Lately, I’ve had a handful of clients come into my office grappling with the idea of whether or not to divorce. It’s a fraught decision, loaded with complicated choices. One thing I hear over and over is “we don’t want to divorce because of the kids”. It’s a noble sentiment, but flawed. So, here’s an open letter to any couple who may be in the same boat:
Dear Couple Who Won’t Divorce Because Of The Kids:
Congratulations on your decision to stay together. Navigating the ups and downs of a of a long term committed relationship takes perseverance and a certain kind of faith. I hope your decision to stay together is coupled with a choice to deepen your friendship, manage conflict with empathy and courage, and to dream about growing old together and creating a unique legacy through your family.
Also, I applaud your dedication to your children. Your desire to prioritize them and their well-being says a lot about your character. Parenting is a hard job, often thankless, and I know that your kids will be grateful for your commitment to them.
But if your marriage is in distress, please - please - don’t stay together just “for the kids”.
You’re not doing your kids any favors by, at best, exposing them to your marital ambivalence. Worse, you will rob them of an opportunity to learn how adults maintain healthy, whole relationships through good times and bad.
Without question, divorce is traumatic for any family, but so is remaining in a emotionally disconnected relationship. E. Mavis Heatherington, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at UVA and a leader in divorce research says, “If children are in marriages with parents who are contemptuous of each other, not even with overt conflict, but just sneering and subtle putdowns that erode the partner’s self-esteem, that is very bad for kids.”
Heatherington notes that one of the most persistent myths of divorce is that “kids always lose out”. During her 25 years of research, she found that 75% to 80% of children from divorced homes are “coping reasonably well and functioning in the normal range.” She labels these children as “mostly happy”. For your kids, divorce represents the end of a (not the) world, but parents have an opportunity to craft a new reality for them based on their incredible capacity for resilience.
Robert Emery, a leading researcher in studying divorce and children, is a champion of resilience in children. “The vast majority of children are resilient. Yes, they are,” he says in The Truth About Children and Divorce. Based on 25 years of research he details how to shepherd children toward health and resilience after a divorce. “The fact is,” he says, “even if you have failed in your marriage, you can succeed at divorce.”
The key to a successful divorce - where children are concerned - is to set boundaries, nurture childhood, and model resilience.
Set Boundaries - Whether you’re remaining married or divorcing or divorced, you must set rule to manage and protect your children from your strained relationship. These rules and boundaries should be clear and specific. This happens naturally for most healthy couples, but when you separate (emotionally or physically) boundaries disintegrate. Do the work of agreeing upon and establishing clear boundaries around discipline, time management, financial obligations. Establishing clear boundaries eliminates confusion and helps set the family on a new course.
Let Your Kids Be Kids - Children deserve a childhood. This means they should go to amusement parks and read Harry Potter and go trick-or-treating. They should participate in the school talent show and sign up for soccer. They should feel free to ask for more Pirate’s Booty and not brush their teeth (with that gentle admonishment from you). When you force them to endure the pain of your adult conflict, confide in them inappropriately or communicate, even unconsciously, your bad feelings about your ex-partner or that your separation is damaging to them, you do them a disservice. Celebrate their bravery and adaptability as children.
Model Resilience - Children need to see that they can recover from setbacks. They needs adults to model this for them. Let them see you grieve appropriately. Ask for help when you need it, but also seize opportunities to embrace happiness and health. Surround yourself and them with a community of support that will allow each of you to express and experience your age-appropriate struggles. Look for places to grow from daily mistakes even while your relationship is in distress. Staying together “for the kids” is closer to endurance than resilience. Endurance is a wonderful quality for a triathlete or Ernest Shackleton but not for miserable couples.
Couples in distress have a responsibility to children, but it’s not necessarily to stay together on their behalf. In addition to preaching boundaries, childhood, and resistance, Emory has drafted The Children’s Bill of Rights in Divorce, designed to remind parents of their responsibility to children even while a family dissolves.
Let me be clear: I hope you do stay together. There are tons of people rooting for you and your marriage. But, as psychotherapist William Doherty has noted, “the academic literature has arrived at this consensus: children do best in stable, reasonably low-conflict married families.” If that’s not you and despite your and a therapist’s best efforts you can’t fix your relationship, I urge you to consider divorce as a legitimate choice. It’s possible that a successful divorce may be the best thing you can do “for the kids.”