Q: Dr. Hurd, do you think it’s right or wrong for parents with growing children to divorce? Should they stay together for the sake of the children?
A: The premise of the question is that the primary obligation of parents is to stay married, whether they’re happy or not. This implies that the parents’ happiness does not matter. Yet to imply this is also to imply something else: That children, especially as they grow up, are indifferent to the happiness of their parents. Not so, because even if children don’t know why their parent is unhappy, they are affected by it all the same. The other thing implied by this is that parents can, and therefore should, “suck it up” and stay married whether they’re happy or not. Yet if such a policy towards marriage leads to disaster for individuals without children, or with grown children, then how can such a policy not lead to the same disaster with children?
Clearly, divorce must be an option for married people with children as well as married people without children. I blame the high divorce rate not on the “selfishness” of parents, but on the failure of most people to properly conceptualize what a romantic relationship is (for details on this, see my book GROW UP AMERICA!) The issue, where the children are concerned, isn’t staying together or not. The issue is being there for the children. What IS very important for separating or divorcing parents to do is to work together on the best possible plan for the children in the new circumstances. Sometimes, doing so successfully leads to a reversal of the decision to divorce, because of the new teamwork spirit created by such a situation but usually, in my experience, it does not. In fact, the relief over not having to stay married to someone you no longer want to be with will tend to make it easier to cooperate on matters solely related to the children.
Bottom line–kids need happy parents. Don’t divorce without a lot of careful rational thought, and without reasonable certainty it’s what you need to do. This should be a policy for childless people as well. However, your kids will sense and know if you’re happy. They need happy parents first and foremost, because happy parents will be there for them. And your primary responsibility to your children is to be there for them.