How do you give your kids a healthy view of marriage…if your marriage isn’t healthy?

Every Monday I like to post a reader question and take a stab at answering it, and today I’ve got a similar question from two hurting wives who are worried about the effects of their marriage on the kids:

reader question icon - How Do I Protect Our Kids from Our Marriage Problems?

Reader Question

I was 7 months pregnant when he confessed to porn use.

Glory to God, we are in a miracle and my husband is healing and we are healing and our lives are being restored. Interesting, you recently wrote about when to invite the husband back to the bed after betrayal. I’m getting to a place for that, slowly as we are growing in emotional intimacy again.

How can I help my children recover from all the trauma of my husband’s fallout? My son was just two when my husband confessed and he witnessed all my heartache and anger and the fights between us (We lived in a 1200 square foot home at the time- no where to hide.) my daughter was in the womb still and although she seems to be miraculously healthy I still wonder about the long term effects of all I went through emotionally while she was not yet born.

Another woman writes:

reader question icon - How Do I Protect Our Kids from Our Marriage Problems?

Reader Question

Parenting experts often say the best thing you can do for your kids is work on and have a good marriage. This crushes me because so many of our marriage issues are not my issues and I can’t control them. Nor can I pretend we’re in love to somehow make the kids feel secure.

So… for those of us who can’t just conjure up a good marriage how can we model this to our children without making them even more insecure?

Great question! Let’s look at it today.

God Can Protect Your Kids’ Hearts

A mom’s heartbeat is to protect her kids. We want, yearn, NEED to protect them.

But in this rush to protect them, let’s not forget that we are not all-powerful. Sometimes I think we feel that we are more powerful than we really are–that we should be able to smooth over life for our kids and we should be able to make sure our kids turn out well.

Our ultimate calling is not to protect our kids; it is to point them to Christ.

When they understand the love of Christ–how high and long and wide and deep it is–then nothing else can get them. They are safe. They will be able to turn to Christ in their problems, and define themselves through what Jesus did for them, and not what others have done to them.

Bad things are going to happen to your kids. For yours, it may be that their lives started out in a tumultuous situation because your marriage was bad. But for others it may be living in a bad neighborhood and being bullied; having someone they love die; living several years through great financial hardship.

Life happens.

And in all of that, God is there. And while we can’t protect our kids, let’s never forget that He can.

Our past does not need to define us.

Yes, it is true that those who grow up in a shaky nuclear family do worse overall than those who grow up in a functional, loving, stable home. But note the word “overall“. That’s based on studies of thousands and thousands of kids. It isn’t based on a study of YOUR kid.

I grew up the only child to a single mother. If you look at the studies; you would not have predicted that I would be an A student; that I wouldn’t become promiscuous; that I would finish graduate degrees in university; that I would marry well. But I did, because God protected me, showed His grace to me, and led me to Him.

I have known friends who lived through horrendous abuse and family situations as young children who are honestly fine now. And then I have known others who lived in a stable, nuclear family with two parents who loved them who struggle to cope with the littlest thing going wrong in life.

Individuals are not statistics, and your children are individuals. Their past does not write their future; it is about how their past interacts with their personalities, with your characteristics, with other circumstances–but most of all, with God’s grace.

If you live your life scared that your children will turn out hurt because of what is done to them, they very well might. But if you proceed forward deeply in prayer for them, and focus on their individual, unique personalities, life really can be limitless. Just because a person has some struggles doesn’t mean that they can’t succeed well in relationships later or in faith later. Pray, point them to Jesus, and enjoy them in the present!

Authenticity Matters More Than Perfection

But what if the problems continue?

The second letter writer is asking, “how do I show kids a healthy marriage when ours isn’t healthy?”

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He isn’t in perfection; He’s in Truth, and truth is often messy.

When I wrote about the Duggar scandal when that first broke, I said that authenticity matters so much in our witness–likely more than anything else. And it matters more than anything else in raising our kids, too. When we are honest with them, they are free to be honest. When we tell them, “you can’t ever criticize the family”, or “it’s a betrayal if you don’t think we’re perfect” (you wouldn’t SAY this, but you may SHOW this), then kids don’t know what to think. When they see something that’s wrong, they feel  inner turmoil. To admit it’s wrong (or even to believe that it’s wrong) means that they’re betraying their family, and they can’t stand to do that. And so they push things under the surface and learn not to believe their own red flags. That doesn’t bode well for future relationships.

Being authentic is the best way to connect with your teen.

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That’s what I found again and again when I interviewed 25 young adults to figure out what made teenage rebellion more or less likely. So what does authenticity actually look like in a family?

Hint: you may need to throw out most of the parenting advice you’ve heard.

Truth is a gift that you can give your children.

In your marriage, even if there isn’t love, and even if your husband acts inappropriately at times, you can be kind. You can refrain from sniping at him. You can talk with him and not withdraw.

But you can also draw appropriate boundaries (for instance, if he yells, you can say, “I see that your angry, and I do want to talk to you about this, but I won’t stay in the room while you yell, so once you’re calmed down I’d be happy to talk”, and then you can leave the room.) You can treat yourself with respect, and act with in ways worthy of respect. You can show them that while our relationship may not be perfect, I am trying to live as Christ did and point people to Christ.

When your children see that you honor your husband, but that you also honor yourself and do not get sucked into counterproductive arguments, then you show them that loving someone does not mean allowing them to treat you badly.

I’m going to assume that the issue here is not one of emotional or verbal abuse, though, because I know the second letter writer a little bit, and I believe that she would not put up with that. I also believe that if the issue is one of abuse, removing yourself and your children from that situation is the best course of action, but I’m not directing that here because I’m proceeding as if it’s not abuse but just simply bad decisions or bad modes of interacting on the part of the husband.

Maybe it’s simply that he’s a workaholic and you have no relationship. Perhaps he has no relationship with the kids, either, and you know how important a father’s relationship is. And that’s what you worry about.

You can involve their dad when he’s willing, but you can also make sure that you do fun things with the kids without waiting around for their dad. You can involve uncles in their lives. They’ll understand when they grow up. They’ll know that their dad made bad choices, and they may not have a great relationship with their dad. But a bad relationship with their dad does not necessarily mean that they’ll have bad relationships in general at all. Not if you’re walking in Truth; allowing them to speak Truth with respect; and letting them be in healthy church communities where they can see other men who do treat their families well.

Watch How They Speak to Their Dad–But Permit Honesty

Don’t worry so much about your kids that you create rifts with between them and their father. I have seen countless marriages where the mom is so worried about how the dad treats the kids that she’s forever telling the kids, “it’s okay to be mad when your dad does that,” or “your dad just doesn’t understand you.” Don’t foment anger.

But if your child is upset with your husband your child starts the conversation, it’s okay to say, “how does Jesus want us to handle it when we’re upset?” And it’s okay to encourage your child to take it up with your husband. You should expect a child to show a dad respect and not call him names, but it’s perfectly appropriate for a child to say, “when you did X it hurt me,” or “when you didn’t show up I felt angry.”

Let your child have those conversations and don’t interfere. Naming feelings is important, and if a child or teen can speak them out loud when they’re still children, that’s often healthier than growing up without ever being able to speak the disappointment. Just be careful that in your quest to guard your kids you don’t cement this “Mom is good and understands me and Dad is distant and is a loser” mentality. If you’ve chosen to stay in the marriage, then stay in that marriage. Treat your husband with kindness. Speak of him well. And pray hard.

Can we protect our kids from our marriage problems? How to help kids growing up in a tense marriage.

Let me ask you: Have any of you dealt with this? How do you protect your kids without encouraging them to be angry at their dad? Let’s talk in the comments!

And if any of you are struggling with how to have those hard conversations with your kids or how to explain the more difficult things of life with them, check out Why I Didn’t Rebel. It’s got some great stories that can help illuminate some of the more complex or grey areas of parenting to help you make the right decision for your family.

SheilaSidebarAboutMe - How Do I Protect Our Kids from Our Marriage Problems? Sheila Wray Gregoire has been married for 27 years and happily married for 22! She loves traveling around North America with her hubby in their RV, giving her signature "Girl Talk" about sex and marriage. And she's written 8 books. About sex and marriage. See a theme here? Plus she knits. Even in line at the grocery store.
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