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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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.