Couples therapy can be stressful for everyone involved. One of the questions that parents often ask me is whether it’s right or wrong to stay together solely for the sake of the children.
Their premise is that their primary obligation is to stay married, whether they’re happy or not; implying that their happiness is of no importance. Yet, that also suggests that the 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 your parents 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 broken, miserable marriage isn’t necessarily the best thing for the kids.
My experience has shown that divorce, though most certainly a last resort, must still be an option. 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 in the first place. Where children are concerned, the issue isn’t necessarily staying together or not; it’s more about “being there” for the kids. Separating or divorcing parents must set aside their conflicts and work on the best possible plan for the children under the new circumstances. Interestingly enough, doing so can occasionally lead 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 the mutual relief over not having to stay married 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! Instead of handing that responsibility to the innocent child, the parents must take charge of the situation by asking themselves, “Am I playing a role in the unhappiness? Could I be a better spouse?” Give your partner more of what he or she wants, and see what develops. The worst that can happen is that you’ll know for sure where you stand.
So many people 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.e., “I’ll be different if you start being different first.” That ends up being a very long wait.
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 know they’ll benefit as well.” This attitude of enlightened self-interest certainly 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 and move on; and where does that leave the martyr?
Don’t divorce without careful, rational thought, and without reasonable certainty that it’s what needs to be done. First and foremost, together or not, kids need happy parents, because happy parents will always be there for them.
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