Explaining Marriage Problems to Young Children

How do we explain our marital troubles to our three-year-old son? My husband and I are temporarily separated and are attempting to work through our differences with the help of a counselor. We both feel it's important to remain apart for the time being because we're concerned that our constant fighting may have a negative impact on our son. Most of the time he lives with me, but once in a while he spends the night at my husband's apartment in town. Do you think we're doing the right thing? Is this kind of arrangement harmful to a child?

A three-year-old doesn’t have the capacity to understand concepts like marital separation. Any explanation you offer should be extremely simple and concrete. Start by being completely honest with him about what is going on. You might say something like, “Honey, Daddy and I love each other, but lately we’ve been having some arguments. We’re trying to learn how to get along better with a special helper. While we do that, we’ve decided that Daddy is going to live in a different house for a while.”

For a three-year-old child, the most important thing you can do is make sure that he feels safe and loved. During this time of instability you will need to reassure him that Mommy and Daddy love him very much and that you will always be there for him. You and your husband should also be very careful to behave appropriately toward one another when you’re around him. Swallow your pride, and put his needs ahead of your desire to criticize or snipe at each other.

We’re encouraged to hear that you and your husband have made a commitment to attend counseling together and work on your relationship. That takes courage and determination, and you’re to be commended on your willingness to make whatever sacrifices are necessary in order to preserve your marriage and ensure a stable and secure upbringing for your child. It might interest you to know that one of the most promising new forms of marital counseling is called “Emotionally Focused Therapy” or “EFT.” Many couples who have felt they were at the end of their rope have found hope and healing through EFT. You might ask your counselor if he or she is familiar with this form of therapy.

One last thought: we would encourage you to move back in together as soon as possible. Research shows that the longer you stay physically separated the higher your risk for divorce. Our earnest prayer is that you will be able to work things out for the sake of your son.

If you think it might be helpful to discuss your situation at greater length with a member of our staff, we’d like to invite you to get in touch with our Counseling department.


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