Should Unhappy Couples Stay Together Because of the Kids?

What should parents do when their marriage is beyond repair? Many end up struggling with this divisive issue.

Authors Note: here’s my NO chapter on Should Parents Stay Together for the Sake of the Kids for the latest Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Family and Personal Relationships.

“Maybe it would’ve been better if I could’ve kept us together?” my mother-in-law blurted after a couple glasses of wine about her ex and father of my husband. “I just can’t help but wonder if I should’ve done more.”

Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve? At some turn we all wonder what might be different if only…. Especially when it comes to our babies, we want to do what’s best. But as Republicans said during the 2008 presidential campaign of their VP pick’s teenaged daughter in the family way, life happens. And it doesn’t always mesh with how we see things ought to be. Despite Bristol Palin’s vow to “do the right thing” by choosing motherhood and marrying the dad, she and Levi Johnston split with their baby just weeks old, becoming another notch in America’s rising rates of teen pregnancy and record 40% births out of wedlock.

Life happens, often contradicting our box of shoulds or the latest stats. Still after doing the whole “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage,” many unhappy couples face a crossroads they never dreamed of traversing. Which is what makes so charged the political—as in today’s flush national marriage movement to get or keep parents hitched—and personal decision for couples to stay together, or not, for the sake of their kids.

It depends. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you value? What’s unhappy and when does it bleed from disillusionment to hopelessness to your own private hell? How real are your choices?Trapped in a dead end relationship in today’s turbulent economy, more couples say separation is a non-starter when together means the bare necessities for their family. Or to a maritally denied same sex couple, a breakup could turn shattering, as in the legal case of a soured Vermont civil union where the converted straight Christian ex forbids the lesbian non-biological mom to see their daughter. Or take my gay Mexican cousins who wouldn’t dream any disruption to their delicate charge of providing stability to their two adopted sons so scarred by mom’s abandonment and foster care nightmares, including being locked in a dumpster all day.

Clearly the agonizing conundrum immortalized by the Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is a luxury for those of us with children but not in dire straights. Physical, verbal or emotional abuse is when push comes to shove no matter the challenges ahead. But that line is fuzzy for too many, let alone the pundit distinction between unhappiness and high conflict. So digging through the variable muck of couples on the verge wanting what’s best for their kids, I say choose the pursuit of happiness—together or not—for self, for child.

Parents should separate if they can’t move past depression, anxiety, martyrdom, hostilities, or otherwise spewing toxic fumes.

Reality is that my mother-in-law had little choice in preserving her marital status. Her husband left for Afghanistan when my husband was just 6 years old. She concludes he didn’t want to be burdened with family, “We had three young children, and he wanted to ride a horse to China!” Reality is that she alone raised the most beautiful, grounded man in the world, and her ex—largely absent for his own boys beyond financial support—is now a routinely engaged papa to our 6-year-old, hiking together in the Rockies and teaching him to write. And reality is that my conservative parents, married 47 years, badly damaged their children by staying together, and their grandson has asked more than once if they’re alive or dead.

Maybe my husband’s mom was so wistful that night about saving her marriage because our family glow made her so. We’re blessed. We married at 30ish and welcomed our son eight years later. We both work from home and my sweetie, the primary breadwinner, daily nurtures and plays with our angel from skiing to rock climbing to milling a 6’ autonomous robot to packing his school lunch each morning no matter client demands. Still smitten 14 years married, we’re a tight parental team in sync with imbuing respect and gratitude, joy and dignity. My partner’s parents somehow staying married wouldn’t have recreated our family bliss.

With personal experience defying conventional wisdom that reflexively applauds enduring marriages and decries divorce as failure, I was struck by one Salon writer’s clarity on the Bristol-Levi split. “As someone whose parents were very young, conceived me by accident and broke up while I was still in utero, I believe sometimes the best thing you can do for your kids is be brave enough to know when to quit,” wrote Mary Elizabeth Williams. “I can’t speak for any other family’s circumstances, but I do know that I never spent a day of my childhood in a home where the people in it didn’t love each other. And I wish to God we as a culture would get over our sanctification of staying together for the kids.”

Amen. From my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, I understood intimately that once married under God there’s no exit strategy. End of story, forget happily ever after. Knowing fear, sorrow and powerlessness, I vowed at 17 to never get married or have kids. My conviction endured for 15 years until I met my sweetie and realized I needn’t remain enslaved to traditional notions of wife and mother. My push to shed baggage, build my foundation and follow the American pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, means I now can offer beauty to my chosen family versus the ugly realism of yet another repeating cycle.

A range of parents and children of divorce I interviewed are unequivocal that not waiting for “death do us part” was a good thing. Such as the married, childfree environmental engineer from Texas, who says of her parents’ divorce, “Like rats trapped in a cage, kids feel unhappiness. My parents didn’t need to live under the same roof, and we were all better off once they didn’t.” Or the remarried conservative Christian father of four—his, hers and theirs—who says he’s a much better father now than when living in such toxicity. “Why would I want my kid to model our crap,” says the global pharmaceutical entrepreneur based in Colorado.

Or take the twice-divorced Catholic mother, who says her mom should’ve left her dad, but unable to take the plunge, all three kids suffered tremendously. “I know couples who sleep in opposite rooms and stay together for the kids. Those kids are so dysfunctional. In relationships there should be self sacrifice or hard work put into it, but not to the level that you hurt yourself or your children,” says the Oregon small business owner and union manager, who married versions of her father. “If I was still married to his father, I’d be in survival mode and never have the pleasure of knowing my child and who he is and the man he is becoming,” she says of her 17 year old.

“In a house full of unrest and lack of love, how can anyone thrive?”

But renowned psychologist Joshua Coleman says in his introduction of The Marriage Makeover: finding happiness in imperfect harmony, “Contrary to the wisdom of pop psychology, it is not essential to you or your children’s well-being for you to have a great marriage.” Over the phone he dismisses today’s relationship concept of “soulmate” as harmful. “The notion that if parents are unhappy, then their children must be unhappy is problematic. It depends on what parents are doing with their unhappiness.”

Having worked with couples for 30 years, he and other liberal therapists I interviewed decry our consumer culture that sees marriage as a disposable vehicle to romantic fulfillment and personal growth—“a one-stop shopping center for all our needs—that devalues two parents in children’s lives.” He says research shows children overwhelmingly want their parents together.

Though it’s hard to weight research that makes such a sweeping claim when it’s easy to romanticize a “forever family” and simpler times, especially if your parents’ breakup didn’t translate into healthier relationship patterns, I agree divorce shouldn’t be the default switch for marital discontent. Often reasons for divorcing aren’t anymore mature than reasons for getting married and having kids. I wish adults were bigger grown ups with affairs of the heart, especially when responsible for trusting little lives.

And I respect Coleman’s lifelong work giving couples tools in serenity and due diligence to preserve their family structure for the sake of their kids. Splitting isn’t the only option for a broken union. “You don’t want to raise your children half time,” says the remarried-with-twins Coleman, whose own divorce tore him from his daughter and stirs him to help others avoid the same loaded terrain. “Hopelessness, like happiness, is a transitory emotion.”

But unlike today’s powerful cottage industry of books, conservative think tank studies, and family values groups that insists divorce categorically hurts children and society, Coleman says parents should separate if they can’t move past depression, anxiety, martyrdom, hostilities, or otherwise spewing toxic fumes. “Those people should be given support if they can pull off divorce in a mature fashion. You can’t stay with each other and consistently humiliate.”

America’s highest divorce rate in the world is a multifaceted problem. And though I agree our romantic myths too often doom relationships, especially once children enter the picture, most couples about to throw in the towel go far beyond Barbara Streisand-Neil Diamond’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers (you don’t say you need me, you don’t sing me love songs) Anymore.” The average couple waits six years too long before seeking help. Psychology professors Philip A. and Carolyn Pape Cowan, who have worked on strengthening families for 30 years, say we’re not talking about whiny middle class couples, but unresolved conflict that spills over as violence, verbal abuse, aggression, and disgust that proves damaging to children.

“Most couples who have kids are hoping and expecting to stay together. It’s that couples don’t have much help maintaining a lifelong relationship and have many pressures that divide them,” says Philip, who with his wife has done longitudinal intervention research with couples in transition, including parents with a new baby, parents with a first child going to school, and low-income couples with young children. Findings show ordinary parents receiving skilled support experience much less decline in marital satisfaction and less increase in child behavior problems.

“It is simply a myth repeated over and over again that ‘most research shows’ divorce is more harmful than sticking it out,” says Philip. “It’s true that if studies only ask whether the couple is married or divorced, statistics favor children of the married, but that’s because they’re asking the wrong question.” The Cowans say such studies lack a control group, falsely comparing those divorced to happy intact versus unhappy marriages.

Coleman and others who lean toward “together for the sake of the kids” distinguish between unhappy versus high conflict. However the Cowans, who like Coleman, are members of the Council on Contemporary Families, say their research shows that children experience low-conflict deep freeze the same as fighting or high conflict. It’s not family structure that matters, but the quality of the relationship. “Well-functioning marriages are good for kids and dysfunctional marriages—divorced or intact—pose risks for kids,” Philip says.

“Couples should try to make their relationships better whether married or divorce, and that’s what’s good for kids.”

The parents of my son’s wonderful best friend made and renew a conscious decision to stay together for their only child. While not agreeing on much they’re clear on a shared purpose of their son’s wellbeing, which includes living on a farm and no media, pop culture or consumer corruption. Mostly forgoing adult intimacy, both take full responsibility of their own happiness as they separately pursue deeply spiritual paths. However, the husband said that their son is picking up on his and Ann’s tension, but joked that Jadon will need something to talk about with his future shrink.

As child psychologist Lanning S. Schiller says, the goal is to get away from bad and get towards good, to get people’s needs met and avoid harm. Though he recommends delaying separation until after a child is three years old to avoid abandonment issues, he says ultimately everyone has a right to a life.

And though polls show that most Americans favor divorce if parents are “very unhappy,” polls also show that the vast majority sees the two-parent home as best to raise children. Mary Elizabeth Williams, author of Gimme Shelter: My three years searching for the American Dream, found more hostility than not when, after years of therapy, she separated from the father of her two children. She spoke of friends who stopped talking to her, who couldn’t deal with such a challenge to their view of the wife they thought they knew. An old college roommate who came out in her mid-30s told her, “You must feel like I felt.”

In her Salon essay, The Cost of Leaving: I can’t afford to stay in my marriage—but how will I afford to leave it? she wrote, “I’m still not convinced that the mere possibility of mutual happiness apart from each other is a noble or practical enough goal. I worry that I am limiting my children’s lives, that in addition to all the emotional baggage of not having Mom and Dad across from them at the dinner table, they will have to make all kinds of material sacrifices they didn’t sign up for.” She concludes, “I saw something that had been wonderful and good and loving for so long becoming twisted into something mercenary and suffocating, dwindling into a joyless splitting of the electricity bill and the groceries…. I couldn’t save my marriage…. But I might be able to save, at least, the rest of our lives.”

Most of the 122 readers that responded to her thoughtful vulnerability on this liberal website, expressed outrage for her selfishness, including this gem, “Who the fuck told you you were a human being?” One typical post read, “You signed on to have children, now you’re contemplating screwing them up to save your ‘happiness.’ Grow up and suck it up. Most intact marriages aren’t happy either.”

Despite a culture that has supposedly moved from duty bound to a me-first sensibility, compassion doesn’t come readily for an individual’s pursuit of happiness if it means cracking open the only world a child’s ever known.

“I don’t give a fuck what others think. Are my kids happy? Am I treating them with respect? Am I treating the man I’ve been with all these years with regard?” Williams tells me. “There’s a difference between giving kids stability and thinking you can give them permanence.

“I can’t help thinking that if I stayed for all the wrong reasons it would screw them up. It would certainly screw me up.”

And as a happily married woman whose child comes first, I just can’t see how that would be best for anyone’s kids.

This article originally appeared in Salon.

Photo by angusf.

About Lara Riscol

Lara Riscol writes about sex and society, where politics, pop culture, religion, media, and feminism collide. She's writing a book called, Ten Sex Myths That Screw America: a pleasure polemic.


  1. wellokaythen says:

    In the vast majority of cases of a dilemma between two options, there are at least three options. The third option may not be the best option, but it’s always worth some consideration. In cases where you are completely torn between two choices, look for a third choices.

    Between staying in a marriage and leaving a marriage there is a third option – reworking the marriage. Staying and recommitting is not the same as transforming. You marriage is what you and your spouse make of it. Forget all the baggage about what your marriage is supposed to be or what you’re supposed to want. Make it a relationship defined by both of you. If your marital relationship is fundamentally flawed, then one possibility is to make a brand new one with the same person. You can end your marriage and stay to remake a better one for both of you. There’s a real difference between “white-knuckling” it and transforming it. The difference is between trying to save a bad marriage and trying to make new one.

    (This is just one kind of “third option,” not the only kind.)

  2. Don Draper says:

    While every scenario is different, and I believe there are extreme situations wherein a couple with children should divorce, for the most part I believe Coleman is right.

    The real question should be, “why can’t couple be mature enough to make “life” decisions in such a way that the objective ins NOT “my” happiness…and if I’M not “happy” I have to leave this person of my prior choosing.” There is usually one partner who gets the itch to move on, who’s “unfulfilled.” If the couple can work on their marriage and “through” the issues, they need to stay.

    I WAS a partner who justified ending my marriage, and while outwardly, many would assess my three children as well-adjusted, the divorce has negatively affected their lives in tangible and intangible ways, as it has mine. I used all the usual justifications, but six years later, I can confess, it was pure bunk, and I was WRONG. I hate that I hurt my children and ex-wife. It was a selfish and needless act, the remorse and weight of which I will tote to my grave. Be prepared to carry that load, because you don’t get to choose when “your debt has been paid in full” once you jump off that cliff.

    Love one another…make sure of it on the “front end.” LOVE- selflessly, not for self gratification.

  3. I am always amused by the attitude expressed by many younger people when sharing their reason why they are not married yet. Mostly it is a version of “We didn’t feel we were ready.” Many of these couples have at least one if not several children together. I constantly ask myself. If you aren’t ready to commit to each other formally what the F*%&ck are you doing making children? Surely having a child with someone is the ultimate committment.

    I think that one of the aspects that is frequently overlooked in this debate is the extremely low value our culture places on parenting and caring for children. Housewives and women who forgo careers to parent children are considered lesser beings because their earning power is less. Childcare workers and teachers are amongst the lowest paid workers in the Western World. I see both sides of the debate as presented here there is much damage in staying together because of children or religious values or both, there is damage in dumping and running when the going gets tough. Both of these models do little to give children confidence in their parents and themselves or allow them to see models for sucessful and fulfilling relationships that they can use to pattern their own lives.

    Seriously if people thought more about their fertility before the children even existed and valued their future children many of these scenarios could be avoided.

  4. If the couple is making steps to make their marriage happier (therapy, cooperation, etc.) I’d say stick it out. But if they’re there with “cheaper to keep her” logic and just refuse to take the steps of separation (and making each other miserable) I think they should part ways. Not only are they making each other miserable but kids observe that behavior and it could work one of two ways: 1) Children will grow up and jump through hoops to make their relationship not like Mom and Dads (and maybe won’t speak up when they’re really unhappy). 2) Fall back from relationships altogether because they just don’t have the energy to argue like Mom and Dad did.

    But if the kids see Mom and Dad working it out, then at least they’ll learn some conflict-resolution skills. If it’s a physically and mentally abusive relationship though, I say LEAVE immediately.

  5. wellokaythen says:

    Here’s a trickier, more practical question for a Taking Sides chapter about staying together for the sake of the kids:

    Which is better for the kids, two married parents fighting in the house all the time, or two divorced parents fighting over e-mail every other weekend?

    Or, maybe this one:

    Which is better for the kids, having a parent in a good relationship with a step-parent, or having two biological parents who mistreat each other?

    Let’s not leave out the step-dads and step-moms and all the other blended families out there. Are those families always worse for kids than bio-nuclear families? No.

  6. Can unhappy couples afford to separate (paying 2x rent, etc)?

    • Factor in the price of child support for one of the two parents and it can be even more expensive. I do understand the “cheaper to keep her” mentality. I just don’t agree with it. Seems like a miserable way to live.

  7. FABULOUS piece. Well-reasoned, well-researched, well-balanced. Sharing all over the place.

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