Using Children to Manipulate a Spouse

Some people with children have problems and resolve them within the framework of that relationship, but others think that using them is fair game. In fact, it's common for one or both of them to externalize the confrontation and use their offspring as a resource to control the other.
Using Children to Manipulate a Spouse

Last update: 30 July, 2021

Unfortunately, using children to manipulate a spouse is a common practice during marriage conflicts even when these have nothing to do with their parent’s problems. The first thing you must know is that this is a form of abuse.

Sometimes, the resentment between parents is stronger than the love and responsibility they’re supposed to extend to their children. For this reason, they end up using their offspring to manipulate their spouse, in spite of the serious damage it can cause.

Usually, these attempts are a way to get them as allies in order to hurt the spouse or merely to further their own interests. Parents need to be aware that this is a form of violence against their children.

In fact, using your children to manipulate your spouse has negative consequences on children’s psychological development. Oftentimes, these children will have to deal with the effects of this kind of situation for life.

“A bird can’t love freely when caged.”

-Matshona Dhliwayo-

A child torn between two parents.

Using children to manipulate a spouse

There are many ways to use children to manipulate a spouse. Sometimes, they’re subtle, while others explicit.

Many psychologists, professors, and authors define these parents as “alienating”. Based on several studies, they point out that several behaviors are typical of this type of parent. The most common are:

  • Refusing to provide information about the children.
  • Devaluing and insulting the other parent in front of the children.
  • Making decisions about the little ones without consulting the other parent.
  • Involving the school in family problems.
  • Preventing the children from talking to or seeing the other parent.
  • Involving family members or friends in a campaign to discredit the other parent.
  • Threatening children when they have a favorable attitude toward their other parent.
  • Devaluing contributions or gifts made by the other parent.
  • Using the child to send messages to the other parent.
  • Victimizing the child so that they’ll turn against the other parent.

In general, it’s all about limiting the possibilities of a child building a healthy relationship with the other parent. It’s also about achieving individual goals by using the effect children have on a former spouse.

The motivations of manipulative parents

Obviously, the intention to manipulate a spouse, especially through the children, doesn’t arise in the context of a healthy relationship. Commonly, this type of behavior happens during a breakup. However, a person may also implement it for the purpose of maintaining a deteriorated relationship.

In the first case, the manipulative parent usually has a deep resentment against their former spouse. Sometimes because it was the other who ended the relationship. Also, because they feel they’re at a financial disadvantage and the new arrangements aren’t fair. Perhaps they’re jealous because the other person has a new partner.

The second type of person usually thinks they’re using the children to manipulate the spouse “for a good cause”. Thus, the situation is more complex. This is because the children feel emotionally committed to the common goal of not allowing the relationship between their parents to end.

A seemingly upset child.

The consequences of using children to manipulate a spouse

The aforementioned report says what happens when a parent tries to keep their children away from the other. That is, feelings of anguish, uprooting, loneliness, and frustration appear. In the most serious cases, depressive tendencies, suicidal ideas, anger, impotence, disorientation, and chronic health disorders arise.

In addition, the feelings aren’t that different when the children haven’t physically separated from the other parent and play a role in the crisis. However, there may be a strong feeling of guilt in this case. Mainly because they think they have the mission of preventing their parents’ breakup.

Many times, they come to feel hatred for the other parent as a way out of the labyrinth in which they find themselves. This often leads to difficulties in their adult life when it comes to identifying and expressing their feelings. Likewise, they tend to transfer this instability to their own future relationships.

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  • Ramírez, A. M. (2004). Conflictos entre Padres y Desarrollo de los Hijos. Convergencia. Revista de Ciencias Sociales, 11(34), 171-182.