I often work with people who have stayed in their marriage for years for the sole reason of not wanting to put their kids through a divorce. This is a well-meaning and loving decision made by parents who are genuinely interested in their children’s welfare. But at the same time, it can cause serious damage to the children it is meant to protect.In other words, to answer the question, “Should I stay in my marriage for the kids? Maybe not.
Formative Psychologist, Carl Jung: “ The greatest burden a child must bear is the un-lived life of the parent.”
Kids are incredibly resilient. But one of the most harmful things that children have to deal with – and one of the things that can be the hardest for them to overcome – is the feeling of guilt that comes from thinking they are the reason for their parent’s unhappiness. As a result, staying in a marriage in which you have no room to grow can have serious unintended consequences for children, as well as for you.
Children are very adept at recognizing conflict between their parents, and usually know when a parent is unhappy. So staying in your marriage communicates several lessons to your children that you probably don’t want them to internalize:
* I am stuck in an unhappy relationship with no real choices available to improve my life.
* I do not have the power to improve my situation.
* It’s better to endure the familiar than do something emotionally difficult.
* I wouldn’t be this unhappy and unfulfilled if it weren’t for my children.
I believe that most children subconsciously know that their parents are staying in an unhappy marriage to protect them. This can be the most damaging state for a child psychologically because your child will blame him or herself for your unhappiness.
I feel like every other day, I tell a crying parent considering divorce: “Your children already know.”
Kids know when the stress of the family is causing a strain to one or both parents. In fact, one of the main characteristics of being a child is recognizing the emotional stability of a parent. We have evolved to know how to measure our parents’ moods because we need to know if we are safe and whether we need to placate our parents to stay that way. So your children sense your unhappiness, and a parent’s unhappiness can have negative consequences for children.
Carl Jung developed important concepts about individuation – that is, the process by which children become their own unique persons. He said…
“Children feel the frustrations and regrets of their parents as if they were their own.”
Of course, divorce is stressful on children, too. So how do you answer the question, “Should I stay in my marriage for the kids?” In other words, how do you make the better choice for your children?
What your children observe during the failing marriage informs how they view themselves and society around them.
All change is stressful for children, but many changes are important to your child’s development. In fact, healthy levels of stress associated with growing up is how children mature. New schools are stressful for children. Growing up, in general is stressful for children. Seventh grade is stressful, peer pressure is stressful, and becoming a teenager is stressful.
The really frightening truth is, you can’t know how your divorce will affect your children in the long run, or how staying in your marriage will affect them. There is no easy answer. It is hard to study this phenomenon with any real accuracy because we never know which families thought about getting divorced but didn’t.
As a result, there’s no way to compare the development of children who grew up with unhappily married parents with those who grow up in divided families. I’m not aware of any well-designed study that can show whether children in unhappy families do better than children in healthy but separated families.
That said, I strongly believe that children do better with a good divorce than a bad marriage.
By the time a parent comes to me wondering whether to get divorced, the answer is usually yes. I can’t help people decide whether it’s best for the children to split from the other parent or not, but typically, someone who has worked at the marriage (with counseling or otherwise) and sees no improvement strikes me as someone who shouldn’t stay married for his or her children.
What happens most often is that a parent sits across from me at our first appointment and starts sobbing because it has taken them so long to get to the point where they can admit to themselves that there is no point staying in their marriage.
Modeling what you want for your children is an important consideration. Do you want your kids to stay in an unhappy marriage if they should ever find themselves in that position? At one end of the spectrum, this should be easy: in an abusive situation, you would hope that your child left the relationship. On the other end, it’s a little more complicated when the relationship is not abusive, but is unhappy, argumentative, and unfulfilling.
Your children are likely to end up repeating what they see you do, even if you think they won’t.
Should I stay in my marriage for the kids?
If you’re in a marriage that has no future, consider the downside to your children of staying in the marriage. It might be time to think about how to have a healthy divorce instead of an unhealthy marriage.
About the Author
Chris Larson is a lawyer in Rutland, Vermont and a partner at Meub Gallivan & Larson, Attorneys, LLC. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Chris has been practicing family law for 17 years. Chris is also the founder of Vermont Family Law, a website designed to help people understand Vermont divorce laws and navigate the family court system. This site is designed to be a how-to guide to help you represent yourself in custody, separation, divorce, child support, parentage and other related issues that might come up in the family courts of our state. The site includes a popular alimony estimator tool that makes it easy for people to figure out how money they can expect to receive each month from their former spouse.