For the Sake of the Children – Divorce or Stay

Should you stay or leave?

When it comes to marriage this is one of the most difficult decisions you will ever have to make. The difficulty is even greater when children are involved. Many people consider what is in the best interest of their children when making this choice. There are many different opinions, however, on just what is best for children. For example, some people believe an intact family, regardless of severe marital conflict is better than separating. This notion, however, may lack empirical support. In fact, studies suggest children who grow up in a two-person, loving, and stable environment have less depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems throughout childhood. These children also tend to do better academically and develop a greater capacity for having their own intimate relationships in the future. Research also suggests children exposed to a stressful and conflicted marriage are more stressed and have more behavioral and disciplinary problems than children who are raised by divorced or single parents. Studies also show children tend to have a better adjustment when their parents get divorced as opposed to when they choose to stay in a marriage with consistent conflict.

Other theorists suggest keeping the family intact is so valuable, parents who remain together and are able to behave civilly toward one another (even if unhappy, lonely, etc.) are making a better choice for their children than if they chose to divorce. Many would argue, however, people who can commit to this type of mutually respectful living arrangement when actually desiring to be apart are few and far between. Further, choosing this option does not allow you to model a happy relationship for your children which may impact their ability to cultivate healthy relationships in their own lives. Additionally, choosing to remain in an unhappy, yet civil marriage means putting off your own happiness until the kids are older or have left the home. This is further complicated by disagreement regarding when kids are ‘old enough.’ Some research suggests divorce impacts college-age children to a similar degree as younger children.

As you can see, there is no one right answer to the question of what is best for the children. Before assessing what is best for you and your children, it is important to realize that there are advantages and disadvantages to all options. Assuming there is no physical and/or emotional abuse in your relationship, the following questions may help with this difficult decision:

Is the conflict in the relationship temporary or chronic?

All relationships, including marriages, go through ups and downs. Periods of instability, conflict, and even disfavor are not abnormal. Consider whether your relationship is going through a difficult time (e.g., unusual and excessive travel for one spouse) or an ongoing problem (e.g., incompatible life goals)? A helpful rule of thumb is considering whether these stressors have been going on for three or more years. Also, consider whether there is a possibility of resolution. Couples counseling can be helpful in identifying whether issues in a relationship are temporary or chronic. A therapist can also help to facilitate strategies for working through both types of issues by helping to identify underlying concerns and ideas to help partners reconnect.

What are the benefits of staying together or getting divorced?

Often people seek divorce as a result of emotional reactions. Marriage and divorce should be thought of as life-long decisions.  For both decisions, it is important to weigh the costs and benefits of the decision, in the context of your plan for the next month, year, and decade of your life. This life plan includes your children. Consider how the separation will affect your children. For example, will they have to move/change schools for their last year of high school? How will everyone’s quality of life change if you and your spouse have separate households?

Is this a decision that I want?

When it comes to marriage and divorce it is not uncommon for family and friends to express what that they think is best. It is important to not make decisions based on others’ input and suggestions. Getting divorced is a personal decision and should only be made by you and at your own pace. Therapy can be a very valuable tool to help you work through thoughts, emotions, and questions with a supportive, but an unbiased listener.

If you decide divorce is the right choice for you…

Parents can take the following steps to make the transition less confusing and chaotic for their children.

  1. Do not break the news to children too far in advance. It is possible they will be preoccupied with the event until it actually happens or they may begin to believe that you’ve changed your mind. Consider the age of your child or children when planning when to tell them about the divorce. For example, to a five-year-old, two months may seem like an eternity. Telling children only a few days before a parent is to move out of the home, however, is not enough time for children to process what is happening. Ensure enough time for children to talk with both parents about their feelings, including any questions or fears.
  2. If possible, both parents should jointly tell the children about the decision to divorce. These models for the children you will both be working together to be their parents, even though you will no longer be married. Providing affection for the children while breaking the news provides comfort. This also reinforces both parents still love the children even if they do not love each other anymore. If you and your spouse cannot be together to tell the children, talk ahead of time to make sure you will make similar points. Discrepancies between explanations can be confusing to children.
  3. Provide information about things that will be happening in the near future. For example, Daddy will be moving to a house a few miles away in two weeks. He will be picking you up from school each day and you will spend Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings with him at the new house. You will spend the night at his new house every other weekend. You will have a bedroom of your very own at his new house just like you do here.
  4. While it is ok to show emotions in front of your children (and serves as good modeling of healthy emotional expression), avoid situations where the children feel they need to take care of the parents. Consider making statements like, “I’m looking forward to taking you to dance class on Wednesdays” instead of “I’m going to miss you when you’re not with me.”
  5. Do not blame the other parent. Even if you feel you have been wronged in some way, it is not helpful for your children to hear negative comments about their other parent. Processing the news of parents divorcing is difficult enough for children. Asking them to then work through one parent saying disparaging things about their other parent can be too difficult.
  6. Keep explanations for the divorce simple and give only the necessary information. This is especially true for young children. Consider using statements such as, “Mommy and Daddy believe they will both be happier and healthier people if they are not married.” If children ask for clarification, you can say, “You may have seen that Mommy and Daddy tend to disagree and argue a lot. We have had these problems for a long time and can’t seem to work through them. We think it is best for everyone if we live separately. We will both still be your mommy and daddy and we both still love you very much.” It is also helpful to distinguish between different types of love, letting children know that a parent’s love for a child is forever.
  7. Allow your children to express whatever emotions they are feeling. It is normal for children to feel sad, angry, guilty, confused, or scared. It is often helpful for children to have a counselor or therapist with whom they can talk through the transition.
  8. Provide children with as much consistency as possible. Maintain schedules including homework, chores, and extra-curricular activities.