As one might imagine, there is no clear and easy answer to this age-old question. The bottom line is to try to figure out whether the children would be better off in a home where mom and dad are unhappy together but keeping the family intact or in two homes where mom and dad are happier but just not together.
The Risks of Staying Together for the Kids
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.
In addition, some children may be at risk of neglect when parents are so wrapped up in their own issues. The 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 that co-parenting would be better served living in different homes, that may be one indication that divorce would be a better option.
The Value of Staying Together for the Kids
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 mom and dad 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. And 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.
How to Decide?
- Is there abuse? In general, parenting experts agree that children should not be kept in a family where there is continuing abuse of any kind. Divorce should result if a child is living with a parent who is abusing them sexually, physically or emotionally. 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 are better off to be protected from abuse.
- Can the parents cooperate? 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 honestly, 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, to co-parent positively and to keep their personal differences at bay for the sake of the kids, they will have an advantage if mom and dad stay together. If not, the kids may be better served through an amicable divorce.
- Can the 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? Have both husband and wife followed good advice? Has there been marital infidelity that has not been stopped and 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 mother and father 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 mother and father 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.