Should You Stay Together for the Children?

Almost everyone, whether they realize it or not, knows a couple who are together solely for their children. In December 2014, for example, the U.K.’s Daily Mail newspaper reported that, according to research, this is true of more than one in four British couples.

The Nature of the Problem

First, it must be stressed that you are not alone. Couples are often very good at hiding their misery. Time and again people exclaim “but they always seemed so happy!” when told that neighbors or friends plan to separate. Whether embarrassed to admit to problems, or simply afraid of the gossip of their neighbors, it is a fact that people often keep quiet.

When seeking advice, keep one thing in mind – every family is different. You know your partner, and you know how he or she is likely to react if you bring things to an end. And only you know what life will be like if you remain. Most important of all, no one knows your children better than you.

The Case for Staying

Individuals can raise perfectly happy, secure, well-balanced children on their own, just as loving couples can produce spoilt, selfish monsters. However, research suggests that in general children raised by their biological parents benefit in many ways. For example, they are less likely to divorce, use drugs, or suffer emotional problems in later life.

The first and most obvious reasons are practical. If you stay together, you can pool your resources and provide financial help when your child wishes to marry, go to college, buy her own apartment, and so on. You can also present a united front when the child misbehaves and needs to be disciplined. Plus, of course, the wisdom and guidance of two parents is better than one.

Growing up is difficult, and children need to feel they have a strong, secure family unit behind them. Familiarity is also important. When children hit their teens life changes dramatically and they become increasingly aware that soon they must choose a college, work out a career path, and find a partner. To then learn that their mother or father is moving out and that the family home must be sold only adds to their fear and insecurity. Teenagers, though they kick against it, need the comfort of the familiar.

Then there are the longer term psychological effects. Will your child blame you? If you leave your husband and move into a small apartment with a new lover, your child may have to spend their evenings comforting your heartbroken ex. When a man leaves his wife, sons can become highly protective of their mother, as can daughters with their abandoned father. They may not forgive you for hurting them in this way.

And how will your partner respond? Sometimes, parents are able to behave in a mature, civilized way – sometimes not. Can you trust your partner not to say terrible things about you behind your back? Some people can be highly manipulative, only ever hitting, bullying, or humiliating their partner when the children are out of the house. Plus, of course, many relationship problems are unknown to the children. For example, one partner may withhold sex and affection, while all the child sees is a loving mum and dad. When they can stand it no more and leave, the remaining partner constantly reminds the children that they left, not me. If you are the one who leaves, will your children understand?

Children of divorced parents often feel rejected as well. Unfortunately, you are dealing with emotion, not reason. You can reassure a child that this has nothing to do with them, that you still love them, that they are still your priority, but, though they may accept this at a rational level, at an emotional level they may feel abandoned. You know you are walking out on your husband or wife; your child feels you are walking out on them.

Finally, you need to consider how this will affect your child in his or her later relationships. What kind of example are you setting? By breaking up, you are teaching your child to end relationships when things become tough. But all relationships are tough! Statistically, the children of divorced parents are more likely to divorce themselves, just as the children of adulterous parents often repeat their mistake. Others may be left with a lifelong fear of rejection. To put it crudely, they may fear their partner walking out on them as their mother or father once did. In other words, if your separation is handled badly, your children could grow up either repeating your mistakes or terrified of having your mistakes inflicted on them.

The Case for Leaving

In some cases, however, not leaving is selfish rather than selfless. And this is the central problem: no two situations are exactly alike. Even the most conservative would have to admit that sticking together can sometimes cause more harm than good. No child is better off in a home with parents who physically and verbally assault one another. Indeed, removing your child from such a home is your duty.

But just because you are not screaming at one another, or hitting each other with frying pans, that doesn’t mean the atmosphere isn’t toxic. This depends in part on the personalities involved. Sometimes, a couple can cease to love another, maybe even cease to like one another, and yet continue living in relative peace and calm: two mellow, cheerful people, each with low libidos, each devoted to an exciting and fulfilling career, can be perfectly happy for years. And because the house is generally cheerful and pleasant, the child will not suffer in any way. But when one, or both, of you are desperately unhappy, even though you never shout or argue, children will sense this.

How is the relationship affecting your mental health? If you or your partner suffer depression because of the marriage breakdown, that is no life for a child. Some couples stick out a desperately miserable relationship, both becoming depressed, in the belief that this is best. But depressed people lose energy and hope. A child needs love, but they also need a happy, positive environment. They have no previous experience of family life, and so they assume that what happens at home is normal. Two depressed parents instill the belief that life is grim, hard, and maybe not worth the effort.

Final Considerations

Deciding whether or not to remain in an unhappy relationship is serious. Life is very short, and, if your children are young, this could mean ten or fifteen years without love, tenderness, intimacy, or even sex. Above all, it will mean loneliness – and constant temptation.

Do not imagine that your children can replace your partner. Many parents whose marriage is failing will tell friends, or even therapists, that it doesn’t matter because their son or daughter provides all the love and meaning they need. But be careful: not only is it unfair to place such responsibility on them, it is also unrealistic. Teenagers are often selfish, unreasonable, and even downright nasty. They are negotiating their way through the minefield of bullying, exams, sex, drugs, and peer pressure. You cannot expect them to cheer you up and keep you company as well. If you mean that loving them, supporting them, and watching them grow is enough for you, then that’s fine; but if you mean that your children will provide the companionship, affection, fun etc that you no longer get from your partner, you are expecting too much.

And do not underestimate your children. They are often far more resilient than you imagine. The real damage is inflicted when children feel unwanted and unloved – when, for example, a parent meets someone new, moves away, and is more interested in them than their kids. It may sound brutal, but some teenagers can even find it exhilarating. For a 15 or 16-year-old, the nuclear family can seem suffocating and oppressive, and having their parents split and begin dating can be a thrill. It must be emphasized that this is not always true. Other teenagers yearn for a stable, secure family unit and are frightened when it disintegrates. Only you know your kids – some are more mature than others, more sensitive, more introverted, and so on.

As you chew over your decision, try not to be too hard on yourself. OK, so your mother remained in her miserable marriage, and so did your best friend, but they weren’t married to your husband. As Tolstoy famously wrote, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Your best friend may be sticking it out for her kids, but perhaps her husband is easy to live with: boring, yes, but also gentle and kind. Your husband, on the other hand, may be an alcoholic bully.

If you decide to stay, do not blame the children. This is your decision; they didn’t ask to be born. Sometimes, a parent endures an unhappy marriage but makes sure the children know about it. Such behavior is pathetic and inexcusable. Do not play the self-sacrificing martyr. And do not expect your children to thank you. Maybe one day they will, but until they are married and raising children themselves, they are unlikely to understand.

Finally, do not rule out some sort of compromise. As people live longer, healthier lives, the idea of monogamy will come under increasing pressure. Could you try an open relationship? These require careful thought and should not be entered into lightly. But they needn’t be seedy. In some circumstances, and for some people, they can work.

If you are agonizing over this decision, it is to your credit. Many parents do not give the children a second thought and only ever consider what is best for them. No matter what you decide, a troubled marriage is likely to affect them in some way. As so often in life, love is the answer: whether you stay or go, so long as your children know you love them, they will be OK.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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