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Should Parents Stay Together for the Kids?

Exposure to Ongoing Conflict Can Be Worse Than Divorce

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A reader recently asked me whether parents should always stay together for the kids. He writes:

“Generally, most people recommend that the first and best thing for any parent would be to keep their family intact and stay together for the kids. But I have many friends whose parents are divorced and have remarried, and their lives are much better as a result. In fact, I currently have two friends who are staying in unhappy relationships because of their children, and their relationships are really hurting everyone involved. There is a lot of unhappiness and fighting, and it is affecting the kids. What do you think? Should parents always stay together for the kids?”

This is an excellent question, and it’s one that not only plagues parents who are considering divorce, but also parents who are already divorced but feel guilty about the decision and how the divorce affected their children.

When parents ask me this question, I try to point out that it’s not a black and white issue. It’s not that divorce is always bad for kids, or that staying together for the kids is always beneficial. In my opinion, the most important factor to consider is the level of conflict.

Research shows that long-term exposure to high levels of conflict has a negative impact on kids. However, a lot of couples are burdened by other people in their lives telling them that they “should” stay together for the kids, no matter what. In cases where the parents are able to interact with one another pleasantly and commit to staying together (without looking elsewhere for sexual gratification), this may be true. Also, parents who cannot afford to divorce and maintain two households - which is always more expensive - may need to find a way to stay together for the kids, at least temporarily.

However, there are many families who are in such turmoil that staying together for the kids is not advisable. Oftentimes, this intense degree of conflict is only evident behind closed doors, and it leaves the children feeling stressed and anxious virtually 24 hours a day. Situations involving domestic violence are a prime example. I do not recommend that individuals stay in abusive relationships “for the sake of the kids.” Exposing children to violence is never healthy or safe. In addition, when children witness high levels of long-term conflict between their parents, the exposure to that stress is often far worse for the kids than adjusting to life post-divorce.

Recommendations for Parents Considering Divorce

Parents who are currently considering divorce, such as the friends you mentioned, should take the following action steps:

  • Seek counseling and make an honest effort to resolve your differences. This can not only help you determine whether staying together for the kids is feasible, but it can also help you learn to work together as coparents, in the event that you do decide to pursue divorce.

  • If either partner is a victim of domestic violence, seek the help of a domestic violence shelter or prevention organization in your area.

  • If either parent is abusing drugs and/or alcohol, seek the assistance of Al-anon, Alcoholics Anonymous, or Narcotics Anonymous.

  • Spend some time together apart from the kids. Do some of the things you used to enjoy doing together.

  • Express what each of you most enjoys about your relationship and about the other person, specifically. When you focus, even for a moment, on the amount of good that already exists, it becomes easier to deal with the negative habits and baggage we all bring to our relationships.

  • Realize that there is no perfect relationship. Many couples who seem happy on the outside are also struggling with issues of compatibility, communication, and conflicting goals. In addition, couples who divorce and later remarry frequently find that the very same issues pop up with the next relationship. Why not learn to deal with them now if at all possible?

  • Learn to fight fair. If you’re going to even attempt to stay together for the kids, you need to learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy way. This means telling the other person, calmly, when you are upset and listening twice as much as you speak. Another effective strategy is repeating back to the other person what you think they’re saying. This can help you intercept miscommunication before it festers.

  • Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Instead of saying, “You always…,” say “When you…I feel…” This expresses your point of view without putting the other person on the defensive.

In closing, divorce should not be a knee-jerk reaction couples turn to in an argument or because the intensity of their feelings have changed over time. However, parents should also remember that deciding to stay together for the kids isn’t always the best decision, especially if your children are exposed to a high degree of ongoing conflict. Ultimately, only you and your spouse can determine whether the conflict you’re experiencing is insurmountable and whether divorce would be a better solution for your children in the long run.

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