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Launched in 2006 by two stay-at-home moms, Mama Pop is the independent voice for parents on pop culture, entertainment, gossip, fashion and web culture.

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If Mama Ain’t Happy In Her Relationship, Nobody’s Happy

By Tracey Gaughran |

No doubt you’ve heard the phrase “If Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” Perhaps you chuckled to yourself when you heard it, and thought that there’s some inherent wisdom in the idea that a mother’s happiness directly impacts the happiness of many others around her – her children, especially. Well it turns out that there is, in fact, some verifiable truth to the saying – at least according to recent research.

I’ve written here before about what I privately perceived as a strong connection between parents’ marital satisfaction and the happiness of children – a hard-won perception gleaned through my own experience of being unhappily married:

This is what marriage is, I told myself. Everyone is unhappy. Everyone stays in it for the kids. Everyone looks back on what they hoped their life, and their marriage, would be, and can’t quite fathom how things got so far off course…

But why? Why do people do this to themselves, to each other, and ultimately to their children?

…what it boiled down to was that some part of me honestly believed it would crush my child. That she would be so devastated by the break-up that she would never get over it, that it would damage her in some profound way that I’d never be able to fix. What I didn’t take into consideration was how living with two parents who barely tolerated each other, who didn’t spend time together with her, who argued and filled the home she lived in with tension and quiet despair might affect her.

Well, not to break my arm patting myself on the back too hard here, but according to a study from the Economic & Social Research Council, I was likely onto something. The study – which includes 40,000 households in the United Kingdom – found that mama’s happiness in her relationship in particular is indeed a determining factor in every family:

The findings indicate that a mother’s happiness in her partnership is more important to the child than the father’s. The findings are based on a sample of 6,441 women, 5,384 men and 1,268 young people. …in families where the child’s mother is unhappy in her partnership, only 55 per cent of young people say they are ‘completely happy’ with their family situation – compared with 73 per cent of young people whose mothers are ‘perfectly happy’ in their relationships. Commenting on the findings, Dr Maria Iacovou said: “At a time when there is widespread political concern about ‘Broken Britain’, these findings show that family relationships and the happiness of parents are key to the happiness of young people[My emphasis]

All of this may seem like stating the obvious to some, but for those women who’ve convinced themselves that staying in a miserable marriage “for the children” could in any way be a healthy or positive choice for their kids, perhaps these findings will give them pause and make them rethink the validity of that notion.

What I find most interesting about this study is the implied idea that a father could be unhappy in his relationship and remain in it, without it having the same impact on the family unit. I’m not sure if I believe that’s entirely true, though I do understand that traditionally the caretaking role of mothers is much larger then fathers on average, which could be why the findings bore out as they did. However, I have to wonder what the results would look like if a population of stay-at-home dads were surveyed, for example.

What do you think about all this? How critical is a happy marriage to the happiness of kids, in your opinion and/or experience? If these findings bear out, would you consider it at least somewhat negligent or irresponsible for parents to stay in unhappy marriages, knowing full well that they’re hurting their children? And what do you make of the strength of mothers influence on the happiness of kids compared to fathers?

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Mama Pop is the independent voice for parents on pop culture, entertainment, gossip, fashion and web culture. Read bio and latest posts → Read Tracey's latest posts →

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8 thoughts on “If Mama Ain’t Happy In Her Relationship, Nobody’s Happy

  1. Suzy Q says:

    I’ll venture one step further and say that all parties in a child-centered family generally do not fare well. Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm now. It is important for parents to put their relationship FIRST and to let their kids know it. I’ve seen quite a few marriages fall apart over this issue alone, from the parents forgetting who they are as a couple. And really, you’re not doing your kid(s) any favor by letting them rule the roost or putting them on a pedestal. These are the kids who grow up and are confused and frightened by real life and unable to independently navigate themselves.

  2. Suebob says:

    I agree with Suzy Q. I grew up in that child-centered family. My parents put everything aside for us kids and became just parents. I have to admire their sacrifice on one level, but on another, there was always an undercurrent of resentment, especially from my mom, that persists to this day. After all of us grew up and flew the coop, my parents limped along, sniping at each other for the next 25 years til my dad died, with the tension growing worse and worse over the years. On one level, I appreciate their dedication. On another, I wish they could have worked harder at fulfilling themselves to provide better models of happy adulthood.

  3. Marinka says:

    The difference between unhappy moms and unhappy dads and the effect it has on their children is so interesting. I wonder if it is because the mother is often the primary caretaker.

    I’m glad that people are starting to turn away from the “let’s stay together for the children” concept. That’s quite a burden for the children to bear.

  4. Pauline Gaines says:

    I don’t doubt this is true, and it’s intersting that it goes counter to the “your kids won’t notice if you’re miserable” divorce backlash going on these days. My mother appeared very unfulfilled in her marriage to my father and I felt the burden of making her happy. In some ways this robbed me of a childhood. That said, I don’t think either of them could have handled being divorced and I think my life would have been worse if they had. So I think studies like this, as meaningful as they are, can give people the wrong impression that leaving an unhappy marriage will lead to happiness. It doesn’t, necessarily. However, staying in a miserable marriage is lousy too. It really depends what you go to post-marriage, if you can create something better for you and your kids…and how does anyone really know that before taking the plunge?

  5. Mamazee says:

    I don’t think divorce is the answer to an unhappy marriage – maybe i’m biased as my parents just divorced after 40 years of marriage. Think of the investment – three children, sons in laws, 22 grandchildren – and won’t even try counselling. It’s like abandoning your bank account bczyou only get marginal interest! Keep the money, change the system! Stats show the rate of divorce is higher with each successive marriage, so why not just try to fix the first one?

  6. Nil Zed says:

    If the question was whether or not to the mother was happy in her relationship, that presumes there is a relationship. What about mom’s who are unhappily single?

  7. TBerry says:

    As the child of parents who waited until the kids were “older” to get divorced, I can say that we noticed that our mom was unhappy more and it did impact how happy we were. I think may have more to do with the fact that we spent more time with our mom. I also think that it made a difference, seeing our parents much happier after the divorce. (BTW – It was a very amicable divorce and there were never any custody issues, which I am sure helps our perception of divorce.)

  8. Alley says:

    Back when I was married, my husband wasn’t ready to be a dad (or a husband, he later told me)… I felt it all through the entire process of me carrying the baby, and when she was born, he just made it completely known that he was going to be a douche about things. Once I saw the writing on the wall, it was kind of like a game to me of how long I could help the marriage last, since he wasn’t willing to assist at all- wasn’t interested in counseling, or talking one v. one, anything like that. But when I saw how his intense negligence was and is so ill-affecting my daughter (I say “my” because up to this point in her life, I’ve pretty much been her sole parent – he just donated a sperm), I realized that I needed to end things. I was raised up by a mom who married 3 times and all failed, and a dad who married 3 times and the third one is barely hanging on by a thread. Needless to say, I knew how a broken household can affect a child, but on the other hand I didn’t want to become another divorce statistic and follow in yet another step of those of my parents. However, I’m glad that I had the presence of mind back then to kick him out and subsequently divorce him. Since then, he’s pretty much disappeared. My daughter is almost 5, and she doesn’t remember him. In some ways it’s better off like that. I was so scared when I first made the decision to let him go, because I knew he wouldn’t maintain an active place in her life, but I saw how even her as an infant was being adversely affected by his negligence, and I knew it would only get worse.

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