Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Difficult Child or Bad Marriage: Which Came First?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 19, 2011

  Rachel and Tim have been married for twelve years. They have three children, two of whom are relatively trouble-free, but their oldest, Enid is a “disaster” by their account. Enid has no friends. She does poorly in school. No one knows how to help her. She has cost the family tens of thousands of dollars in various interventions with only mild success, if any. It is not clear. Tim has decided to leave Rachel. He says that his life is very unpleasant and that at forty years old he feels he deserves to be happy. Rachel thinks that Tim has been so disappointed by Enid’s difficulties that he “checked out” leaving her with the entire burden to trying to figure out what Enid needs. Before Enid, the oldest, was born Rachel and Tim had some marital problems, but they never contemplated divorce until recently.

 My job is to help them help Enid, but I cannot wonder about how difficulties in a child creates the need for blame and withdrawal, resulting in painful and sometimes irreconcilable marital discord. It is hard to understand the unfairness of parenting. Some kids are “easy” in that they develop with high accomplishments and they are mostly compliant with rules. Other kids, by contrast, have a hard time fitting in and they don’t achieve the successes of other children. Depending on parental expectations, these differences in children, can be heartbreaking, financially draining, and deeply disturbing to a family. As a child psychiatrist, I see families destroyed by the challenges of their children. It is not easy to have your expectations of parenthood dashed by the reality that some kids do not grow up to be independent adults. Or, they do become independent, but they struggle with social relationships and economic stability. The pain in the parents can be deep. Deep pain leads to inner turmoil and outward blame. Marriages often cave under this pressure. It is too bad, but it is understandable.

5 Responses to “Difficult Child or Bad Marriage: Which Came First?”

  1. Your welcome. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Shelly said

    How do you weigh in on the thought that the child reflects the environmental discord under which he grows up, and therefore, his/her behavior is a reflection of what he sees at home? That if he is bullied, he is a target because of his low self-esteem due to his parents’ fighting, etc….? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

    • Hi Shelly,
      Yes, what you are describing happens often, but I am also saying that it happens the other way, where a marriage is stable, but a difficult child de-stabilizes the relationship. I postulate that had this child not entered into this couple’s life then their marriage would have stayed in tact. In other words, this is a bi-directional experience. Thanks.

  3. Kris said

    Twenty-two years of a solid marriage to a wonderful man. My twelve year old boy displayed behavior symptoms as early as 4 years old. Difficulties started at 6 and 7 years old and gradually became worse requiring more doctors and specialists and then home-schooling. My husband and I had no problems keeping our marriage strong and helping our son through his inner turmoils. He was not a problem my husband and I couldn’t manage together. His younger and older sister were just fine. However, no matter the strength of the marriage, the great doctors, private schools, to home-schooling by a certified teacher, some children are going to be difficult.
    When my husband passed away last year, my son poured all his difficulties on the one lone parent left and used every trick to make sure that no other man came into a relationship with me including any male mentor I brought in to help him. A difficult child will stop a relationship from building if it does not have a solid foundation like my previous marriage of 22 years.
    My son now attends a therapeutic boarding school while the rest of the family heals from his abuse towards us. He was tearing the family apart, so I took him out of the family to keep us intact.

    So, my answer is the difficult child CAN destroy a marriage if it is not solid. AND the child can tear apart a family or marriage if there is a small tear in the relationship from some dramatic event or tragedy.
    I have seen plenty of grown adults scarred by the breakups and bad marriages of their parents, too. How they deal with it later in life determines their success in life. It is hard to create an inner core when one doesn’t have a G-d inspired, loving, solid relationship from their parents in which to base future marriage.

  4. Hi Kris,
    Thank you for sharing your story. SV

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