When you work with people going through divorce the way I do, this is a perennial question, and your answer to it almost always depends on how you want it framed. Let’s take each perspective in order:
If You’re Rigidly Opposed to Divorce
If you’re rigidly opposed to divorce, this is an easy question to answer. Absolutely. You should stay together just for the kids, because divorce hurts children. These advocates will point to studies demonstrating that children of divorce have lower success rates in school, higher rates of delinquency, depression, and suicide, a higher risk of early pregnancy, and higher rates of poverty.
These advocates do not and cannot answer the more vexing question whether these results are due to the divorce or to the conflict that caused it, and whether things would have been different if the unhappy parents had remained in a loveless and rancorous marriage. Don’t think, though, that the statistical vacuum troubles them. They continue to use these (very real) statistics to tell other people with utter (and I believe misplaced) confidence how to conduct their lives.
If You’re the Leaver
If you’re the leaver, you too have an easy answer to this question. Absolutely not. How could you think it would be better for the children to grow up with one or both of their parents desperately unhappy? Children are smart. They pick up on things.
Do we really want to teach our kids that this is the way married people interact with each other? We need to divorce so the children have a better idea of what a happy marriage can be.
And children are resilient. The kids will be fine if we just get through this calmly and move on with their lives, and then we’ll be able to be better parents than we ever were when we were fighting constantly.
I understand these arguments, and I have heard them expressed by loving parents. They may even be accurate. I am struck, however, by how easily we all filter facts to support the result we desire. It’s that human thing, I guess.
If You’re the Left
If you’re the left in the middle of a divorce, your main goal is to survive. That often means you want to SLOW THIS TRAIN DOWN, at least in the early stages. You cling to any argument you can find that mitigates in favor of holding the marriage together, and basing your argument on what the children need is always more appealing than other premises.
And in many cases, your argument is right. That is, it often is better for children for their parents to stay together, if they’re the kind of parents who can avoid bringing the children in on the conflict between Mom and Dad. And I can tell you stories of parents who have done this well.
Consider Peter and Madelyn, who really don’t have much in common other than the children they brought into the world. Long ago they moved into separate bedrooms (it helps that they are relatively wealthy and have a huge house), and they have separate social lives, take separate vacations, and spend relatively little time together except when it comes to parenting.
They also have a relatively relaxed approach to marital fidelity. It’s a mystery to me but seems to work for them, even though it’s distinctly one-sided. “I just don’t see the point,” was the way Madelyn expressed it. I haven’t asked them why they’re making the choices they are, because they’re fundamentally private people. I think if they did answer me, however, they would say it has a lot to do with caring for their children.
Is their marriage loveless? Certainly, in the traditional sense, although both of them seem to have respect and a kind of gentle affection for the other. Is it rancorous? A long time ago, but no longer.
Or consider Melissa and Ben. Ben’s a workaholic who suffers periodically from bouts of depression. He provides well for the family (Melissa, Ben, an adult child and a high-schooler), but he’s emotionally immature and absent. Melissa’s really the one who holds the family together. Several years when Ben went into a deep down period, he wanted to divorce (although he didn’t have the energy to make it happen). Melissa knew it would be a mistake for all of them, and she refused.
Now, several years later, Ben and Melissa are quite happy together, and Ben would say he’s glad Melissa didn’t allow the divorce to happen. He’s still a workaholic, and still emotionally immature and absent, but they’ve managed to be decent parents together, and they have pleasant lives. And by the way, Melissa’s still holding the family together.
If You’re Lee
So when you hear all these points of view, all valid, all true in their own way, you understand why I’m so reticent about stating an easy answer to this question. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.
If you and your spouse can stay together and concentrate on being good parents together; if you and your spouse can shield the children from the conflict between the two of you and genuinely revel in the joy of being Mom and Dad, it probably would be better for the children if you stay in the same household and continue as parents.
If either of you has the kind of personality that makes it difficult for you to do that, however, maybe it would be better for you to end your marriage so you remove some of that conflict and allow your focus to shift to your parenting.
Does it sound like I’m being careful not to say for sure, that this is an intimate and personal question, and that you and your spouse have to make the call? Good.