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Ask An Expert / Children / fatherhood / Mama Drama / Motherhood

How can I navigate my marriage problems with a child in the midst?

How can I navigate my marriage problems with a child in the midst?

Dear Mama Drama:

My husband and I have recently been struggling with our relationship. We are going to counseling, but I’m concerned about how the situation and our interactions are impacting our three-year-old son.

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I don’t know how much he understands when things get tense between my husband and I or when one of us needs to leave due to intense feelings. We don’t argue in front of him, but there are times when the tension is thick and I know he can feel it.

We are contemplating separating and I am wondering how to talk with him about this if that happens as well as how much to tell him about what is going on.

Any advice would be appreciated.

~ Uncertain Mama

Dear Uncertain:

I am sorry to hear of your marital difficulties. Raising children challenges our relationships to grow and change in ways we often don’t anticipate and at times are not prepared or willing to accept. I’m glad you understand that your son is being impacted by the negative non-verbal communication he is exposed to as well as the verbal.

Three-year-olds are in a very egocentric stage of development, so they perceive the world as revolving around them. This also means that they often feel they are responsible for the difficulties their parents are experiencing. Keep this in mind as you and your husband examine your behavior toward each other.

As long as you are still living together, I suggest talking with your counselor about ground rules to guide your interactions at home. Depending on what is happening in your relationship they may be something like treating each other respectfully, using a polite tone of voice, refraining from sarcasm, making sure both of you have positive interactions with your son, and agreeing not to use the “silent treatment” with each other. You can also come up with a code phrase and/or activity, like “I’m going to empty the trash,” for taking a break from each other when you need to.

In regards to talking with your son, it is very important not to share too much information. When he asks questions, answer them simply and factually in an age-appropriate manner. Also, try not to read too much into his questions. He’ll pursue further if he wants to understand more.

If you and your husband do decide to separate, talk with him together about how things are going to work in terms of where he’ll live and when he’ll see each of you. Creating a plan with your counselor will help with this.

Some age-appropriate books you may want to read with him if you do separate or divorce are It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear by Vicky Lansky and Was It the Chocolate Pudding? by Sandra Levins. Be sure to read these yourself before reading them with him, so that you’ll be prepared to answer potential questions.

No matter what happens between you and your husband, it is essential that you both make your son’s well being a priority that guides how you interact with him and each other.

I know many families have experienced these same issues. Please share strategies that have help you navigate these difficulties as positively as possible.

Lisa Vratny-Smith

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