Should You Stay Together for the Kids?

Upset girl sitting alone while parents quarrel in the background
fizkes / Getty Images

There is no clear and easy answer to the age-old question of whether you should stay in a troubled marriage for the sake of the kids. It's important 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 not together.

Risks of Staying Together 

Parenting experts point to a number of negative effects on children raised in a family characterized by frequent anger, frustration, and pain. At the top of the list is that kids learn dysfunctional parenting skills that they carry on to the next generation.

Research also shows that children may lead less successful lives as adults when they are raised in a home with constant conflict, stress, and unhappiness. One study notes that children of married parents with high levels of conflict are "no better off, and in fact may fare worse in some respects, than children of single parents."

In addition, children who grow up in high-conflict families can have difficulty in the following areas:

  • Developing positive self-esteem
  • Forming and maintaining relationships
  • Managing emotions
  • Trusting others

Some kids say they are relieved when their parents finally divorce, as everyone ends up happier in the long run. Plus, each parent often gets to enjoy more one-on-one time with their kids after a divorce.

Ex-spouses who receive support and work on healing after their divorce usually end up in a better place mentally and emotionally. They may actually have a healthier relationship with their kids as a single parent than if they had stayed in a bad marriage.

The nature of the divorce and the parents' relationship afterward are prime factors in how kids fare in the years to come. If the parents can communicate, show respect for one another, and place the kids' best interests above their own when making decisions, children can do remarkably well after divorce.

Another risk of staying in a bad marriage just for the kids is that children may be at risk of neglect when parents are preoccupied with their own issues. Neglect can be physical, such as not providing healthy meals or avoiding parenting duties. It can also be emotional, such as when parents won't attend important events together for their child or a parent is unwilling or unable to comfort their child due to their own emotional stress.

Sometimes parents can't raise their children in a loving environment together. If co-parenting would be better served living in different homes, that may be an indication that divorce would be the best option.

Value of Staying Together 

In years past, parenting experts advised married couples to stay together regardless of the quality of their relationship. While that advice has changed somewhat based on newer research, parental divorce does involve significant risks for children.

According to one study, children of divorced parents attain lower educational status, make less income, and have lower-level jobs compared with children from intact families. These factors combine to enhance the risk of divorce for children.

If parents can remain civil and work together to parent, even if they are sad or lonely, and avoid exposing the children to conflicts, co-parenting under the same roof may be feasible. But while parenting inherently requires sacrificing your own desires for the needs of your children, effectively and lovingly parenting children while living in a miserable marriage can be too big an ask.

Significant emotional investment into creating a new and stronger bond between parents in an intact family is beneficial for everyone. However, couples need to communicate openly and clearly to decide whether they are both committed to that course of action.

Making the Decision

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

Is There Abuse?

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 absolutely necessary.

While abusive behavior can be changed and corrected, such changes are infrequent and uncommon.

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

In addition to child abuse, spousal abuse including physical, verbal, emotional, and financial abuse also warrants a reevaluation of the marriage. Mistreatment between parents is damaging not only to the parent being abused but also to the children who witness it.

If you are living with abuse, don't wait to address the issue. As long as you feel safe, approach your spouse about their behavior and see if they are open to making changes. If you don't see indications that they are willing to improve how they treat you, it may be time to consider separation or divorce. Your safety and your children's safety must be your top priority.

Divorce is a very personal decision, and no one can tell you what's right because no one knows your spouse and marriage like you do. It is important, however, to think about the example your children are seeing if you allow any form of abusive behavior to continue.

Kids who are raised in abusive homes often perpetuate the same dysfunctional behaviors they witnessed growing up.

If you ever feel that you or your children are in immediate danger, call 911 or your local abuse hotline to find a shelter where you can temporarily stay. There you'll have a safe environment to work through the details of separation or divorce with your spouse.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Can You Cooperate as Parents?

One of the key issues when determining the fate of a marriage is whether the parents can agree to put their personal marital satisfaction on hold for the children's sake. This is a tall order and not always possible, but it's worth exploring before making a final decision.

If spouses can co-parent positively and keep their personal differences at bay for the sake of the kids, their children may 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 to the point of being irreparable. Has the couple sought help from competent family therapists, clergy, or other similar resources?

Has the couple followed trusted advice? Has there been marital infidelity? Have there been efforts made to rebuild trust?

Prior to divorcing and enduring the stress that divorce creates, it's important for couples to make a good faith effort to restore the marriage bond. Whether the spouses are willing and able to make that effort to rebuild their marriage for the sake of the children is an important question.

If Divorce Becomes Inevitable

The key challenge when parents divorce 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 more conducive to raising children who can thrive into adulthood.

A Word From Verywell

Deciding whether to divorce or stay in a troubled marriage is complicated, and it's even more difficult when you have children. You must think of not only your own needs and desires but those of your kids as well.

Know that you are not alone in this situation; many couples go through difficult times in their marriage and many are able to work it out and stay together. Other times, that's not possible.

If divorce is the path you decide to take, there are many resources available to help you navigate the process and create a new life for you and your children. Your family needs to have hope for a positive future, whether that's in one home or two.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Brand JE, Moore R, Song X, Xie Y. Parental divorce is not uniformly disruptive to children’s educational attainment. PNAS. 2019;116(15):7266-7271. doi:10.1073/pnas.1813049116

  2. Al Ubaidi, BA. Cost of growing up in dysfunctional family. J Fam Med Dis Prev 2017;3(3). doi:10.23937/2469-5793/1510059

  3. McDermott R, Fowler J, Christakis N. Breaking up is hard to do, unless everyone else is doing it too: social network effects on divorce in a longitudinal sample. Soc Forces. 2013;92(2):491-519. doi:10.1093/sf/sot096

By Wayne Parker
Wayne's background in life coaching along with his work helping organizations to build family-friendly policies, gives him a unique perspective on fathering.