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  • Natalie Garcia
    Natalie Garcia

    The Dangerous Effects of Speaking Badly About Your Spouse: How Emotional Incest Can Impact Kids For Life

    The sacred institution of marriage was supposed to bring two people together in holy matrimony and be a source of love, companionship, trust, and respect. A traditional image of marriage is one where couples lovingly speak to each other and show great appreciation for one another–especially when it comes to speaking in front of the children. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. In some cases, spouses are disrespectful and even verbally abusive to each other—especially in front of the children.

    Many marital disputes arise, and disagreements are expected, but when couples forget the need to protect their children by holding off on expressing disdain for their spouse, it can become dangerous for the kids' mental and emotional health. Sure, verbal acrimony isn't the same as physical abuse, but this form of speaking badly of your spouse is often referred to as "emotional incest" due to its damaging effects.

    Emotional incest occurs when one or both parents emotionally "step into a parental role" and express hurtful, negative comments or judgments about their partner to the child. For example, one parent may infer that their partner is wrong in their decisions or choices, and then try to turn that parent's child against their partner by speaking of them unkindly. This can damage the child's relationship and interaction with the parent, and interfere with their healthy view of childhood and of family relationships.

    This type of dynamic can be extremely harmful to the growth of the child and their psychological development. It can cause a range of emotions in the child, such as fear, guilt, conflict, and confusion. Children may then develop an unhealthy view of relationships and learning how to interact within them. As one family therapist puts it: "Children of any age can absorb these insults, feel defensive and protective of one or both parents, withdraw or avoid due to feeling helpless, start to fight with the offended parent and even triangulate by taking sides with one parent to align with the other." He then went on to say: "Any of these pathways can leave a child feeling unsafe and insecure."

    In addition to the feelings of insecurity, children of marital strife also risk internalizing ideas about healthy behavior by associating themselves with the disruption. They may also develop "low self-esteem and unhealthy coping mechanisms," leading to anger, rage, and possibly even depression in adulthood. Even in words that aren't necessarily harmful, but nonetheless expressions of anger or unhappiness, like slamming doors, dishes, etc., can have a huge impact on a child's budding idea of how relationships are supposed to work.

    There's also the potential for children to direct some of their resentment towards their parent too, creating animosity or distance between them or interfering with normal bonding experiences. But equally importantly, children exposed to this type of environment are much more likely to grow up jealous, bitter and mistrust of the opposite sex.

    Once the damage has been done, it may not be reversible. You can't always prevent it altogether, and no one is perfect after all. So when emotions begin to take over, it's always best to remove yourself and the child from the situation before things get out of hand.

    Spouses have an obligation to protect their children from negative remarks and conduct as much as possible. If it looks like violence is imminent, do your best to place yourself and the child in a safe place until the situation de-escalates. That said, if arguments become so frequent or heated that they become uncontrollable, or when verbal arguments become physical abuse, seeking counseling outside your home is always advised. You should never think twice about getting help.

    It's best to be mindful that speaking badly of your spouse can have long-term effects on your child. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging your feelings of anger or frustration, but always do so in a respectful way—preferably somewhere that the child isn't around­­—so there's no accidental indoctrination of your negative views of your spouse. Even if hoping to pass down wisdom, do so from a place of understanding, consistency, safety, and love. Remember, if it's not something that's loving and supportive for both you and your child, it's best to leave it unsaid.

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