Should Parents Stay in an Unhappy Marriage for the Kids?

Should Parents Stay in an Unhappy Marriage for the Kids? May 23, 2018

By far, this is one of the most commonly asked questions about divorce. It’s a complex and controversial topic and there are no right or wrong answers.

The reason why this question is so difficult to answer is because every family is different and the degree of conflict in a marriage and post-divorce relationships play a large role in children’s adjustment. For the most part, divorcing parents haven’t been getting along for some time prior to separating and their adversarial relationship has negatively impacted their kids for some time.

Whether parents should stay together for the sake of their children depends to a large degree on the level of stress and disruption in family relationships that often go along with an unhappy or conflictual marriage.

An important question is: would the well-being of my children be enhanced by my divorce? If the answer is yes, then a divorce can be advantageous. However, if divorce will expose your children to diminished resources, such as more conflict and more difficulty parenting, the answer may be to stay with your spouse – at least for the time-being (unless there is abuse) and to attempt to get counseling.

How are you coping?

You’ll have a good gauge about whether your marriage is having a negative impact on your kids if you honestly answer this question: does my partner bring out my best self and are we good role-models for our children?

Divorce experts agree that a parent who has a reduced ability to cope with the stressors of life due to an abusive, extremely unhappy or high-conflict marriage is not well-suited to be a competent parent. It’s obvious that a happy parent raises well-adjusted kids who thrive.

What is the level of conflict in your marriage?

Another thing that all divorce researchers agree upon is that the level of conflict among family members matters a great deal when it comes to looking at the adjustment of children. In her landmark book For Better or For Worse, Dr. E. Mavis Hetherington explains that while divorce might cause a huge disruption in the family – by two years later, stabilization and parenting skills have usually improved. It’s clear that conflict between parents, whether it occurs in an intact, divorced, or remarried family is associated with a wide range of negative effects for children that may be ongoing.

In her thirty years of research involving 1,400 families,  Dr. Hetherington discovered that the type of conflict children experience in their home is crucial to their overall adjustment. She notes that high-conflict that involves the child, is physically violent, threatening or abusive, and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle, has the most adverse consequences for children.

Here is a summary of findings regarding whether it is better for parents to stay in an unhappy marriage for the sake their children:

  • Divorce is painful but sometimes necessary if a child is exposed to certain types of conflict or abuse. At times, the well-being of a child is enhanced after divorce but every family situation is unique.  Whether a child will benefit or be harmed by divorce depends on how many resources and stressors are present.
  • Avoid exposing your child to high-conflict that involves the child, is physically violent, threatening or abusive; and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle. Attempt to practice joint custody or shared parenting if you divorce because research shows that children in these situations fare better than those in sole-custody situations (given there isn’t any abuse).
  • Minimize adversarial interactions and encourage positive bonds between both yourself and your children after a divorce. This is especially important for fathers and daughters since this is the relationship that’s most vulnerable to disruption after divorce, according to Linda Nielsen.
  • If you choose to stay in an unhappy marriage seek counseling and resources for yourself and other family members. Take responsibility for your part in the conflict or dispute. One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship.

Many factors determine whether or not unhappy parents should stay in a marriage for the sake of the children. Whether you decide to split or not, it’s wise to consider marriage counseling before you throw in the towel. If you choose to divorce, take comfort in the fact that most children of divorce are resilient and show good adjustment in the long run. With patience and hard work some marriages improve over time – if both partners see themselves as part of a team, avoid blaming each other, and cultivate an atmosphere of admiration, respect, and tolerance.

 Twitter, Facebook, and Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.

I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry 

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