Staying together for the Kids

It is very common in therapy to hear unhappily married couples describe their lives as miserable and their partners in very unflattering terms. When I ask them why they chose to stay together, they often say it’s for the sake of the children.

Parents agonise about the impact their divorce and the breakup of the family may have on their kids. And they should. Because most studies show that children from divorced families, at least in the first two years after the separation, fare worse emotionally, scholastically and socially than those living with both parents. The children also display decreased self-esteem and behaviour problems.

However, studies also confirm that children fare better in a divorced family where there are low levels of conflict than in an intact household where the parents are at war with each other.

On other words, what most determines a child’s psychological wellbeing is not the presence of both parents in the household but the level of interpersonal conflict to which the chid is exposed, before, during, and after the divorce.

Direct, aggressive conflict in front of the children is very damaging. As is when parents ask children to pass on messages to the other parent, ask intrusive questions about the other parent, or create in the child a need to hide information or feelings about the other parent.

No one is encouraging parents to divorce capriciously, that is without making a sincere and genuine effort to resolve their conflicts. However, if the parents can’t bridge their differences and reach a level of contentment in their symbiosis – staying together solely for the children – is not necessarily as good for the children s they would like to believe.

On the contrary, staying in a spiritless marriage out of guilt, fear of obligation, parents become self-absorbed and depressed, and the children suffer from the parents’ emotional withdrawal.

The physical distance is not as emotionally damaging to children as the emotional distance parents display under such embittered circumstances.

Parents must keep in mind that even if they did not succeed in marriage, they can succeed in divorce by their willingness to form a parenting partnership with their ex-spouse. Whether they share the same household or not, the parents in such a partnership must remain emotionally available to their children. They must also continue to be involved in the children’s lives in a meaningful way.

Finally, by staying together in a loveless, conflict-ridden marriage, the parents provide a regrettable model of love for children who may then very well replicate it in their own adult lives.