming at him, or her husband handling conflict by bullying. It is what they saw their parents do. At an intuitive level, they don't know any other ways of resolving family conflict."<br />
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Someone asked you for proof - I am proof - FOR ME, this is exactly what I do - I handle conflict and frustration and fear and disappointment in my marriage by screaming - even losing control. I did not grow up seeing the majority of the conflicts my parents had in any other way - my mom screaming (and looking like the "bad" guy) and my dad silently sitting there and "punishing" my mom by refusing to engage and even purposefully NOT talking to her for long periods at a time (and some other passive aggressive traits added into the mix). When I was little, I used to think my mom was the culprit - that she was the bad guy - not to the point that I was angry with her, but my brother and I felt like we had to defend my dad - take up for him and comfort him. As an adult, I now realize that he was fighting too - in his own way - and actually, due to my own VERY SIMILAR but much more dysfunctional situation, I have had to deal with some latent anger toward my father's behavior in the marriage.<br />
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Now, is it deja' vu that my children just recently asked my mother why I made Daddy cry?! I think not - of course, I am NOT the reason my husband cries - he cries whenever he gets upset - he cries during conflict - and I actually have come to believe that he has developed this crying as a coping mechanism early in life - it was his defense - when he cries, people back down or back off - voila - no more conflict - exactly what he wanted! BUT, it made me so sad to realize that my daughters are viewing ME in that way! I am just grateful that while meeting alone with my counselor, they both said that I was the person they felt most comfortable talking to and sharing their feelings and fears and sadnesses with - whew! That is a blessing - and no thanks to their father and I and the situation they are growing up in!<br />
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I think about it this way - I grew up saying over and over again - "I am NOT going to have a marriage like my parents!" And guess what, I have it - and worse! How did I do that?! I mean, I purposefully made an effort to NOT marry someone that was like my father - and I did - and even MORE dysfunctional - because not only is he like my father but he is like HIS parents - and if I had known them - I would have NEVER married them - they are passive-aggressive, narcissists that blame everyone around them for their troubles and take EVERYTHING personally AND do not do anything to grow as people - and I quote, "I am just this way, and people are going to have to learn to accept it." UGH!!<br />
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So, I digress.... (I usually do! LOL!). Anyway, I recently asked my husband if he would want his daughters to be married to someone like him? His answer: NO! And I wouldn't either - so how do we keep this from happening? We either FIX what is broken or divorce and try to give our children the experience of growing up in a less stressful, less tense, happier household - two UNHAPPY parents together is far worse, in my mind, than two HAPPY parents apart - I can't guarantee that my daughters will have TWO happy parents - but I can do everything in my power to give them ONE emotionally healthy, mature and happy MOM who is learning to express her true emotions of frustration, fear, sadness and disappointment INSTEAD of filtering everything through the emotion of ANGER.<br />
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Well, I certainly would have chosen the FIX IT option - BUT I am only one person - and I can not fix the marriage by myself and I can't fix my husband - that is not my responsibility - and although I know I am not blame free by any stretch of the imagination (my mouth has done a lot of damage because I can't seem to shut it nearly enough!), I have come to realize that I can't MAKE my husband work through his own personal issues - I can't MAKE him not be passive-aggressive, I can not MAKE him become emotionally available - I can't MAKE him be happy or see himself in a real way or have more optimism or not resent me for whatever he resents me for at the time, etc... I can't do it - and when I have tried to do it - he resents THAT - so, until he makes that choice himself, I can either wait and be continually miserable (and I am not a good enough actor to hide my sadness and tension and frustration - I admit it!) or I can say, I KNOW I have tried my hardest - done all that I can do - I KNOW (as Dr. Phil would say) that I have earned my way out of this marriage - so I am going to do what I need to do to GET OUT!<br />
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I feel very content that if I continue to work on how I process my emotions - if I continue to work on being happy and content with myself - if I handle my end of the divorce in a mature, unselfish manner, that I will be doing the BEST thing for my children - and I feel sure that some day, sooner or later, they will see that - and they will thank me for having the courage to do what is best for them!<br />
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This is what I believe is best for MY situation - and, as someone said here, each person has to judge their own situation and decide what is best for them - when it comes down to it, no one can tell us what to do in our situations - we can seek additional knowledge and wise counsel and we can pray, but in the end, the choice is our own!<br />
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I hope I didn't digress too much from the content of your story - it was great and I wish I had seen it sooner!

I am divorced a year ago and my 7 years old daughter has problem in school where she finds it hard to defend herself when her best friend bullies her... I kept seeing this pattern repeats each year and found out why - she never wanted to fight back or tell simply do not wish to loose her only close friend. No matter how many times I told her to stay away and mix with other better kids in school. And self blaming is also her traits when it comes to mommy or daddy time and it didnt work out the way it should be. I tried to have quality talk and time with her and no matter what I have said she has her own mind and will copy exactly form what she observed from her living environment. My only hope is for her to grow up as an equally balance person happy, responsible humble and loving.

Ugh, I just lost my whole post. I will sum up. Even thought I have not read all of the response since I am limiting my internet time this week, I want to respond to Sosei. I don't know how your marriage is, or anyone else's for that matter, but you imply that if you get along and there is no fighting that staying for the kids is better than leaving. I say, not always so.<br />
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My best friend had parents who stayed together. They were respectful and even affectionate with one another. They did many family activities, including church, vacation, visiting distant family and dinner as a family every evening. There was no fighting or even disagreement, either in front of the kids or even heard from behind closed doors. They both appeared relatively stress free and always spoke politely and appeared pleasant to each other, the kids, and others. She said she believes they had not been in love since probably before she was born, but she is sure that they loved each other and respected one another a great deal for a variety of reasons.<br />
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Yet, she and her siblings agreed that you could cut the tension at their house with a knife. Outsiders were not tuned in enough to notice, but the kids could always tell that their parents were unhappy all the time. They finally divorced when the youngest graduated from high school and all the kids wished they had done it years sooner. All the kids feel that living that way, though idyllic from outside appearances, has negatively impacted their own abilities to maintain relationships. <br />
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Again, Sosei, I am not picking on your marriage, just on the assumption that if there is no conflict then staying together in an unhappy marriage is necessarily more healthy for the kids than divorce. Also, I think I noticed you say that divorce may not make anyone happy because a step-parent might not be the right fit either. I think it's also a big leap to assume that everyone who gets divorced will necessarily remarry and introduce a step-parent too. Just because something is working for you doesn't mean it will work for others, and I would caution you about being too confident in how healthy things are in your home. Children are very tuned in to tension because they know you. Living with you they recognize your patterns and they recognize easily the difference in the way you express unconditional love to them and the way you may express something different with a refuser, even if you love them and respect them.<br />
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Just my thoughts, not a judgment. Thanks for the article Enna!

Each person must do what is right for him or herself. Each dynamic must decide for themselves what is best for that marriage and that family . . . I totally endorse this and support your right to decide for yourself.<br />
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The purpose of this post (like others) is to open the discussion to areas that affect many on ILIASM.<br />
Having lived this experience for a long time and having seen what I believe are the effects on my adult children, I consider it appropriate to share that information and to support it with an appropriate article.<br />
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No doubt those whose perspective differs from mine can find articles to support their viewpoints . . . There is no universal truth.<br />
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May each of you find the path that works for you - and may all your children live happy, healthy, sexually fulfiled lives that include intimate relationships.

ennA, <br />
You are attributing cause and effect by brushing the vast majority of the entire experience lived by a family under the rug. I have a hard time accepting such bias and that bias plays in how much credence I put on that testimony. <br />
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The question of finances puts your advice into context of what physical restrictions you had when change was needed or more accurately, what is now being prescribed retroactively. It implies that your husband was unrestricted too. Both of you could have divorced -- for whatever reason -- yet neither of you did while the kids were still at home. Staying in the marriage was attractive at the time. There is no reason for an outsider to discount the possibility of benefits being derived from staying. If you broke up for the sake of the kids, those benefits would have been absent and there is no ob<x>jective way of being sure how all of the chips would have fallen. <br />
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I do not know all of your family history and I do not want to hurt your feelings. Your previous comment reveals more than I ever knew and I want to be sympathetic to your suffering. I did not know that your ex-husband was absent for your children's first dozen years of their lives. All I am going to say is that I am hesitant to believe that your children's current conjugal dysfunctions can be solely attributed to your ex-husband's refusal to have sex with you during your marriage. There is obviously more to your children's family experience that completes their entire persons. <br />
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" Are you SURE you want to risk them having incomplete unfulfilled lives for the remaining 4/5ths because YOU don't want to miss out on them as littlies . . . . ?? " <br />
A ( stay for the kids ) therefore, B ( kids damaged in the future ) according to you. <br />
I am SURE I want A and unlike you, I am not convinced that B is predestined given A plays out. <br />
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" Every **** situation can be improved. " <br />
I can go with that general fr<x>ame of reference. However, what constitutes improved is in the eye of the beholder and some actors hold more control than others. We are only hearing from the people with power and some of them are trying to define improved as if it was a universally ob<x>jective truth which it categorically is not. There is a little bit of the Uncertainty Principle here that is being overlooked.

Mine is not entirely an unhappy marriage. I do stay for the kids. But hubby & I never ever argue in front of our child, we have awesome family time together, vacations, we help eachother and are nice to eachother 99% of time. Kiss, hug, spend time together, laugh....all that stuff. And it's all from the heart, 100% true. There is respect and friendship. I care about him and I love my family. Whatever happens after bedtime...or better said whatever does NOT happen (the lack of sex ) does not show in our day to day life and I made the decision to stay because it is best for my young child.<br />
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I was torn about this for a long time, but I think I am making the best decision. We are both in our early 40's so not that young anymore, what are the chances of actually meeting someone and rebuilding a life with? Slim to none. As long as there is no abuse or cheating I will stay. I guess I made peace with this and what will be will be....feels soooooo good not to struggle inside anymore.<br />
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It would be nice to feel in love again and have some passion in my life, I almost forgot what that feels like. So sad, but at the same time, can one have it all? I have so many blessings in my life...so maybe two out of three ain't that bad. <br />
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I stopped hurting over things that I can not control and started focusing on things in my power that bring me joy and happiness. Maybe one day life will bring me the missing puzzle but for now I am playing with what I have.

AC, to answer yr question about finanes - altho' I am confused as to the relevance - I could have left much earlier. I teach TAFE (College) and school and can generate a reasonably good income. But I'd like you to explain why you asked this question. . . ??<br />
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Just a point about loving families. . . . My Ex and I were seen by everyone as "the perfect couple". We lived (largely) in harmony and enjoyed all kinds of good things together. He was my best friend and always will be. We shared a home that was characterised by good humour, kindness, caring, respect and genuine affection.<br />
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My Ex was / is a wonderful step-father to my 2 children who were 11 and 13 when he took them on. They had their ups and downs as do all step parents and step children - but thanks largely to his efforts, they lived a happy, stable and settled life with the two of us.<br />
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My children are now in their thirties. They are both very successful in their chosen fields and make plenty of money! They both have wide social networks and great social lives. Both travel overseas and enjoy a wide range of experiences, both here and abroad.<br />
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To anyone looking at them, they would both appear to be very "together", successful and fulfilled people - and I am immensely proud of them both.<br />
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BUT neither have been able to develop close loving intimate relationships of lasting quality. Both are like me in their love of sex (!!) and have satisfactory sex lives (from what I hear . . . !!) But neither can bridge the "intimacy chasm" and allow themselves to develop the closeness and connectedness that a truly intimate and long term relationship will bring them.<br />
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I see this as a DIRECT RESULT of them observing and internalising my relationship with their step father. They saw a marriage that was outwardly warm, affectionate, trusting, respectful, friendly and supportive - but WITHOUT intimacy. Now they are able to repeat all the good parts - AND the bad bits.<br />
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I feel my marriage has unintentionally denied them a role model for a truly intimate relationship. And I am immensely sad and guilty about this.<br />
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I've said this before but IMHO it bears repeating. Your children are precious and you want to be with them. I truly understand that. But they are only children for about 1/5 of their lives. Are you SURE you want to risk them having incomplete unfulfilled lives for the remaining 4/5ths because YOU don't want to miss out on them as littlies . . . . ??

Sosie and Enna your experiences really rings true for me too. However, I really question in your case and in my own whether the issue is 'staying together for the sake of the kids' or for the 'sake of being with the kids'. I feel selfish both for my own emotional need to be with my kids and my financial state as reasons for staying but I can see trauma-triumph in feeling in charge of my own life again. I feel so emotionally dead sometimes, like I am only going through the motions. I guess I better be careful for what I wish for.

" So much attention is given to trauma-avoidance and too little is given to trauma-triumph. " <br />
I disagree for a few reasons. I think the problem in this group is exactly the opposite. <br />
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If a spouse can not afford to leave, the only useful advice is trauma avoidance, as you call it. That describes the dilemma faced by the vast majority of the human population that has ever lived, currently living and will ever live again in the future. Telling people " Leave or stay. " is no more intelligent than telling Bob Geldoff to go plant crops and to bless the rains in Africa. <br />
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Only a small minority of people can afford to leave a marriage -- sexless or otherwise. Of the people who can afford and are stuck in this dilemma, the problem of trauma-triumph certainly is a dilemma. However, I would posit that the persistence of the problem is more indicative of the marital dysfunction genuinely being a two-way street -- the sexlessness only being a part of the bigger picture. <br />
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Refusal is certainly a form of abuse but if you can defend yourself ( i.e., leave the marriage and you are quite confident that the kids will be alright ) and yet you have not done so, it is pretty hard to believe that you are not partly to blame if you continue to complain. <br />
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ennA, <br />
I have a question for you: When were you first able to afford divorcing your husband? I am talking dollars and cents here -- or, is it pennies and farthings? You know what I mean. I am not asking about any mental preparation or even awareness that divorce was an option.

Amen, Sosei! You are my hero. I want to emulate your goals and your convictions. <br />
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We co-slept our kids and we are convinced that is the best thing for kids. Over the past six months, my wife and I have been trying to push our kids ( 6 and 3 ) into their own individual beds. It rarely works methodically. Each night and each morning is a random turn of events. Some nights our youngest wants to sleep alone. Some nights our oldest wants to sleep alone. Some nights the two sleep together. Half way through each night each one gets up and drags his blankie from one room to an other. Some nights, our boys drag their blankie to the living room and sleep the rest of the morning on the sofa! How is that for modeling refuser behavior?!? It is comical but there is no sense reading too much into it. <br />
This morning, I woke up with my oldest son beside me. Our youngest was snuggled in with my wife. <br />
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The point being: the adults should be disciplined to stop acting out for the sake of the kids. That is my bold and arrogant opinion.

" At an intuitive level, they don't know any other ways of resolving family conflict. " <br />
Proof??

I completely agree, enna... I lived through that misery as a child...

i have zero doubt that my partner's hang-ups with intimacy are a direct result of having parents that didn't love each other -- read, a father who was a sexual refuser to a mother who craved affection (it's no wonder than her brother is now asexual -- how did i get mixed up in this family?). my parents were very affectionate people, so i came from a household where your feelings were expressed, both good and bad, from time to time. i'm so fortunate to have seen this, but it is also a curse b/c i know what relationship should be like.<br />
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when you are brought up without physical ex<x>pression of emotion (it didn't help she came from a minister's family), you don't learn how important it is to articulate your feelings. how is it possible to be capable of living life as a sexual zombie. to never want or crave the touch of your partner. it is beyond me.