Should I Stay or Should I Go?: High Conflict Marriages and Their Impact on Children #1

In the last five posts I addressed several different kinds of problem marriages, where often the basic underpinnings of the marriage are weak, and thus one or more partners often ends up asking if they should stay or go.

Let me just finish that topic by saying this: So many spouses in these  kinds of marriages come in to see me, complaining bitterly about their spouses. And often, by the time they come to see me, they really want to go. But do hear this: If you don’t learn to see your pattern, and why you took on a certain role in the marriage, you may repeat that pattern in a second marriage, no matter how different it may seem on the surface.

If you recall, in my first post on the topic of should you stay in a marriage or leave, I brought up that question of how you can change things to prevent the same issues from recurring in a second marriage.

But another of the crucial questions I thought you should address before walking out on a marriage, was should you leave–or stay–for your children. I’d like to return to that thought for the next couple of posts, and particularly as we examine the situation of Jesse and Jordan.*

Jesse* has changed a lot since her marriage to Jordan.* A lot. A devout Christian when the two of them exchanged vows, she has decided that believing in God is like believing in little green aliens–which she pronounced in front of the children–and has changed her lifestyle accordingly.

Jesse and Jordan had 5 children in quick succession, as the Lord would have wanted, but by Jesse’s fifth pregnancy Jordan knew things weren’t right.

Jordan had always done more than half the child-care, and Jesse was always tired when pregnant–something Jordan thought that was completely reasonable, given the miracles taking place inside her. But after around the second month of fourth pregnancy, Jesse never got up with the children in the morning. Never again. Ever. If Jordan wasn’t there in the morning and a carpool was required, well, Jesse eventually made it out, closer to 9:30 than 10:00 he hoped, and then she took whatever child remained to wherever their destination might be.


Odder, she was scheduled to work from 11:00-3:30, in order to be home when the kids arrived at 4:00, but so consistently called Jordan to come home from his job early because she couldn’t make it back in time that both partners knew they had to institute a new policy. Jesse’s solution was somewhat less than ideal, Jordan felt, but he also felt stuck. They would have their 12-year-old daughter Jill babysit from 4:00 until Mommy came home–Jordan even decided to pay her to make it fairer–and alleviate his guilt. It would probably only be an hour at most, Jesse assured them, and Jill seemed okay with it, especially as her agreement seemed to prevent further arguing between her parents, which seemed to now be a daily occurrence. They would pay her a real fee, $5.00 an hour, and Jill was pleased. Jesse would be in charge of payment when she came home, as she was paid in cash, and always had it on the ready. It is hard to pay your 12-year-old with your American Express, Jordan thought, so this was best.

Jordan assumed that issue was taken care of, and was pleased to have to stop leaving work early, but was tortured by Jesse’s behavior in the house. Suddenly she was using, as he called it, “the f-word,” in front of the children, too, when anything displeased her. She was becoming tyrannical, insisting she was tired of shopping and cooking, and Jordan could do what he pleased, but she was opting out of the servant department.

“What about the kids?” he asked.

“You wanted so many kids, you feed them,” she replied, and the children, who must have heard, acted busy with toys and homework.

Jesse said marital therapy was for losers–and Jordan clearly was one if he went. She herself would have no truck with it. If he wanted a divorce , I’m sure– he could sure have one.

But Jordan didn’t want to divorce her. His culture highly discouraged divorce–and what kind of a disaster would that be for his poor kids, already traumatized enough by the discord in the house? He couldn’t do it to them.

At least the phone calls to come home early from work stopped, and Jordan had some peace of mind. Two weeks into this arrangement, as a thank-you treat for Jill, Jordan offered to take her to Target, which somehow seems to be better than catnip to children these days, and she could use her babysitting money and he would match it, and they’d get something super-nice. To Jordan’s surprise, Jill asked if they could go to the American Girl Doll store. “Oh, honey, that’s not something you can afford–and, really, it’s not something we can afford to give to our children either, given that God blessed us with a big family.”

“Oh, but I can afford it, Daddy,” Jill responded. “I checked it out and the doll I want, with outfit changes, is only about $225. I myself have $157, and that means you don’t even have to come near matching me for me to get it. Please, Daddy, please, please. . .”

Jordan felt something cold and hard near where his heart should be.

“Where did you get so much money, Jill? he asked.

Reading her father’s face, Jill saw her error and try to backtrack. “Oh, Daddy, I was just kidding, let’s get a Barbie at Target. I know we’re not rich.”

“Show me your money, Jill. Now.”

Jill was crying as she brought down her wallet for her dad to leaf through. Because one of the terrible things we do to children in high-conflict marriages is make them hide and lie, too, to keep the peace. Jill was devastated that she had betrayed her mother, however unwittingly, for Jesse never came home before 7:00, and sometimes just a few minutes after.

The screaming in that house behind the bedroom door that night was something to hear–and the children heard it. Jill lay in her bed, crying, and holding the baby, who was shaking with fear. The three boys stayed out shooting hoops way past 9:00–Dad never came to get them for dinner–but even they could hear the shouting through their parents’ window.

“Is that it for you?” I queried Jordan the next afternoon, during his stolen time for session.

“Oh, you know I can’t leave; I have five kids and I just can’t do it to them. You know what happens to children of divorce–drugs, promiscuity, it’s terrible. Not my babies. But how can I live with the betrayal, lies, and screaming?”

How Jordan could live with it was one thing, but I was becoming increasingly concerned about the children in this marriage. For the research on children of high-conflict marriages–see next post–indicates pretty clearly that they will suffer in such a situation–more than had the parents thrown in the towel and divorced.


**As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Jesse or Jordan, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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