You may be wondering about divorce and its effect on children and asking yourself if you should get a divorce or stay married for the sake of your kids.
What good parent who loves their children wouldn't?
But does staying together for the kids do more harm than good throughout the years?
In order to settle the age-old debate on whether or not you and your spouse should end your unhappy marriage and divorce or stay for the kids, we asked a panel of experts to share their advice for parents.
Should a couple stay together for the kids?
Dr. Pamela Brand, Psy.D., LMFT
"Should parents stay together for the sake of the child?
On one hand, if the couple has very strong spiritual feelings and there is not high conflict between them and they can live in harmony and prefer staying together for the kids – I believe that that’s their choice.
If, however, if there is a heightened pattern of conflict or disconnection, this can serve as a model of unhealthy relationships and/or stress children and damage social/emotional development.
It can cause children to develop behavior problems or feelings of anxiety or depression.
Children who are exposed to escalated parental conflict or disconnection can develop symptoms. These symptoms can serve as an unconscious effort to shift the parents’ attention on the child, which will distract the child's parents from their conflict.
Children are very loyal and can also take on a role of trying to prevent their parents from fighting or try to get in between fights. This is not good for the mental health of children. This is not childrens’ developmental task, but they will do it out of loyalty.
When married couples are in high conflict over highly volatile situations such as an affair or alcohol abuse, they can become very negatively escalated.
Exposure to escalated conflict involving verbal, physical or behavioral battle is never good for children - especially if it goes on for years."
"Well, it looks like from research on divorce and the effects on children that the damage done is mostly caused by a lot of fighting between the parents.
So if parents are going to be able to divorce and stop fighting, they are going to help their kids greatly.
If they are going to get divorced and continue fighting, they are not going to necessarily help their kids. So the fighting and the intensity between the parents is the thing that seems to damage kids most.
If a couple is asking, "Should we stay together for the kids?" I would say not necessarily, but the whole idea of how children are impacted is important to look at clearly.
Because kids are mostly impacted by intense aggressive fighting between mom and dad. That's the worst thing."
Staying together for the kids depends on the health of the family unit.
David Klow, LMFT
"I’m a marriage and family therapist and I really believe in the importance of the family unit and having one that’s healthy.
A lot of dangerous things could go on in the subtext of a family - emotionally, mentally, relationally.
So when it comes to staying together for kids, I would really want to look at the health of the family unit and that would be something to consider.
Is the family unit healthy if mom and dad stay together?
Is the family unit healthy if they are apart?
If it’s an unhealthy situation with mom and dad together and it would be healthier for the sake of everybody’s well-being for them to divorce, then I would say that a couple should not stay together for kids.
Really looking at what’s going to create an environment that is beneficial for the children to grow up in and what’s going to be the healthiest thing for everybody involved."
"Whether or not a couple should stay together for the kids really depends. When thinking about divorce and effect on children, kids do best in home environments that are loving, respectful, and supportive. A healthy home-life means one where open conflict and hostility are limited.
If a couple is engaged in a marriage where insults, harmful criticism, and resentment are present, the kids will take note of this, and will be affected by it.
It’s not a healthy environment for the parents or the kids.
If a couple can decide they can co-exist, and co-parent successfully, then the kids would benefit from the couple staying together.
However, a respectful co-parenting relationship without love, affection, and intimacy, is often not enough for one or both partners.
Even if the marriage may feel hopeless, it’s worth the time and effort to engage in marriage counseling to see if it can be saved.
Couples who dedicate time to work on their marriages with a couples’ therapist don’t regret doing so, even if they find the relationship cannot be rehabilitated.
It’s a huge decision to end a marriage; the possible repercussions require that the decision be made very thoughtfully and thoroughly."
Can staying married for the kids really work for a family?
Laura Alper, MSW, LCSW
"Does staying together for the kids work? Each relationship is unique so it’s hard to give a universal answer for every couple, but I would say that if there is an absence of domestic violence or other destructive behavior and the presence of friendship, emotional intimacy (even if not physical intimacy), and harmony, then the answer is a qualified yes.
I qualify that because it doesn’t necessarily mean that they must or will stay in the marriage, but if there are these good nuggets present, it’s possible to stay within the marriage and remain an intact family, even if the reason is just parents staying together for the kids' sake.
If there is friendship and harmony in the home, then this choice can be a positive one.
On the other hand, if there is antipathy, acting out, destructive or hurtful behaviors which create an unstable, volatile and frightening environment for the children, then decidedly the couple would be better served by separating."
"That’s a really important question and basically my answer is no, a couple shouldn't continue staying married for the kids. And that’s based on several studies on divorce and its effect on children that have shown that conflict is the source of most damage to children emotionally and psychologically.
So if a couple is having issues, having problems and there’s conflict at home, tension at home or the parents are basically avoiding each other at home, the children are living in an environment that’s not supporting healthy lifestyle and growing up with security and peace of mind.
And that is very damaging to children.
It’s better for the family to change its form following a divorce and have two households where the children are either moving from one to the other or living primarily with one parent and interacting with the other and living in more peace so that when they are with mom, they are happy with mom and when they are with dad, they are happy with dad.
And they are in a conflict-free environment.
I definitely advocate that parents consider the fact that children deserve to be living in an environment that’s peaceful and calm and supportive so that they can live their childhood and in many cases, divorce is a better option than staying together for the children informally where life is tense and filled with conflict and acrimony and hurt for the children."
Should parents stay together for the sake of the child?
Joe Dillon, Divorce Mediator and child of divorce
"My parents got divorced when I was a child and their relationship as husband and wife ended a very long time before the decision to end their marriage was made. They were unhappy for years and I strongly feel that the reason they didn't get divorced sooner was because of me.
My parents' marriage relationship was volatile and they'd either be fighting or would go for days, and sometimes even weeks or months not speaking to each other. I witnessed all of this as a kid and it was an unbearable time in my life.
When the time came and they finally divorced, it was such a relief. Because as difficult as it was to see my parents divorce, their separation improved my life. I didn't have to live in that uncomfortable and unhealthy environment anymore.
Based on my own experience, if you asked me "should parents stay together for the sake of the child," I would say absolutely not.
Looking back as an adult, I truly feel had they divorced sooner, their relationship would not have deteriorated to the point it did. And I would have been able to have a relationship with both of them. Things were so bad that once my dad left, I never saw him again.
So no, staying for the kids should not be the only reason a couple in an unhappy marriage does not divorce.
Maybe you think you’ll ruin your children's life if you separate or divorce. But if your relationship with your spouse is toxic, staying in a loveless marriage for the kids will likely do more damage than divorcing peacefully so you can be good co-parents."
When the answer to should we stay together for the kids is "no"
Divorce is tough on everyone involved - the two spouses as well as the children.
But, there are things that parents can do to make this situation less distressing for their kids and their family unit.
Although separation and divorce will clearly affect everyone's lives, parents can minimize the negative impact to themselves and their kids if they not only stay focused on their emotional well-being, but also do everything they can to help children cope with divorce.
If staying together for the children is unhealthy in your situation and you're going to get divorced, you owe it to them to divorce amicably by using a peaceful option such as divorce mediation.
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