The devitalized marriage is defined by distance and an absence of affection. It lacks the elements of respect and friendship often found in the good-enough marriage. The high conflict-marriage, as the name suggests, is marked by open conflict, including heated arguments and verbal and physical abuse. This type of marriage can be the most harmful to children, even young children who do not have the verbal skills to express what they are seeing and feeling.
"I think that kids are very tuned into their parents and although they may not understand [marital strife] . . . they can sense emotional currents quite well," explains Andrew Roffman, Clinical Coordinator of the Family Studies Program at New York University's Child Study Center. He adds, "Their level of comfort is going to be affected by a sense of unease, conflict, anxiety, and tension in the marriage."
Roffman also says that young children who sense this tension may express their discomfort through non-verbal cues. "One thing you might see is regression. Children who are moving along developmentally might all of the sudden start doing things like wetting their pants again. Or children might just seem more fearful," he notes, continuing, "If [there's] an unstable or an unhappy, high-conflict situation, it's going to have an effect. And the more vulnerable the child, the more pronounced the effect."
Because a high conflict marriage is the most distressing for children—and often for their parents as well—divorce is likely an appropriate choice for the family if the couple cannot resolve their problems.