Should You Stay Together for Your Children’s Sake?

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Are you and your spouse in a miserable marriage? If you feel you’ve tried everything and nothing has helped, you may be left wondering whether it’s healthier for your children to live with unhappy parents under one roof or live separately. 

It may be the toughest decision you ever have to make: Should you and your spouse keep your marriage intact for the sake of your children? Answering that question can be an agonizing process, especially when considering that what’s best for you as adults may not be what’s best for your kids.

LifeofFamily.com spoke with family and divorce experts across the country who have helped thousands of parents in troubled marriages chart the best possible courses for their families’ futures.

Is Divorce Bad for the Kids?

The prevailing view in our society is that divorce sentences children to a lifetime of unhappiness, and that two separate households cannot be as nurturing and supportive as one. “I think we have a very difficult time in this society to be able to say that divorce does not destroy families but changes them,” explains Constance Ahrons, PhD, author of We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents’ Divorceand a twice-divorced mother of two grown daughters.

Ahrons and E. Mavis Hetherington, two leading family researchers, conducted studies which found that a majority of children of divorce—more than 75 percent—turned out just fine and went on to lead happy, productive lives as adults. The initial stresses of divorce did not prevent them from enjoying professional and personal success.

In what is regarded as the most comprehensive research on divorce, Hetherington studied nearly 1,400 families over three decades. A PhD and professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, she discusses the results of her work in the book, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, and writes that much of the current literature on divorce “has exaggerated its negative effects and ignored its sometimes considerable positive effects.” She concludes that, “Divorce is not a form of developmental predestination. Children, like adults, take many different routes out of divorce; some lead to unhappiness, others to a rewarding and fulfilling life.”

Ahrons and Hetherington infuse some much-welcomed optimism into the divorce debate. Many experts, including Judith Wallerstein, one of the grande dames in the field, paint a far darker picture of what life is like for children of divorce. In her book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, Wallerstein details how many of the children in her study never got over their parents’ divorces and spent years battling emotional, social, and behavioral problems.

They were more likely than children of “intact” families to abuse drugs and alcohol. Often, their substance abuse problems led to poor academic performance. Many of the girls in Wallerstein’s study became sexually active at an early age. And, according to Wallerstein, “children of divorce suffer the most” in adulthood. She writes, “The impact of divorce hits them most cruelly” when, as young adults, “they go in search of love, sexual intimacy and commitment” and have great difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships.

But Wallerstein’s work has come under fire from scholars who question her research methods and the study’s small sample size—sixty families.

Young Kids and Marital Conflict

While researchers dispute whether divorce spells disaster for children, both sides agree that conflict within the family, both pre- and post-divorce, is harmful. “That’s horribly stressful for children,” says Ahrons. “If parents are yelling and screaming, it threatens a child’s sense of stability. And so even a toddler picks up on that kind of tension.”

She divides divorcing couples’ marriages into three basic categories: good-enough, devitalized, and high-conflict. Ahrons writes that the good-enough marriage is one that is “good enough to meet the needs of the children.” The parents’ own problems do not interfere with their parenting.

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.

The Gray Area

The question of whether to stay together for the sake of the children is more difficult for couples who are not in a high-conflict marriage. While there’s no abuse or screaming, the marriage is no longer fulfilling and may even be disappointing. What then?

Wallerstein generally advocates parents staying together except in cases where there is abuse, be it physical, verbal, or emotional. That’s because she believes divorce “erodes” parenting as parents become preoccupied with rebuilding their own lives, and the children suffer as a result. She argues, “There are many unhappy or a little bit unhappy marriages where the parenting is very satisfying and where both parents are really able to cooperate about the children.” Ahrons agrees that children don’t need their parents to have a storybook marriage in order to be good parents. Children need stability.

Ahrons advises people considering divorce to ask themselves: What are my expectations for the marriage and what am I experiencing mentally and emotionally? She says, “Are you getting depressed? If you’re getting depressed, that’s going to have an effect on the marriage and on the kids. What effect is this marriage having on you even though it’s not the yelling-screaming marriage? Is it going to cause you to start having affairs, and is that going to create a crisis later in the relationship? How do you feel it’s affecting you personally?”

Ahrons says couples in an ambiguous marriage should also determine whether they can improve the relationship sufficiently so that it’s satisfying.

“The Good Divorce”

Experts emphasize that divorce will not solve anyone’s problems if parents continue to fight and create a stressful environment for their children. Parents must find ways to work together to meet the needs of their children and to establish a family structure that includes two separate households.

Ahrons, also the author The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart, prefers to talk about divorce in the context of a family being “redefined” rather than “broken up” or “destroyed.” She says that with divorce, “Your family changes, but you still have a family. And it’s the job of the parents to make that work in some way.” It’s critical that parents maintain their bonds with their children and establish a stable post-divorce environment.

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