Should I stay in an unhealthy marriage for the kids?

Written By Kara Francis

Divorce impacts all aspects of your life. Perhaps the most concerning aspect is how the divorce will affect your children. You may be worried that children whose parents divorce are negatively impacted for the rest of their lives. Like you’re setting them up for a lifetime of failure and unhappiness. And it’s completely understandable you would feel that way.

Many societal, cultural and religious beliefs portray a happy marriage and nuclear, intact families as the ultimate goal in life. Long-standing married couples symbolize success and achievement. Conversely, when marriages end, it is often portrayed as a negative and life-damaging event, for both the parents and their children. When parents split, it often symbolizes failure and mistakes, even if all family members are actually in a better place.

For example, consider the book “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study” by psychologist Judith Wallerstein, published in 2001. Based on her study, she reported that children whose parents divorced in the early 1970’s felt like their relationships were doomed, sought to avoid conflict, and feared commitment as adults. She identified divorce as the cause of these problems, rather than the mental health of the parents, conflict in the home, the family’s financial situation, and all of the other myriad factors that go into how a child is raised and functions as an adult.

In subsequent years, other researchers have identified several flaws in Wallerstein’s methodology and challenged her conclusions, including the fact that there was no comparison group for her study. However, the societal and cultural impact of her book still carries forward to this day.

So, not only do you feel guilty and ashamed for not being able to make your marriage work on a personal level, but you have the added guilt and shame of feeling like you failed your children and are screwing them up forever. You are likely also feeling the pressure of what it truly means to be a single parent. All of these scary thoughts and feelings can cause you to stay together for the kids, for far longer than you should (even forever).

But is staying together for the kids really the best route for your family?

No question, divorce is a stressor and can cause emotional and behavioral issues for many children in the short term. After all, divorce changes a child’s daily routine and everything they have learned about their little world so far.

However, children are much more resilient than we give them credit for. Once a child adjusts to the immediate family structure changes that stem from the divorce (the new parenting schedule, two homes, no longer seeing their parents together under the same roof, spending more or less time with one parent, etc.), those difficulties typically decrease over time, and the child can cope reasonably well. In fact, this child tends to fare better than a child of a high-conflict family in which the parents stayed married for many years.

Divorce can certainly have some long-term effects on the child as well, such as feelings of sadness, regret, “missing out,” or not having the same type of family life as their peers. This is similar to the impact of other challenging life events experienced in childhood, such as losing a parent. The child of divorced parents simply views themself, relationships, and the world through a different lens, which is expected and makes complete sense based on their experience.

However, long-term effects are very different from long-term psychological problems and disruptive behaviors, which impact the child’s ability to function in everyday life, both as a child and an adult. Where things go astray for the child is not the fact that their parents got divorced, but HOW their parents got divorced. More recent research shows that divorce – in and of itself – is not the source of long-term psychological difficulties for children. Rather, it’s the CONTEXT of the divorce that determines how children will cope and whether they will have serious long-term problems.

The most critical factor is the level of marital conflict and the child’s exposure to the conflict. If a child is consistently exposed to conflict between their parents, it can cause distress and mental health problems for the child. Not only does conflict cause the child to feel stressed and anxious generally, it can also cause issues with the child’s self regulation of emotions, it models a lack of respect for others, and it can cause the child to have difficulty trusting others and believing in the possibility of healthy and loving adult relationships. Parental conflict can also make the child feel guilty or responsible for the fight, as well as make the child feel like they must choose sides and be loyal to one parent over the other parent.

Other factors that can have negative effects on the child’s long-term health: each parent’s mental health and style of raising children, which impacts the overall nature and quality of the parent-child relationship; the financial situation of the family, particularly low-income families who lack necessary resources and support; and the child’s unique makeup and ability to perceive events and adapt to change in general.

What is notable is that all of these factors can exist with or WITHOUT divorce. The fact that divorce may co-exist with these issues does not make divorce the culprit. The two parents who are in the marriage are the cause of these issues, NOT the divorce.

The irony of the decision to stay in a bad marriage to protect the children is this: Sacrificing your dreams and needs in order to stay married, and not prioritizing your mental, emotional and physical health, can actually cause MORE harm to the very people you were trying to protect in the first place: your children.

This is because you are modeling to your children that they should stay in a bad relationship, even if it is loveless, non-supportive, co-dependent, toxic, or even dangerous. And if one thing is for certain, children notice everything.

In fact, some children of high-conflict parents feel a sense of relief when their parents finally decide to get divorced, because it eliminates the constant arguing and tension in the home. And, a child is much happier and benefits much more if they can see their parents be happy, even if it means their parents are no longer married.

A final thought: Just because a child grows up with parents in a healthy marriage who never got divorced, this does not mean the child will not experience difficulty in their own adult relationships in the future. Take it from me: I grew up in a traditional, nuclear family who attended church every Sunday, and my parents are still happily married to this day. And yet, I experienced my own relationship conflict and divorce as an adult, as did one of my siblings.

Instead of focusing on how divorce may negatively impact your children, try asking yourself these questions:

  • How will staying in this marriage negatively impact my children?
  • Would I want my own child to stay in this type of marriage?
  • How can I model healthy relationships for my children – not just relationships with other people, but most importantly, my relationship with myself?
  • How can I make my children feel safe, loved and supported during the divorce process?
  • What types of co parenting skills will best serve my children in the long run?
  • How can I remain civil with my co parent for the well being of my children?
  • What type of support do both my children and I need to navigate the marital dissolution process and our new life in the most healthy way possible?
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