Staying together “for the children”?

Growing up, I believed that divorce was wrong and completely out of the question. Marriage was for life. Period. When I eventually stopped seeing divorce as a sin, though, I still felt for a long time that even if a marriage wasn’t working, if there were children involved the couple needed to stay together regardless. For the children, right? Over the last few years, though, my thinking on this has changed, and I want to take a moment to explain why.

Let’s imagine that we as a society outlaw divorce because we want couples to stay together “for the children.” In other words, we ask adults to stay in bad relationships, living miserable and unfulfilling lives, so that their children will have happy and ideal childhoods.

But the thing is, children aren’t children forever. Those children will grow up, and then they will be adults asked to stay in bad relationships living miserable and unfulfilling lives. By thinking we are helping those children now, we would be harming them in the future. By curbing adults’ rights in an effort to give children happy lives, we are curbing those children’s future rights. Seen in this way, what is really best “for the children”? Wouldn’t it be better to let those children live slightly less happy childhoods so that, when they grow up, they can live much more happy adult lives?

On a more individual level, what message does a parent send his or her children by choosing to stay in an unhappy marriage? That it’s okay to stay in a bad relationship. That it’s fine to deny oneself fulfillment and happiness. That it’s okay to let someone else walk all over you. That your own needs and desires and hopes and dreams don’t matter, aren’t valuable. Are those the kind of messages someone should send their children? Is that really what’s best “for the children”?

And what happens when a child grows up to realize that his or her parent put up with years of an unhappy and miserable marriage so that he or she could grow up in an intact family? Personally, that would make me feel really guilty. I would feel unreasonably indebted to that parent, but also angry about it – after all, I didn’t ask him or her to give up two decades of happiness for me!

But this all leaves aside an important point – is it actually better for the child for his or her parents to stay together in an unhappy marriage? I haven’t delved into all the research on the subject, but on the gut level I would imagine that while growing up in a two-parent home might be best overall, growing up in a broken home would often be better than growing up in a home with two parents who fight, or that is filled with tension and unhappiness.

I have a college friend whose parents divorced and remarried when she was in grade school, and I asked her once if she wishes they had stayed together. She said no. She said she’s glad they split because it gave them the opportunity to be happy. And you know what? She doesn’t feel like it messed up her childhood at all. Sure, she had two sets of parents and two houses and that could be confusing, but that was it. While not every child of divorce has my friend’s experiences, hearing her story made me realize that the assumption that divorce automatically messes up a kid’s childhood is simply incorrect.

And so, I am no longer a fan of staying together “for the children.” If someone chooses to stay in an unhappy marriage it should be because he or she thinks there is still hope for the relationship, that things can get better, that they can learn to work together and find a way that both partners can be happy and fulfilled – not simply because there are children involved.

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When Marriage Looks Like the Only Escape
Why I Take My Kids to the UU Church
Monogamy Isn't Biblical, It's Roman
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Dianne

    As someone whose parents did stay in an unhappy marriage “for the children”, I’d add one more point to your list of bad lessons that it sends the kids: The lesson that marriage is something that is not fun and that one can’t expect friendship, love, attraction, and enjoyment from one’s partner. Growing up, I thought a marriage partner was someone you tolerated and were polite to, not someone you wanted to be with. If my sister hadn’t broken the pattern and married someone she liked, providing a role model for me, I’m not sure I would ever have gotten it.

    So, no, I don’t think staying together “for the children” is ultimately doing the children much good. Of course, I didn’t experience the alternative-who knows what that would have been like-but I can say that my parents both seem happier now that they are divorced than they did when they were together and that has made my relationship with them much better.

    BTW: I hope I’m not trashing my parents here. They did what they thought was best in the circumstances and given their available choices. Maybe their choices weren’t perfect, but whose ever are?

    • Vernon T

      What you and everyone always miss is that there is a third alternative. We do not need to choose between an unhappy marriage and fighting or divorce. It is possible for most adults who have shared the amazing experience of the creation and raising of children to learn to truly love one another and get along. But it takes maturity, empathy, responsibility and a decided lack of narcism. All of which are lacking in many today, including my Ex wife.

      • Emma

        Well, it’s certainly nice to see someone showing maturity and empathy by trolling blogs for the apparent purpose of trashing his ex. Well done; way to demonstrate those qualities.

  • Eamon Knight

    Another data point: my wife’s parents split up when she was about 12yo. As far as she was concerned, it was a good thing not to have to live with the fighting.

    • Rebecca M

      I agree. My parents waited until I was 21 to initiate proceedings, and all I could think of was that they should have done it much sooner. I was so unhappy all the time, because of the fighting and because of being stuck between two disparate positions on life, the universe, and everything. I spent much of my childhood stressed out and nervous.

    • Elise

      My grandmother’s parents waited until she went to college (Arizona used to be a lot cooler-expecting women to get educated, etc). At the time, the mid 1940s, the parents were doing her a favor: Why subject your daughter to taunts and harassment in the small-town high school?

      But nowadays, with divorce more common, there is no reason to wait. My parents didn’t divorce for other reasons, but if they had divorced, my childhood would have been much happier, and there would have been no social stigma.

  • Joy

    “But this all leaves aside an important point – is it actually better for the child for his or her parents to stay together in an unhappy marriage? I haven’t delved into all the research on the subject, but on the gut level I would imagine that while growing up in a two-parent home might be best overall, growing up in a broken home would often be better than growing up in a home with two parents who fight, or that is filled with tension and unhappiness.”

    Research indicates it depends on the level of conflict in the marriage. Like, if you are unhappy and unfulfilled, but not in a lot of conflict with your spouse, it’s better for the children for you to stay together. If the marriage is full of conflict (especially a lot of fighting), it’s better for the children for you to divorce. Socioeconomically mothers with children are worse off after divorces, so that has to be taken into consideration too. There’s a fine line in here somewhere.

  • Caitlin

    I happen to be very familiar with the research on this topic. Basically, as far as children and divorce:

    1. High levels of conflict are bad for children. If the parents get along reasonably well and just aren’t feeling fulfilled, staying together for the children might not be a bad idea. If they have a lot of conflict, and the divorce will alleviate that, divorce is probably a better alternative.
    2. Women and children are almost always worse off financially when parents divorce. Fathers usually experience a net financial gain.
    3. Some people posit that divorce “causes” behavior problems in children/ While it is true that children of dovroced parents are slightly more likely to have behavior problems, it is not clear whether problems came before of after the divorce. Some divorce scholars posit that children behavior problems may make parents more likely to divorce because of the stress difficult children put on a relationship.
    4. Many fathers lose contact with children after a divorce. Even in states with presumptive joint custody (such as California), physical custody often goes to to the mother, with the “joint” component referring to decision making (not great for parents who divorced because of high levels of conflict in the first place). Only a small minority of mothers receive all of the child support they are due, even among wealthier families. If the father remarries, his financial and emotional focus generally becomes his new family.
    5. Children who experience divorce do experience long term impact on their adult relationships, and most of the impact is negative.

    Of course, these are merely trends and do not address the individual situation of every family. There are some cases in which divorce is undoubtedly far better for children than remaining with unhappily married biological parents. But divorce is not something to be taken lightly, and feeling unfulfilled should probably be addressed seriously and vigorously through counseling before any decisions are made regarding divorce. Situations in which there is violence, on the other hand, should be terminated ASAP.

    If you are interested in reading high-quality social research on divorce, I recommend Andrew Cherlin, Frank Furstenburg, Paul Amato, and Sara McLanahan as good scholars to start with. Some of them are divorced themselves.

    • Alison Cummins

      The formulation of this that I like is, “‘For the sake of the kids’ is a terrible reason to keep a bad marriage together, but it’s a pretty good reason to keep a so-so marriage together.”

  • Amanda

    In my particular circumstance, I went from thinking “We have to stay married; we have children,” to realizing, “I have to get a divorce, because these children cannot grow up thinking this is normal.”

    I have to agree with the premise that if it’s a case of ennui without external conflict, then perhaps folks should stick it out until the kids are older. Relationships have cycles, and it seems to me that it’s only fair to give that cycle a chance to turn. But in my experience with a high-conflict relationship, the benefits to separation were immense and immediate, even with the financial and logistical struggles that brought.

    My only regret is that I didn’t leave sooner.

  • Gordon

    My parents split when I was three, I had a wonderful childhood.

  • smrnda

    Plenty of people I know whose parents divorced were happy since their parents weren’t getting along and it drastically reduced the level of conflict. One friend mentioned how his parents divorcing and remarrying gave him a large, supportive family.

    The people who oppose divorce don’t view marriage as something that you do to be happy; they view it as something you do according to a formula where your own feelings don’t count. The whole ‘marriage is about God not about us’ philosophy which reduces a ‘marriage’ to just playing house.

    I actually think religions are anti-marriage in the sense that they are against people working out their relationships for themselves and on their own terms – they want some control and want to be a wedge between the couple, telling them what they should do.

    • Emily

      The ideas you express in paragraphs two and three are completely opposite of my reading and experience. Every Christian marriage book I’ve ever read (by authors Cloud and Townsend, Gary Thomas, Kevin Leman, Gary Chapman, Les and Leslie Parrott) emphasizes being the best expression of yourself as a human being, and holds individuals’ feelings in high regard. These authors are all very PRO “people working out their relationships for themselves and on their own terms.” While happiness is not regarded as the primary purpose of marriage in these books (and in many Christian circles), contentment, acceptance, love, fulfillment, and peace are. I’ve never heard a formula promoted at a seminar or in a book. That said, I have plenty of concerns about gendered assumptions some of these authors make.

      • Nathaniel

        Its easy to SAY they are for happiness and marital joy.

        The real test is when you ask these people under what circumstances divorce is acceptable.

    • Elise

      Traditionally, childrearing is done by a community. In a way, then, a (probably) young child of divorce gets to grow up in a more traditional way of many grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, and other familial support.

      Interesting comment about that, Smrnda!

  • Ginny

    A friend of mind used to hope, whenever her parents sat her down for a family talk, that they were going to announce plans to divorce. They fought all the time and were obviously unhappy. They did indeed divorce once the kids were out of the house, and she told them repeatedly she wished they’d done it sooner.

    I often wonder how hard it must be to develop a model for a healthy adult relationship if you’ve grown up with parents who are obviously unhappy with each other.

  • Stony

    My parents stayed together for the sake of the last child, me, until I left home. (Being a smart child, I left home at 16, which put me out into the world way way too early, but I survived fairly well.) The nicest thing my parents ever did for each other once the marriage was broken beyond hope of repair was to leave each other. It’s beyond hope of repair when one, the other or both don’t want to fix it any longer.

    • Kristen inDallas

      “wanting” or “not wanting” to do something is a fairly easy position to change if you understand what freewill really means.

  • onamission5

    My grandparents did stay together for the children.

    Their children, even some 40+ years later, really wish they hadn’t. Hearing your parents fight behind closed doors and witnessing the silent treatment between them for 18 years straight does not a happy, secure childhood make. Kids are not blissfully unaware of goings on in the adult world just because they are young, or put on a brave face. They take it all in, and it affects them for life. All too often, unhappy parents make for unhappy kids, who grow into unhappy adults, who often likewise raise unhappy children.

  • WordSpinner

    I think the effects of divorce are also modified by how the parents go about the divorce. I had a friend in elementary school whose parents were divorced but got along well, and she lived alternate weeks with both parents. I think that is a lot less damaging than divorces where one parent disappears for whatever reason or where the parents use the child as a weapon/messenger, but I can’t help but think that couples that can communicate that effectively are less likely to divorce.

    • Amethyst

      And if one parent disappears after the divorce and/or uses a child as a weapon, you have to wonder what kind of parent they were before the divorce anyway. Is it worth it to keep someone like that in your child’s life just so they have two married parents?

      • lucrezaborgia

        Sometimes, one parent disappears because of the machinations of the other parent. I have a close friend who divorced his wife a couple years ago and she’s been doing whatever she can to make him disappear and merely be a walking wallet. Taking him to court over and over again all year long for silly things yet each time she seems to whittle away his time with the kids as our local court system is very slanted towards women. She did the exact same thing with the father of her 2 eldest children and spent the first 4 years of marriage to him doing it. Finally he said enough and walked away.

    • Elise

      That’s exactly how my friend did it. She and her ex made sure to live in the same town, and although she is still single and he married, all three parents get together and talk things through. The dad, wife, and half-siblings are moving to the next state over because of the economy–and they all handled it like a family.

  • Minnie

    I wish my mother had divorced my father when I was born, he treated her and me like shit on the bottom of his christian man cowboy boots. My sister and me are afraid of marriage because we see how our mother was in an awful position, we have always seen marriage as bondage. My mother was the little good stay at home submissive christian wife. My mother was trapped, my father could do and say anything he pleased to her and there was nothing she could do about it, she had no money, no education.

    My mother was in hell, my sister was in hell, I was in hell, and my pig father was on cloud nine, all that mattered to him was his self-centric christian man power trip over three females. He was very proud of him self for being born a man, he loved informing me as a little girl that he was boss of my mother, and he married her because she had big breast.

    What kind of man has to tell a little girl under the age of ten that he is the boss of his wife and the reason he married his wife is because she had big boobs? Answer, a christian, conservative, republican, sothern baptist, family values man that is who.
    Some times watching your parents marriage makes you never want to get married yourself. I believe marriage is toxic.

    • Rosie

      Minnie, I can understand your aversion to marriage. My own experience wasn’t anywhere near that extreme, but I still wouldn’t want to be in my parents’ marriage. What I did come to realize, after several years on my own, is that I can get into a relationship and *my partner and I can make that look like whatever we want it to be*. Yes, we did eventually sign a paper and are legally “married”, but our marriage is what we make it, and it has nothing at all to do with what our parents think “marriage” has to be. (Just to give you some idea, we’ve ditched strict gender roles and monogamy, and have chosen to be child-free…because we wanted to.)

      • Rosie

        I also have come to realize that time frames shorter than “the rest of our lives” are a completely viable option for a relationship.

  • anon

    My parents stayed together for a few years before engaging in an ugly divorce. The fact of their separation forced me to shift my perception of how families are “supposed to” function and was a point of disillusionment for me, but the real scarring came from seeing what two people I loved were truly capable of doing to each other – the calculated manipulations and petty spite and zealous hysteria and so on. It’s predictable that divorce correlates with trauma, but ultimately they simply have a common root cause: seeing good people turn to shit. A divorce can be handled with honesty and integrity, and no problems should occur if spouses unhappy with each other merely realize this and separate while behaving as mature adults instead of as children.

    • Liberated Liberal

      Exactly. Divorce does not do anything to explain the dynamics between the two people doing the divorcing: their behavior, attitude, maturity, respect, and the way they choose to interact with each other and the rest of the family.

      To say that divorce “causes” anything is disingenuous and an abuse of statistics, as there is no way of finding data points that explain all of the down and dirty behavior that occurred before, during and after the divorce. It also doesn’t take into account the personality or circumstances of the children.

      The behavior that you explain seeing your parents exhibit has got to be extraordinarily painful. You are in the middle, and you love both. I’m sorry you went through that.

  • Ismenia

    The other problem with the whole, staying together for the children attitude is that it ignores the fact that it needs both parents to try to make the marriage work. Yes, it’s better for parents to discuss things, to work out problems etc. but if one party absolutely will not discuss or compromise then the other has little choice. The anti-divorce approach stigmatises the one who left even if they put up with a lot of crap for years.

    That’s before we consider abusive families where it as a highly commendable action to remove the children from that environment.

  • John Small Berries

    The whole “staying together for the sake of the children” outlook misses two very important facts: the parents doing so are rarely good enough actors to pretend, convincingly and continually, that their relationship is healthy and happy; and kids aren’t unaffected by the relationship between their parents.

    My parents stayed together “for the sake of the children” for years. They made our lives miserable: the constant fighting; the anger frequently taken out on us kids; the back-and-forth power struggles to get us on their side; the ever-present (and precedented) fear that we would say or do something that would trigger another round between them. When they finally got divorced, all that stopped. I wish they’d done it years earlier.

    A two-parent household full of hatred and anger is so much worse for a kid than a single-parent household without it. At least from the point of someone who experienced both.

  • Kristen inDallas

    You’re looking at this in a completely juvenile way. It’s not a choice between modeling unhappiness to your kids and divorce. There are 3 options: 1) Model for children an unhealthy relationship (by being selfish an only seeing your own hardship in every fight) 2) Model for children an unhealthy fear of committment (by being selfish and seeing only your own happiness in every flight) or 3) model a HEALTHY relationship by getting over yourself and doing what you need to do to make it work in a way that you are proud to let your kids overhear.
    I’m not wishing my parents had stayed together fighting for the next 10 years… but if would have been nice if they had tried to be adults and get over the same stupid fight that they had been having for the previous 10 years. (Even at 8, I knew they were both being ridiculously stubborn and one sided. Had either one of them bothered to say “I’m sorry, how can we make this work?”… but I guess I’ll never know that. At the very least an acknowledgement when they split up to me and my sister that “this isn’t what it’s supposed to be… we should have tried harder but we’re weak.” would have been nice. As it went, they set me up for some bunk fantasy that marriages are supposed to be easy and perfect and my partner should have to do everything to make them work and if it fails it’s not my fault.” I had to learn the fallacy of that lesson the hard way (thankfully with no children put through the wringer with us). But seriously getting a divorce because you can’t figure out how to get along is about as good for a kid’s understanding of real world relationships as a lifetime of Disney movies.

    • smrnda

      I feel for you having been through that, but I don’t think that willpower alone can make a marriage work. People can make compromises, but every compromise requires effort, and too many can be overwhelming. I probably sound a bit pessimistic, but after watching some marriages work and others fall apart I’ve come to think that the least significant factor in keeping people together is a conscious commitment.

      I’ve seen marriages that work, and a major factor was that both people were stable, mature adults who knew what they wanted. They put a lot of thought into who they ended up with so they kind of screened potential partners for possible points of conflict before they even became serious about each other. Most couples that I know who have ‘good’ marriages are really compatible and don’t have to really make many compromises to keep each other happy.

      Then I’ve seen a lot of marriages that didn’t work, and if you see a marriage like that what’s strange is how obvious the incompatibilities can be to everybody else but not the two people involved. Part of this might just be a difference in levels of impulsiveness, the same with any other kind of choice. You can make things work with compromise sometimes, but the fewer the compromises the easier the marriage is probably an iron law.

    • Lucy Mayne

      Kristen inDallas,

      The thing about compromises is that both people need to be willing to make them. You imply that if only people would try harder, they wouldn’t need to divorce. Among other things, one of my parents has never once, to my knowledge, apologiesd for anything. If that parent has really messed up, ze might make a peace overture, but never an appology or an admission of wrongdoing. This makes my relationship with that parent difficult, and I can see how it contributed to making marriage difficult. Both people need to be prepared to put work in, one person’s willpower cannot salvage the situation, except if that person denies him or herself completely for the sake of the marriage. Even if both people are prepared to try hard, it doesn’t mean that things will work.

    • Noelle

      Not everyone can pretend they don’t hate each other for 60+ years.

      I’m happy in my marriage. I wouldn’t say we’ve never argued about anything. But it’s never been some dramatic thing where we’ve had to sit down and work out peace treaties. I can’t imagine doing that day after day for my entire life. My husband and are a lot alike. We have similar personalities. We like doing enough of the same things it’s not a conflict. We agreed years before we had children in what the arrangement for childcare would be. (I work, he stays home with the kids. I make 8 times what he did, so it doesn’t male sense for me to stay home. He could go back to work if he wanted, but we both like having him available). He worked and supported us while I finished my degree and training. We’re both good with money, but he’s more OCD about numbers so he follows the finances. We both work hard to keep the household going.

      But we don’t hate eachother and don’t fight constantly. If you heard your parents not work things out which seemed simple at the time to you, it could be they didn’t like each other and weren’t compatable enough to keep it up. You can’t just put 2 random people together and expect them to live together for a lifetime because they agreed to do it once.

      My parents divorced when I was 4. I’m glad. They were bad for each other and never could’ve worked things out. My husband’s parents waited until he was a teenager and made everyone miserable for years.

  • Lucy Mayne

    My parents stayed together “for the children”, and separated in my first year of uni. Mum had tried to leave about three years earlier, but in the end didn’t, I think mainly because of the “for the children” argument. I am so glad they divorced. Dad has re-married, and Mum is in a stable relationship. Both are much happier and more pleasant to be around than they were when they were together.

    Growing up in a situation where your parents are constantly arguing, and show very little affection, admiration, or even enjoyment of each other’s company is not good for the children. My parents should have separated years before they did.

  • saraquill

    My parents’ divorce was not a good thing for me. My mom took the divorce very badly, and behaved in such a way that my middle school self had to show more responsibility than the actual adult. The worst part though, was the multi-year campaign she conducted to try and turn me against my dad. If I ever got unhappy with her, she would call me an ingrate because my dad is a heinous person. I failed to believe it, which only got me madder.

    Towards the end of my parent’s marriage, their relationship fizzled out to the point that they were just sharing a living space. There were some fights, but there was much more peace pre-divorce than after.

  • Dawn

    I stayed with my (now ex-) husband for the children. NOT because I felt they would do better in a intact family but because I knew my ex-MIL would totally mess with their heads if I left before they had acquired the mental strength to deal with it (she does that – once you get on her bad side, you are the very worst person in the whole world, and she never has a good word to say about you. I wouldn’t expose my kids to that forcing them to choose between my ex and me to make her happy. As adults, they can deal with it by choosing when and where they interact with her.)

    My ex-husband wasn’t a bad person and we had a lot of good times together. And we still are friendly and very civil. (As I tell people – he’s not a bad guy and I like him – I just don’t love him the way he wants and (and like anyone) deserves to be loved). We would have made great room mates if we hadn’t gotten married. But I don’t regret it – I have great kids. And they are happy that we are both happier – I’m a much calmer happier person. I’m sure, like most (not all) kids, they wish we hadn’t divorced. But since they are adults themselves, in stable relationships, I think they recognize what is good and what was bad about ours. And when the bad began to outweigh the good, we ended it before there was no good left.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    My parents are far from perfect, but they did separation totally right. There was a lot of hurt feelings and anger, but they put all that aside and called each other every week to talk about me, to make sure they both knew what was going on in my life, and to parent as a team.

    I was 4 when they separated, so I don’t really have any memories of them together. But I do remember having fantastic step-parents. When I was in ballet, most of my friends (whose parents were married) would have one parent – usually their mother – in the audience at our recitals. I usually had four parents. I used to call my step-mom “momma two” and someone once asked my mom if that bothered her. Her response? “The more people out there who love my daughter, the better.” And that’s exactly what my experience was – I was truly loved by four engaged and awesome parents.

    Few people in “intact” households can say they even have two fully engaged parents. I don’t feel like I was deprived by having separated parents in any way.