Divorce — 11 December 2005
Should we stay together for the sake of the children?

Some couples have lost hope that their relationship with each other is salvageable. However, loving their children as they do, and fearing the impact of divorce on their children, they question the wisdom of parting while the children are still at home.

As their unhappiness deepens, these parents wonder not only about the impact of divorce, but also about the effects of modeling a poor intimate relationship for their youngsters.

Neither option seems to be ideal for children. Children thrive in happy families that afford them stability, structure, care and guidance by two loving parents. In the absence of this formula, research has found that the crucial factor impacting children, both within intact families and after divorce, is the level and nature of parental conflict.

High conflict parents create fear, insecurity, stress, depression and lower levels of functioning of their children. Marital violence is also associated with greater incidence of child abuse, which jeopardizes children’s healthy development, educational, social, and emotional adjustment and future success in their own marriage and parenthood.

Research has also shown that when parents were able to reduce their conflict and learn to negotiate and compromise, children’s levels of insecurity fear and distress diminished.

There are couples who have lost their love connection with each other, yet they rarely fight and their level of blatant conflict is low. Their children may not see much joy, laughter and easy affection, but are also spared witnessing ongoing conflict and are often unaware of the depth of unhappiness their parents experience. These couples may be even more conflicted about choosing to part in view of their seemingly satisfactory relationship.

Children are not particularly interested in their parents’ satisfaction and happiness with each other, as long as it does not threaten the youngsters’ stability. Children are primarily concerned with their own need fulfillment, and are likely to be content if their parents are attentive to them.

Youngsters also do not have a gauge by which to judge the relative soundness of their parents’ marriage, since this is the only role model they know. If parents have a non-intimate, yet civil relationship, the children may perceive them as having a happy union, and may not realize the reality until they mature.

In low-conflict unions, children may miss learning about effective problem solving styles, negotiation, compromise, free expression of affection, humor, laughter and ease of connection, but are not likely to feel loss, rejection, abandonment, and belonging conflicts they may suffer in the event of divorce.

Parents who are able to live respectfully with each other even after their love connection has been lost, may be encouraged to “stretch” further and learn to communicate better, be more friendly and model for their children respect, kindness and cooperation, even in the absence of deep intimacy.

Mates who are filled with anger, resentments, hate, contempt, criticism and ill will toward each other, may be deluding themselves that these emotions can be masked from the children. These powerful negative energies are evident to youngsters, who may hold themselves responsible for them. “Mom is always mad at me, I don’t know why?” Or, “Dad comes home and hits the computer and talks to none of us, he must hate us.”

Sometimes, children undertake the task of protecting one parent from the other. “Dad, why are you so mean to Mom all the time?” Or, “Mom, stop saying bad things about Dad, he is not that bad.” When youngsters find it necessary to parent their parents, they are feeling the stress and may be more deeply troubled by their parents’ dysfunctional relationship than meets the eye.

The question unhappy partners need to ask themselves is not: ”Should we stay together for the sake of the children?” but “Should we change our ways for the sake of the children?” The answer to the latter question is a resounding yes.

• Since you love your children, be respectful, kind and cooperate with your partner, even after love has died.
• Making personal and relationship changes will help everyone now and forever.
• You don’t have to be in love to be a decent partner. If you cannot contain or re-channel your negativity toward your spouse, you are hurting your children as well.
• If you consider postponing your personal happiness for your children, you are already a loving parent. Make the most of those years to teach them and yourself restraint, maturity and decency.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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