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Should You Stay Together for the Kids?

When you have kids, the most difficult part of a divorce is often not the ending of the marital relationship, but the breakup of a family. It can be a tricky road to navigate when children are in the mix. You have probably heard that you should “stay together for the kids”- and this is actually not bad advice! While divorce may set parents free and make them happier, these benefits do not extend to children.

Studies show that children with divorced parents are worse off in many ways. They are at risk of:

  • Higher rates of depression and anxiety
  • Having sex at an earlier age and promiscuity
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Pessimism about marriage and relationships
  • Internalizing and externalizing behavior, such as hurting themselves or acting out
  • Lowered academic achievement
  • Conduct problems at school and in the home

These problems are significant and dreaded by any parent, but this is not to say that divorce causes them- there is just a correlation between divorce and these issues in children. However there have been long-term studies done that do provide convincing evidence pointing to divorce as the cause of problems in children.

Parents must realize that for children, divorce is not just an event that happens and is to be gotten over- it is a life-changing event that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Children of divorced families get married less often, have poorer marriages, and more divorces than children of intact families. They are more fearful of committed relationships and skeptical about love. For many kids, their parents’ divorce is the fist significant “loss” they have experienced, because essentially that is what divorce is- the loss of the family you once had.

Children of divorce may lose many things:

  • Their family as it was
  • The idea that their parents love each other
  • Their childhood home
  • Their school and neighborhood
  • Family financial stability
  • Time with one parent or the other and with relatives

It is normal for kids to need to mourn these losses, and may display their feelings through behavior and not words. That is what leads to the many problems listed above.

So, should you stay together for the kids? The answer is, it depends. If you are in a high-conflict marriage that involves physical or verbal abuse, alcoholism or some other kind of addiction, it is actually best for you and for the kids to get out of that marriage. It is dangerous for both the spouses and kids to be in a household where these types of behaviors are going on. Even if the children are not being abused, it is still considered child abuse for kids to witness domestic violence or drug use. Even witnessing parents yelling at each other can be harmful for kids.
Studies show that children whose parents were in high-conflict marriages and got divorced actually showed less depression and anxiety, whereas children whose parents had low-conflict marriages and divorced experienced more depression and anxiety. This makes sense because in the case of high-conflict marriages, it actually benefits everyone for that to end. It sets a bad example for children, puts them in harm’s way, is stressful, and can be traumatic. In conclusion, if you have a low-conflict marriage free of problems like abuse or alcoholism, staying together for the kids may actually be the best thing.
If you are wanting to get divorced perhaps due to irreconcilable differences, an affair, or are just not feeling the passion anymore, it may be best, and easiest in the long run, to try to work it out. In our society today marriage is more about love than it used to be, and that does weaken the commitment of marriage. If we are not feeling a certain way about our partner, we feel that it is okay to just look for it elsewhere. We need to take cues from our grandparents and remember that more than anything, marriage is about commitment, and it takes work. Going to couple or family therapy may be the solution, or at least the first step to figuring out if you should stay together for the kids.

Author: Grace Norberg, AMFT

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