Should you Stay in an Unhappy Marriage for the Sake of your Kids?


The breakdown of a marriage is without doubt one of the most painful experiences that anyone can go through. Not only does it signify the end of a partnership but brings with the terrifying question of what will happen to the children if the spouses decide to divorce. Many couples in fact continue with a bad marriage to spare their children the trauma of a broken family. But what really is the best thing to do – stick it out for the sake of the kids or decide to part in peace?

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Social statistics in United States present a dismal picture of the impact of a divorce on kids. Around fifty-five to sixty percent of divorces in the country occur in low-conflict marriages which researchers generally refer to as “good-enough marriages”. According to Paul Amato, sociologist with Penn State University, children from such divorces suffer the most since they are barely aware that their parents are unhappy with each other. In his twenty-year study comprising of two thousand adults and seven hundred of their children, Amato concluded that divorce has a profound negative impact on kids, leaving them psychologically as well as financially ill-equipped to deal with a broken family and the loss of a parent. Amato believes that two types of children stand the greatest risk of future psychological problems. The first group consists of those who grow up with parents locked in overt, hostile marital relationship but still staying together while the second includes those whose parents have divorced to escape a loveless or low-conflict marriage. While in case of a toxic marriage, it is undoubtedly better for both the kids to move to a smaller but healthier family life, in the case of low-conflict divorces, kids are often forced to make a change for the worse.

Another study conducted by Linda Waite, found out that couples who rank in the lowest percentile on marital satisfaction but refrain from divorce profess to be very happy with their marriages five years later. On the contrary couples who decide to divorce are not as happy down the line, according Waite who is professor of sociology in University of Chicago. Results of the study which included 550 adults from a national database revealed that 64% of those who were unhappy with their marriages but stayed together nevertheless claimed to feel happier about their marital lives after five years while only 50% of those who divorced professed to feel that way. This shows that that marital happiness is rather rare and even personal happiness cannot be guaranteed by going for a divorce.

However in recent times, studies have also come up with arguments in favor of providing kids with a healthy and peaceful environment even if it is the result of their parent’s divorce. The most quoted negative consequence of a divorce, namely future psychological problems in kids, have been found to be equally true in case of kids who grow up with conflicted but married parents. A study conducted by Constance Gager of Montclair State University in New Jersey found that children from high-conflict marriages fare better in their own personal lives if their parents got a divorce rather than if their parents stayed together despite overt marital unhappiness. The study included seven thousand married couples and their children in United States and evaluated their personal lives over three stages of research. In the first phase in 1987, the parents were asked to measure levels of marital satisfaction and then between 1992 and 1993 both the parents and children were surveyed including the impact of a divorce, if any. In between 2001 and 2002, the children who were now adults were asked about the kind of relationship they shared with their partners and a majority of those from highly conflicted marriages seemed to fare better after their parents had divorced.

Another reason that proponents of average marriages have put forward against divorces is that over time most married couples tend to give up their hostility and fall into the rhythms of a “good-enough marriage”. However recent surveys show that growing up as part of a loveless marriage may also be harmful for the kids. A family which is devoid of obvious display of love and affection, no matter how safe it is from overt conflicts, is bound to negatively affect the children on some level. If you are unhappy in your marriage, your kid will automatically pick up the signals and suffer inwardly even if your unhappiness is not obvious. On the other hand, a family environment where there is a lot of love and happiness, even though not including both biological parents, may be finally more personally rewarding for the kids.

This is however not to say that divorce does not leave any negative impact on children from the marriage. Even Constance Gager who puts forward the case for divorce as against an unhappy marriage admits that all divorces bring with them short- term negative consequences for the children. According to her kids go through a one to two year crisis period when their parents divorce but eventually bounce back from the experience once given the advantages of a peaceful, safe and loving home environment.

Yet other sociologists believe that it is not the mere fact of the divorce but what kind of divorce the parents go for which finally determines how a child a child is able to cope with the experience. If the parents decide to part amicably with minimal mud-slinging and agree to be actively involved in the child-rearing process, there is no reason why the kids might not grow up to be well-adjusted adults. Amato believes that the choice should not be between a divorce and staying in a miserable marriage but between being moderately happy and bailing out.   And the only way to deal with this is not to restrict access to divorce but to strengthen marriages.

Finally as Gager points out it is not the divorce itself but the long exposure to parental conflict and unhappiness which is worst for the kids. Any process which brings an end to this, whether a divorce or a sincere attempt at rebuilding the marital relationship would work best for children.