Should you stay together for the children’s sake? This is a huge question that most parents who are considering a separation ask themselves — and each other. My answer to the question may surprise you. I strongly believe: This is the wrong question to ask.
Please, do not misunderstand me. I believe — and research shows — that children fare best if they grow up in a happily married family. I would like divorce to be a less common part of children’s lives today. And — this is important — I also believe that many marriages that end in divorce might have been “good enough” for children. Research (including some of my own) suggests that children do better after separation from a high-conflict marriage. However, children do worse after separation when their parents’ marriage was low-conflict. This suggests that their parents’ low-conflict marriage would have been “good enough” for the children. That is, compared to divorce the children in these families may have fared better growing up in a less-than-perfect married family.
So, I firmly believe that parents need to carefully consider (and consider again and again) how a divorce will affect their children. Parents who are good at protecting children from their grown up concerns may need to ponder this issue with particular care.
In the end, however, I believe that no parent should stay together (or divorce, as many parents have told me they did) “for the children’s sake.” Why? For a very simple reason: This is a grown up decision, and parents need to take responsibility for their own choices. You need to own your decision to stay together (or not). You can stay together, because you decided to put your children’s needs ahead of your own (or for 100 other good reasons). But any such a decision should be about your values not “for the children’s sake.”
In other words, I don’t want you to be a martyr. I don’t want your children to bear the guilt of your misery. You need to make your own decisions. And especially if you have children, staying together despite your unhappiness most certainly is an option to consider with great care.
By the way, if you decide to separate, turning your marriage into a living nightmare is not the way to make the decision easier on your children (so they will be relieved by the dissolution of your high-conflict marriage). Instead, you probably need to talk with your children in advance. You need to give them some warning about the possible implications of your well-concealed marriage problems. And if you do go ahead and separate, you also will want to keep your “children first” policy both in your own parenting and in working with your children’s other parent. I offer loads of advice on how to do so (and more on the issue of staying together) in The Truth about Children and Divorce.