Should You Stay Together for the Kids?

Close-up of a young boy (8-10) eating a bowl of cereal with parents standing in the background.
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There is no clear and easy answer to the age-old question of whether you should stay married for the sake of the kids. The bottom line is to try to figure out whether the children would be better off in a home where their parents are unhappy together or in two homes where parents are happier but just not together.

Risks of Staying Together 

A number of parenting experts see one of the major risks to children of staying in a family that is loaded with anger, frustration, and pain is that they learn bad parenting skills that they will carry on to the next generation. Parents who can't deal civilly with conflict or who contradict one another's parenting decisions model an ineffective and potentially damaging style.

Some children may be at risk of neglect when parents are overly wrapped up in their own issues.

Neglect may be physical (not taking time for healthy meals or being so angry that the parents check out of parenting) or emotional (parents won't go together to important events for the child or they may try individually to alienate the child from the other parent).

If parents can't live together in the same home without working effectively together as co-parents, and if co-parenting would be better served living in different homes, that may be one indication that divorce would be a better option.

Value of Staying Together 

Judith Wallerstein, the author of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, is convinced, based on her research, that children are almost always better off if the family remains intact, even if the parents are no longer in love.

If parents can remain civil and work together to parent, even if they are sad or lonely, and can avoid exposing the children to fights and squabbles, then co-parenting under the same roof is better. But while parenting clearly is a sacrifice of one's self for one's children, living in a miserable marriage for ten or more years can be quite a bit to ask.

Wallerstein's research found that the effects of divorce on children, and particularly among these children who grow up to adulthood, are so devastating emotionally that parents should stay together at virtually any cost. In her view, a marriage kept together for the kids is better than the best divorce.

Making the Decision

There are lots of factors to consider when making a decision about divorce. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

Is There Abuse?

In general, parenting experts agree that children should not be kept in a family where there is ​abuse of any kind. If a child is living with a parent who is abusing them sexually, physically, or emotionally, divorce is necessary. While it is clear that abusive behavior can be changed and corrected, it is also clear that such changes are infrequent.

There are certainly cases where an offending parent can get help, learn better parenting skills, and change their abusive behavior, and in those cases, a separation may be in order. But when behavior is not changing, children must be protected from abuse.

Can You Cooperate as Parents?

One of the key issues is whether the parents can agree to put their personal marital satisfaction on hold for the children's sake. It is a tall order, but it is what we sign on for when we decide to become parents.

So if the parents have the maturity level needed to put the children first, co-parent positively, and to keep their personal differences at bay for the sake of the kids, their kids will have an advantage if their parents stay together. If not, the kids may be better served through an amicable divorce.

Can Your Marriage Be Repaired?

Perhaps the most critical question is whether the marriage has deteriorated so far as to be irreparable.

Has the couple sought help from competent family therapists, clergy, or other similar resources? Has the couple followed good advice? Has there been marital infidelity? Have there been efforts made to rebuild trust? Prior to divorcing and enduring the extreme stress that divorce creates, couples need to do all that they can to restore the marriage bond.

In the end, whether the marriage can be restored and rebuilt for the sake of the children is maybe the most important question. Significant emotional investment into creating a new and stronger bond between parents in an intact family is what really should happen, whenever possible, for the sake of the children.

If Divorce Becomes Inevitable

Research from E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly in For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered suggests that nearly 80% of all children of divorced parents end up as happy and as well adjusted as children from intact families, so if the divorce and subsequent co-parenting go well, the kids may well be fine.

The key challenge is making sure that both parents can work together for the sake of the children in parenting them effectively. Such an attitude and commitment make the process of divorce a bit less painful and a little more conducive to raising successful children.

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4 Sources
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  1. Çetinkaya Ş, Erçin E. The psychological problems seen in the children of divorced parents and the nursing approach concerning these problems. In: Pediatric Nursing, Psychiatric and Surgical Issues, Ozdemir O ed. IntechOpen, 2015. doi:10.5772/59166

  2. Wallerstein JS, Lewis JM, Blakeslee S. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study. Hachette Books, 2001.

  3. Wallerstein JS, Lewis JM. The unexpected legacy of divorce: Report of a 25-year studyPsychoanal Psychol. 2004;21(3):353-370. doi:10.1037/0736-9735.21.3.353

  4. Hetherington EM, Kelly J. For Better Or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. Norton, 2003.