Staying Together for the Kids
Parents do it all the time. But is it really a good idea?
My parents divorced when I was in first or second grade. To be completely honest, I have no idea exactly how old I was when it happened, but I do remember the deep acrimony and anger that surrounded the breakdown of their marriage. I remember the yelling and door slamming. I remember fights that ended in me attempting to comfort each of them as they wept in separate rooms. And once they’d separated, I remember traveling between towns via Greyhound bus because they could not get along even during the brief exchange of weekly custody.
I don’t know if my parents ever considered staying together for my sake. It’s certainly unlikely they considered how their divorce would affect my life and my relationship with them — and how it continues to shape our relationship.
That’s the tough thing about making the decision to divorce after you’ve had children: it requires much more thought and self-reflection than the decision to get married probably ever did. Unlike marriage, the repercussions aren’t immediately clear. Yes, there is plenty of research that says divorce can be harmful to children. But there’s also evidence that commitment to co-parenting can offset future problems for the kids. There’s evidence suggesting staying together for a child may not be helpful when the relationships are strained, volatile, or violent; and there’s evidence that staying together is better than splitting even if tension remains.
In 1999, renowned University of Virginia psychology professor and foremost researcher into divorce Dr. E. Mavis Hetherington, explains why the effects of divorce are so hard to predict. In her book Coping With Divorce, Single Parenting, and Remarriage: A Risk and Resiliency Perspective, Hetherington writes:
“The response to divorce is influenced by the quality of family relations in the predivorce marriage, the circumstances of marital dissolution and the experiences and changes that follow the divorce. It involves an interplay between individual characteristics of parents and children, family relationships, and extra-familial factors, that serve to support or to undermine the well-being of family members as they negotiate the changes and challenges associated with divorce.”
To put it a bit more succinctly: Results may vary.
There are so many moving (sometimes literally) pieces when couples and families navigate the possibility of divorce that it feels impossible to make generalizations about what could or could not happen to a kid. So the key is to focus on those qualities of divorce that are most damaging to kids and go from there.
We know part of the reason kids are destabilized by divorce is self-recrimination and fear of love lost. But another huge part of the equation is the simple breakdown of a child’s known environment and routine.
Kids thrive when they know what to expect. Staying in the same school, home, and community allows them to have a safe place to develop. Instead of worrying about their day to day needs, they can concentrate on the business of growing up. So, in a very real sense, staying together for your child is a very thoughtful and appropriate thing to do. There’s a “but” here:
But staying together is only thoughtful and appropriate if you and your partner are capable of maintaining a united front. Because you see, stability in relationships is just as important as the structural stability of keeping put. You might be saving your child from the dizzying confusion of joint custody, but if the trade-off is watching you and your partner slowly tear each other to pieces, there will absolutely be ugly repercussions.
Children are looking to us to learn what a healthy relationship looks like. If we can’t provide a healthy relationship model — good communication and appropriate conflict resolution — then we might be better off considering going through with the divorce. Witnessing years of bad feelings, consternation, sniping, and anger will only wear your child down.
Looking back on my own parents’ divorce, I can certainly say their post-divorce attitude certainly wore me down. They were uninterested in maintaining any kind of partnership and I was pulled between them like a rubber band which eventually broke and snapped. The upshot was a slow, steady estrangement from my father. And despite some attempts at reconciliation that relationship wasn’t truly repaired until my mid-40s when my anger came to a head and I basically yelled at him over the phone for a couple of hours.
But look, there are hundreds of ways to be in a relationship. Kids have grown up just fine with parents who were openly non-monogamous. Kids have grown up successfully in situations where parents traded occupying a central house where the child lived full time. Kids have grown up successfully with divorced parents too. But I can almost guarantee you that in all of these circumstances, the ability for a child to grow up successfully in those relationships was all about having open, communicative parents.
Parents that can commit to being good to one another for the foreseeable future will likely be just fine. If the arrangement will result in nightly shouting matches, then I urge caution.
That said, there are a couple more things to think about:
Just because a child gets older does not mean that they’ll be better equipped to handle the dissolution of a marriage. It will hurt them whether they are 5 or 25. Furthermore, if parents reveal to children that their marriage was loveless, the lie will sit heavy and may have an effect on their ability to trust. Parents shouldn’t go into loveless cohabitation thinking they’re going to save a kid from the pain of your divorce. They’re not. Offering them stability by staying together may give a child a chance to develop the emotional skills to deal with divorce better, but they will still have to deal.
Finally, there is a possible bright side in the strategy of staying together for the child. It could be that if parents double down on better communication and treat each other decently, the issues that have been divisive could be resolved.
I know it’s the trap of the adult child of divorce, but sometimes I wonder what might have been if my parents had committed to couples therapy instead of divorce. I wonder if there is any way they might have come to love each other again. The possibility was there if they’d been open. But then again, I am who I am today because of, and perhaps in spite of the choices they made as a child. And for my part? I’m happy. Divorce be damned. And I’m ready to do whatever it takes to keep my marriage, and family, whole.