Should Couples Stay in an Adversarial Marriage for the Sake of Their Children?

By far, this is one of the most commonly asked questions my clients ask me. The reason why this question is so difficult to answer is because every family is different and one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to divorce. Also, the degree of conflict in a marriage plays a large role in children’s divorce adjustment.

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 improved 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).

What is the degree of conflict in your marriage?

Another thing that all 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 overall. In her landmark book For Better or For WorseDr. 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 matters. 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.

The main finding highlighted by Dr. Hetherington is this: while parental divorce may expose children to more risk factors for subsequent social and psychological problems, that association is moderate and the majority of youth (75%) reach adulthood as well-functioning individuals.

Here is a summary of findings regarding whether it is better for parents to stay in a stressful 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.
  • Don’t expose 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.
  • Contemplate your child’s vulnerability to suffering negative consequences of divorce if it occurs. These factors include: the child’s temperament, gender, and a consistent parenting plan that considers the emotional, social, and academic needs of the child.
  • Consider the advantages 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).
  • 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 Dr. Linda Nielsen.
  • If you decide to stay in an unhappy marriage it’s a good idea to seek individual and/or couples counseling. Take responsibility for your part in the conflict or dispute and stop the “blame game.” Apologize to your partner when appropriate. Be sure to make the apology specific and heartfelt. This will validate your partner’s feelings, encourage their forgiveness and allow you both to move on. Never apology in a cheap or inauthentic way by saying things like, “I’m so sorry you got so upset at me.” It’s better to say something like, “I’m so sorry for spending money on a trip with my sister without telling you, I won’t ever do this again.”

Research shows that many factors determine whether or not unhappy parents should stay in a marriage for the sake of the children. Whether you decide to divorce or not, it’s wise to consider marriage counseling before you make a decision.

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. On the other hand, with patience and hard work (and perhaps counseling) some marriages improve over time. The key factors that promote healthy and cultivate an atmosphere of admiration, respect, and tolerance between parents. Also, do your best to maintain a low stress home and minimize adversarial interactions in front of your children.

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