If you are in an unhappy marriage, is it better to stay married just for the sake of the children–or to divorce? Are the effects of divorce on children always negative? What really is best for the children?
Mary is a successful professional who works with couples in the throes of separation and divorce, helping them to separate with as much dignity and respect as possible, and as little harm as possible.
Besides extensive training and education for this work, Mary brings the painful experience of helplessly watching her parents’ marriage self-destruct.
The usual marriage-enders had been there since she was about eight. Mary recalls the late-night shouting, the blaming and criticism, the defensiveness and the utter contempt at times each seemed to hold for the other. She recalls the icy silences and her mother crying. The parents tried to hide or deny their unhappiness, but children always know.
Mary loved her father, but from about age nine she began to pray that her father would leave. He stayed and the conflict continued. Mary was at university when her parents finally divorced.
Mary resented both her parents for staying together and putting her and her brothers through all that turmoil. It took her another ten years and a couple of children of her own to get past that.
So why did her parents stay together in a marriage that was not working? Their explanation was they did it “for the sake of the children.” They didn’t want to “unravel the family.”
Many couples manage to turn a souring relationship around through counselling, but often the deterioration has gone beyond the point of no return before they seek counselling.
What is the damage from staying?
When children under ten see their parents in open conflict, they tend to blame themselves. They tend to put their own lives on hold. As they get older, they may just withdraw and become increasingly isolated from one or both parents.
A few will develop behaviour problems: acting out, defiance, deteriorating grades, bullying, etc.
However, the biggest long-term damage comes from their internalizing what they see modeled. It is the parental modeling that years later leads to the 26-year-old mother handling conflict with her husband by screaming at him, or her husband handling conflict by bullying. It is what they saw their parents do. At an intuitive level, they don’t know any other ways of resolving family conflict.
What is the damage from separating?
The issue for the children’s health and development is not whether the parents are together or apart, but how well they handle conflict. If separating gives them space to cool down and co-parent with mutual respect, the children, as children, will be better off than when their parents were together.
Later, as adult children of parents who were separated, they can draw on a model that says you don’t have to go down with a sinking ship. Their parents didn’t unravel the family by separating. Rather, they separated because the family had already unraveled.
Would you want your daughter or son to stay in a chronically unhappy marriage? Then be careful what you model.