If a couple cannot cope with the bitterness and hostility in their marriage, the last thing they should do is to dump it on their children's shoulders.

Most couples do have disagreements and fights during the course of their marriages. Happily, they manage to resolve these conflicts and get on with their lives. Unfortunately, not all couples can pull this off. An increasing number of couples live in ‘toxic' marriages wherein they experience hostility and resentment towards each other, but for a variety of reasons, are unable to either fix the marriage or move the family court. They fight excessively and aggressively or they could be cold, distant and neglecting of each other. And often, they generously distribute their toxic waste to the ones who are least equipped to process or handle it: their children. Even if they are rational at other times, couples in toxic marriages become completely bizarre when it comes to handling their children. If such a marriage ends up in divorce, child custody is almost always the most acrimonious issue. But when toxic couples decide, for whatever reason, to live with each other, the adverse impact on the children is often worse.

Subtle expression

No child should ever be compelled to make a choice between the parents, even if the latter are separated; temporarily or permanently. Usually, depending on the stage of life the child is in, the need for one parent may be more strongly perceived than that of the other. How close the parents are to the child will also influence this. Sadly, in toxic marriages, the warring parents start actively lobbying with the child to be chosen as the primary parent. Often this happens subtly. Nothing may be stated, but the parental conflict gets expressed in undertones, in facial expressions, in non-verbal communication, and children being extraordinarily sensitive pick up the cues. It can be extremely disorienting for the child to be used as a pawn in their parents' control games by being forced to make a choice — overtly or covertly — between them.

Often one of the children becomes the repository of all the emotional energy that the parent should have invested in the marriage. The Chosen One, more often than not the first-born child (since the first-born was probably conceived during the best period of the parents' married life) has the worst of it. Envied and distanced by the siblings, vilified by the other parent, and suffocated by catering to the emotional needs of the parent that has done the ‘ choosing', this child goes through childhood in a state of alienation, confusion and great emotional vulnerability.

One of the more poignant effects of toxic marriages held together for the sake of the children is the burden of guilt that the children carry into their adult lives for something that they neither chose to do nor were in a position to effectively keep at bay when it was dumped on their unprepared and under-nourished shoulders. When the children are told “I stayed in an unhappy marriage only for your sake”, an albatross is immediately placed around their necks that even a hastily added “but, I have no regrets” will do little to assuage. When children feel the burden of their parents' relationship and, more importantly, are not able to get what they want from their parents in terms of direction and support, it is but natural that they turn to other authority figures in their environment. If they are fortunate, they may get the surrogate parenting they're looking for; but, in a situation like this, the risk of their being sexually abused increases dramatically. Just in case you didn't already know, official figures put out by the Government of India tell us that one out of every two girl children and about one out of three male children are victims, in one form or another, of child sexual abuse.

Another thing parents in toxic marriages would do well to remember is that — in the absence of any formal training on marriage — for most of us, our first and probably only intimate exposure to a man-woman relationship is to the one that our parents had.

Repeating patterns

Our marriage becomes the template that our children may end up using. Of course, whatever we do to mitigate it, our children are going to replay our dysfunctional patterns at some time during the course of their adult lives but we can do some damage control, if we are mindful of this. When parents cling to their children and canvas their support to become the chosen parent, the chances are that the children are likely to do the same when they get married and have children of their own. Trying to correct this faulty pattern at that time, when you have made peace with your life and are ready to take on grandparenting responsibilities with maturity, may not be possible, for your adult children are hardly likely to permit any interventions on your part, but will insist on playing out programmed patterns of behaviour which were imprinted in their minds during their childhood and adolescence. The last thing, I'm sure, you'd like to see happen, is for history to repeat itself.

The best thing to do with toxic marriages is to detoxify them by undertaking couple therapy and working through your conflicts. If this doesn't work, then some hard choices may have to be made. Dumping your toxic waste on your children's doorstep is just an open invitation for more Stavengers to happen.

E-mail: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com