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Your relationship isn’t working, you feel angry all the time, you’re frustrated, hurting, and the love is gone. You’re thinking it’s time to separate — or even divorce — but you have kids and it’s complicated. Now you’re asking yourself tough questions, like whether staying together for the kids and keeping the nuclear family intact is really the best thing for them? And what’s the cost of the sacrifice if you decide to stay together?
Studies show couples with children often work harder at saving their relationship than those without. The reason being parents feel a two-parent home provides more security and stability and that forming a strong familial network is in the children’s best interest. Many parents believe if they can just work at it long enough or hard enough, they will be able to get their relationship to a “healthy” enough state to make the relationship viable and thus better for their children. However, if you believe that, you might be fooling only yourselves.
Children are very sensitive and in tune with their parents. From picking up on the change in the tone of your voice to sensing your stress, kids on some level know what’s going on and they know the “truth” even if they don’t know exactly what they know. Unfortunately, staying together for the kids’ sake also sets up a “false” family dynamic and could lead to children questioning relationships in the future.
The truth is, there’s no reason to believe that staying together at any cost is better for children than divorcing. In fact, when parents who are unhappy together and engage in unhealthy relationship habits stay together “for the kids” it can often do more harm than good. As parents we will do anything for our kids and this may contribute to our desire to stay together in an unhappy, loveless marriage. However, despite our best intentions, psychologists note that the conflict and tension in the relationship, and subsequently the household, can do more damage to children than divorce.
Ultimately, you and your partner have to make the decision that works best for your relationship and your family. Here are some things to consider when making the decision.
- The Parent-Child Bond. In an unhappy marriage/adult relationship where stress, tension, anger, and a lack of love are the baseline, interactions between the parent and child are also negatively impacted and can even become strained. There is no clear reason for this but it is a commonly held belief that relationships in conflict are depleted of energy and the ability to cope in general. By extension, this lack of energy makes it difficult to invest energy into the children which in turn leads to incomplete/inconsistent parenting and a diminished bond with your children.
- Interpersonal Skills. We are always told — and there is a lot of truth in the phrase — that children model what they see and not what they are told. Therefore, if a child is exposed to a relationship in conflict or with unresolved conflicts, the children will not learn effective ways to resolve conflict. In an environment with limited conflict resolution modeling, children will not learn the skills necessary to resolve conflicts in their own lives.
- Emotional Insecurity/Instability. When parents are in an unhappy or loveless marriage, it threatens the bedrock of the family because it feels unstable and insecure to children, which compromises their emotional and social well-being that’s fostered at home, aka their safe space. Early emotional security can be a catalyst for other emotional issues in adolescence, ranging from depression to anxiety to issues appropriately socializing with peers.
- Future Romantic Relationships. Children who are exposed to marital conflict, constant tension, a lack of love, and stress are more likely to have trouble in their own romantic relationships. For children coming from homes like this, their primary model and only “experience” with romantic relationship is negative and leaves them without adequate knowledge about what “successful” positive relationships look and how they work.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not preaching that you run out and get a divorce tomorrow if your relationship is in crisis. There are many practical reasons to stay together in addition to love and companionship that must be considered. Divorce should be an option of last resort, meaning you should try counseling, talking, re-kindling the romance –whatever it takes– to make the relationship work. You have to fight for one another and your family, but if you’ve done all that or if you don’t care enough to take those steps and you’ve exhausted your options, start having the conversation about being apart.
When it comes to children, we’re told the ideal model is to have both parents at home in a loving relationship. However, I can tell you as a child of divorced parents that you are a much better and more engaged parent when you’re a happy and fulfilled person. Staying in a loveless marriage, even for the best reasons, your kids, isn’t worth it because you won’t be happy and you won’t be able to be your best parenting self.