Staying Together for the Sake of the Kids

Research on Staying Together vs. Divorce

Parents Spending Time with their Young Daughter
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If you find that you're in an unhappy marriage, you may wonder if it's better to stay together for the sake of your children or to get a "good" divorce and set positive role models for them. The issue is whether divorced couples can raise children who fare better in life as adults as opposed to unhappy couples who stay together and stick it out in an effort to keep the family intact. 

It's generally accepted that children learn both good and dysfunctional patterns and behaviors from their parents. But what do kids learn from divorced parents and what do they learn from parents who sacrifice their own happiness for their children? Depending on how you and your spouse handle your divorce and parenting responsibilities, it may be safe to say that the future emotional health of your children is probably at stake regardless of what you decide. 

Some Professional Opinions 

As reported by Anderson Cooper in a "360 Degrees" interview in 2005, Professor Constance Ahrons conducted a 20-year longitudinal study, interviewing parents three times over five years, then interviewing their adult children 20 years later. Her study showed that 80 percent of the children "came through divorce as emotionally healthy adults." 

Joseph Nowinski wrote in 2011 about additional research on the issue: "... It is possible for children not only to survive this crisis, but to emerge from it stronger and happier in the long run."

Staying Together for the Sake of the Children 

By 2005, the tide was swinging in favor of parents in low-conflict marriages staying together for the sake of the kids. Elizabeth Marquardt, author of "Between Two Worlds," said at that time:

"Even a good divorce restructures children's childhoods and leaves them traveling between two distinct worlds. It becomes their job, not their parents', to make sense of those two worlds."

Marquardt also said:

"If you are in a low-conflict marriage, the idea of a 'good' divorce is really very misleading. It makes you think that, so long as you divorce the right way, your children will be fine. It's simply not true. The good divorce is an adult-centered vision ... no matter what the level of conflict, a divided family often requires children to confront a whole set of challenges that children in married-parent, intact families do not have to face.
"No matter how happy a face we put on it, the children of divorce are now saying, we've been kidding ourselves. An amicable divorce is better than a bitter one, but there is no such thing as a 'good' divorce. While a 'good divorce' is better than a bad divorce, it is still not good. No matter how amicable divorced parents might be and how much they each love and care for the child, their willingness to do these things does absolutely nothing to diminish the radical restructuring of the child's universe."

Dr. Joshua Coleman, psychologist and author, says, "Contrary to the wisdom of pop psychology, it is not essential to your or your children's well-being for you to have a great marriage." Dr. Coleman counsels that imperfect harmony in a home allows each parent to love and care for the children full time.

Choosing Divorce 

Professor Constance Ahrons, author of "The Good Divorce," stated in an interview that there are two elements to a good divorce:

"One is that the parents get along sufficiently well that they can focus on their kids as parents and be parents. And the other element is that children continue to have relationships with both parents."

Robert Emery, director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law at the University of Virginia has stated: 

"While a great many young people from divorced families report painful memories and ongoing troubles regarding family relationships, the majority are psychologically normal."

There appear to be quite a few studies that show that unhappy parents who stay together create unhappy kids. As Ahrons told "USAToday":

"There is an accumulating body of knowledge based on many studies that shows only minor differences between children of divorce and those from intact families, and that the great majority of children with divorced parents reach adulthood to lead reasonably fulfilling lives."

As reported by "Today's Parent," Carolyn Usher, publications director at British Columbia Council for Families in Vancouver, feels that:

"It's not divorce per se that causes all the damage. Children can usually cope with separation and adapt to new living arrangements. It's the ongoing high level of conflict that hurts them."

Where It Stands in 2017 

The consensus among many marriage experts is that although divorce is a difficult process, most children from broken homes will grow into successful adults. "The Guardian" reported in 2015 that 82 percent of parents break up rather than stay together for the kids. 

If you have concerns, here are a couple of good books that explore the dilemma of staying together for the sake of the kids versus attempting a good divorce: 

  • "The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart" by Professor Constance Ahrons
  • "Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce" by Elizabeth Marquardt