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Should Parents Stay Together For The Sake Of Their Children?

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Dr. Jaime Black
Dr. Jaime Black

Most parents considering divorce ask themselves, “Should we stay together for our children? Which would harm them more, having parents who are unhappily married or ones who are apart?” All parenting experts agree that in cases of abuse, the non-abusing parent should take the children out of that environment at least temporarily while the abusing parent seeks treatment. However, experts disagree about less cut-and-dry cases. Should parents separate because of infidelity? What if parents are civil to one another but are no longer in love?

Some experts argue that divorce is so damaging to children that families should stay together at all costs except in extreme cases. Divorce disrupts schedules, is financially draining, and is confusing for children.  Many times children blame themselves for their parents’ splitting. In addition, some research suggests that children of divorce suffer more depression, learning difficulties, and other psychological problems.

On the other hand, some experts argue that chaotic and unhappy marriages cause children to develop unhealthy relationship models and to increase anxiety. Divorce can have a positive effect if it increases parental and child happiness and reduces stress in the home. Exposure to constant fighting or coldness between parents can be more psychologically damaging than dealing with divorce.

According to Dr. Robert Emery, researcher, professor, and author of The Truth about Children and Divorce, children do better after separation from a high-conflict marriage but do worse after separation when their parents’ marriage was low-conflict. Children are perceptive enough to notice a toxic environment but are confused when parents seem to split for no apparent reason. Dr. Emery strongly believes that no parents should stay together or divorce “for the children’s sake.” He argues that parents need to take responsibility for their decisions and not have children “bear the guilt of your misery.”  Some parents may decide they can tolerate some unhappiness and coexist civilly. Many couples benefit from counseling and can discover new ways to appreciate one another.

Most parenting experts suggest using divorce as a last resort.  Couples should talk and be realistic about their expectations. Relationships change over time. New responsibilities and life events bring stress and a need for readjustment. Before separating, couples should remind themselves of why they got together in the first place. Ask yourself questions about your partner. Is he or she a good parent? Can you find a way to stay together and parent amicably?

If you’ve tried couples therapy, have tried but can’t stop the constant fighting, and/or notice that your children are stressed about your marital relationship, separation might be in everyone’s best interests.  Although research shows that growing up in a divorced family elevates the risk for certain problems, it does not doom your children to a life of problems. During any transition period, children need to feel heard and supported.  If divorce is inevitable, talk openly with your children using age-appropriate language. They don’t need the gritty details, but they need some honesty. They need to be able to anticipate big changes, such as alterations in living arrangements. Make your children your top priority by limiting their exposure to fighting and modeling an amicable dissolution. Work to develop a new and respectful co-parenting relationship.

Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing in Westchester and New York City. In addition to providing general mental health services, Jaime works with individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum, doing psychotherapy, conducting evaluations, and facilitating social skills groups. Visit www.spectrumservicesnyc.com, e-mail JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com or call (914)712-8208.

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