Loveless marriages can have an effect on the development of children who bear witness to them. While not all marriages lacking in love will negatively affect the kids in these families, the more intense a conflict between parents and the more children are expected to take on adult roles, the more they will detrimentally affected in the long run.
Setting an Example
While divorce can have a traumatizing effect on children, so too can remaining in a loveless marriage, according to licensed marriage and family therapist Jeff Palitz, writing at Parents.com. Staying in a marriage at any cost can actually do more harm to the children than good, according to the Palitz. Children learn from their parents and model their behavior off them, including understanding what a relationship should look like and how to resolve -- or not resolve -- conflicts. Children frequently repeat these patterns they witness between their parents in their own lives.
Effects on Children
According to a 2001 report in the "Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine," when problems were observed in the children of divorced parents, the issues were frequently traced to well before the divorce. These issues manifested as a drop in academic test scores and behavioral problems reported at school. Children also often take on some of the hostility and resentment that exists between parents. Parents who struggle with keeping a marriage intact are also more likely to discipline their children erratically, which sends mixed messages and can be harmful to a child's development.
The most harmful of loveless marriages correlate directly with the degree of conflict, according to the "Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine." The marriages which have the most detrimental effect on the child are those in which the child feels he is trapped between two parents or when parents are manipulative or physically violent. When parents are involved in conflict with one another, they redirect the emotional energy children need and withdraw from their important role as parental figures. Involving a child in marital strife also forces the child to step outside the role of cared-for and take on an emotionally and psychologically devastating burden.
How to Proceed
The experts agree -- unhappy parents raise children who also tend to be unhappy. While Palitz and others agree it's important to try to work through the issues in a marriage, oftentimes a civil divorce is better for the well-being of everyone involved. Alternatively, if a marriage without love between parents can still be a supportive and nurturing environment for the children, it's still possible to raise well-adjusted children who can form successful relationships. The best scenario for the children is one where conflict is kept to a minimum. Above all, do not assume you can keep the problems of a loveless marriage secret from your kids -- when exposed to certain behaviors regularly, even young children are able to read between the lines.