Kids need happy parents

Couples therapy can be stressful for everyone involved. One of the questions that parents often ask me is whether it is right or wrong to stay together solely for the sake of the children.

Their premise, of course, is that the parents’ primary obligation is to stay married, whether they’re happy or not—implying that their happiness is of no importance. Yet, to imply this is to also imply that children are indifferent to the happiness of their parents. Not so! Even if children don’t know why their parents are unhappy, they are affected by it all the same. Take a moment and think about your own experiences as a child (whether your parents were divorced or not). Were they happy? How could you tell? Did this have any impact on how you felt? It’s natural for a child to be happy, and they tend to follow the lead of their parents. But, one way to wipe the smile off a child’s face is to be unhappy yourself. Misery and conflict are learned behaviors and, sad to say, they often start in childhood. The simple conclusion is that suffering through a miserable marriage isn’t necessarily the best thing for the kids.

Staying together only ‘for the children’ suggests that parents should always stay married whether they’re happy or not. Such a policy often leads to disaster for individuals without children, or with grown children. Yet (assuming the absence of massive denial), how can it not lead to the same disaster when kids are involved?

My experience has shown that divorce must be an option—albeit a last resort—for all married people, with or without children. I blame the high divorce rate not on the “selfishness” of parents, but rather on their inability to figure out what they really wanted in a partner before they got married. The issue, where children are concerned, isn’t staying together or not. The issue is BEING THERE for the children. It’s very important that separating or divorcing parents set aside their conflicts and work together on the best possible plan for the children under the new circumstances. Interestingly enough, doing so sometimes actually leads to a reversal of the decision to divorce, because of the spirit of teamwork created by such a situation. But in the majority of cases, I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t work out that way. In fact, the mutual relief over not having to stay married to someone you no longer want to be with tends to make it easier to cooperate on matters related to the children.

Another thing that makes me uncomfortable about the notion of staying together ‘for the kids’ is the implication of self-sacrifice. This is a heavy load to lay at your kids’ emotional doorstep: ‘I’m staying in this miserable marriage for your sake.’ Wow—now THERE’S a way to ensure that your kid will grow up with some issues! Even if it’s just an unspoken attitude, it’s real all the same. I’m not saying that divorce is necessarily the answer, but instead of handing off responsibility to your innocent, unsuspecting child, why don’t YOU take charge of the situation? Before you put a pool into some lawyer’s back yard, ask yourself this: ‘Am I playing a role in the unhappiness? Could I be a better spouse?’ It’s certainly worth a try. Give your partner more of what he or she wants, and see what develops. The worst that can happen is that it will end up being a colossal one-way street, which, of course, isn’t fair, but at least you’ll know for sure where you stand.

Consider what psychotherapist Michele Weiner-Davis (a past guest on my radio show) says at her website, ‘I have worked with so many people who live in quiet desperation because they are utterly convinced that their way of seeing things is right and their partner’s is wrong. They spend a lifetime trying to get their partners to share their views. I hear, ‘I’ll change if s/he changes,’ a philosophy that ultimately leads to a stalemate. There are many variations of this position. For example, ‘I’d be nicer to her, if she were nicer to me,’ or ‘I’d be more physical and affectionate if he were more communicative with me,’ or ‘I’d be more considerate and tell her about my plans if she wouldn’t hound me all the time about what I do.’ You get the picture’. ‘I’ll be different if you start being different first.’ Trust me when I tell you that this can be a very, very long wait.’ How true!

And this is the point at which many people divorce. The marriages that make it are the ones where each partner genuinely concludes: ‘I am part of the problem. I will do my part to make it better. I’m doing this for MY happiness—not just for my spouse and my kids—although I hope they benefit as well.’ This attitude of ‘enlightened self-interest’ can, and does, work. And it surely beats the martyr-like, self-sacrificial attitude of, ‘I’ll just suffer through it—for the kids.’ If nothing else, the kids eventually grow up, go to college, or whatever. Where does this leave the martyr then?

Don’t divorce without a lot of careful, rational thought, and without reasonable certainty it’s what you need to do. First and foremost, together or not, kids need happy parents, because happy parents will always be there for them.