Life & Style | Relationships

Debate: Should you stay together for the children?

A recent study by UK break-up support website HealBee has revealed that one in ten married couples are staying together ‘just for the kids’. But is this really such a good idea?

  • Aquarius magazine
  • Published: 17:43 January 16, 2013
  • Aquarius

  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • “The loss of security, stability and safety as a child can have long-term detrimental impact on adults,” explains Dr Wyne.

YES

Noor*, daughter of divorced parents and married mother of two, aged five and seven

I’ve been married for nine years and though happy at first, our relationship has deteriorated to the point where we aren’t any more. We agree that we’ve grown apart, but we will not be splitting up. It may sound like an outdated cliché, but we’re going to stay together ‘for the sake of the kids’.

And why wouldn’t we? The fact that the fireworks have fizzled out is not the fault of our beautiful offspring and they should not suffer for it. The marriage vows I took with my husband now extend to my children. I have a duty to give them a secure family environment. Whether I’m happy or not is beside the point. Without sounding like a martyr, I have to put my children first, even if that means sacrificing my own needs.

“Staying together for the children involves sacrifice,” says psychologist Dr Tara Wyne of The LightHouse Arabia. “The extent to which we sacrifice our own need for happiness will depend on how seriously we’ve adopted the ‘parent’ role.” Me? I’ve taken it very seriously – so much so that I’m willing to deal with the difficulty of an ‘unloving relationship’. “Parents should be the ones to live with difficulty because they’re far better at coping with it than kids would be coping with divorce,” says Dr Wyne.

Look, truth be told, I’m no martyr. It’s tough living with a man you no longer love, sacrificing intimacy. But it’s not about me. And that’s the point. It’s about the kids, so I shut up and put up. My mother and her mother before her would have just got on with it, played the dutiful wife and it’s hard to see fault in that. I think far too often couples resort to divorce at the first sign of trouble. Come on guys, life is not The Waltons… marriage is tough. And as adults, we have to tough it out for our children’s happiness.

“Our children’s welfare and happiness lies in our hands,” explains Dr Wyne. “Our decisions affect their lives and adjustment fundamentally. This is the responsibility of parenthood… typically best served by two caring, attentive, resourced parents.”

Of course, separated parents would argue that despite splitting up, they can be just as ‘attentive’ and have just as many resources as parents who stay together. But I don’t agree. As a product of a broken home, I’ve experienced the damage divorce does. Divorced parents do struggle more with finances. Fact. Divorced parents do therefore prioritise finances and work in order to manage, leaving kids more neglected. Fact. Divorced parents do organise their children’s lives according to a custody schedule that’s often confusing and certainly unstable. Fact.

“The loss of security, stability and safety as a child can have long-term detrimental impact on adults,” explains Dr Wyne.

She’s right. In their book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study, Judith Wallerstein, Julia Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee detail how many of the children they studied never got over their parents’ divorces and spent years battling emotional, social and behavioural problems.

I can already hear divorced readers arguing, “but the children were more affected by the arguments when we were together”. So, avoid arguing then. “Staying together despite conflict or distance is a tough challenge for parents,” says Dr Wyne. “But if a couple can maintain key relationship variables like respect, sincerity, reliability and consistency, they can protect children from the many harsh realities divorce would inevitably expose them to.”

And that’s what we’ve done… we’ve maintained civility. Whether my husband or I are happy is missing the point – when our children are safe and happy, we are happy too.

NO 

Stephanie*, daughter of unhappy parents and divorced mother of three, aged 13, nine and seven

The concept of ‘staying together for the kids’ implies two things. Firstly, it is simply another lifestyle choice (butter or marge? BlackBerry or iPhone? Unhappy marriage or divorce?), which is ridiculous – we only have one shot at having a happy life. And, secondly, and even more ridiculously, that staying together is in the best interests of the kids.

Don’t know about you, but my Disney-perfect family image doesn’t come with wounding arguments, bitter silences and cold shoulders. Cut the tension with a knife? Hmph! A chainsaw, more like. And the impact this has on kids is brutal.

Countless studies prove that parental conflict causes long-term emotional and mental health issues. Mark Cummings, a psychology professor whose research on the topic was published in the journal Child Development, says, “A useful analogy is to think about emotional security as a bridge between the child and the world. When destructive marital conflict erodes the bridge, children may lack confidence and become hesitant to move forward, or unable to find appropriate footing.”

Unless you have been through it yourself as a child, it can be hard to understand how it might feel. So imagine this: you’re in surgery, under local anaesthetic (so you’re awake) and your surgeons are arguing about what to do next. How would you feel? Would you feel safe and secure? Doubtful.

“Well we never fight in front of our kids,” you say? I say, that’s a pointless technicality. Anyone who has walked into an awkward situation (a private conversation, a kiss that wasn’t supposed to happen, your friends planning your surprise party) will know you don’t need to witness tension or energy to feel it. For children, living on the outside of an unhappy marriage is as good as being wrapped up and smothered with it.

Keith Swan, consultant counselling psychotherapist at LifeWorks in Dubai says, “Kids know when their parents are unhappy. Happy parents apart are better than miserable parents together.” Hear, hear! Happy caring parents make for happy caring kids. Fact. I’ve seen too many childhoods destroyed by negativity silently passing between parents like clouds, casting cold shadows and bad weather on the children huddled beneath.

Still not convinced? Try this on for size. It might be fine for you to martyr your way through your miserable marriage, but would you wish it on your kids? American family expert Doug Fields says parents underestimate the power of modelling. “Children are taking daily recordings of what a marriage looks like and those recordings are shaping their view of marriage.”

So if your children grow up thinking that marital love is characterised by belittling at breakfast and disdain at dinner, how will they know they deserve something better – even if that means singledom? A recent article in the Huffington Post reads, “When you model that you deserve to be in a satisfying and supportive relationship, you model something wonderful to your kids. You’re showing your children not to settle for an unhealthy marriage.” I quite agree.

Before you resign yourself to a lifetime of unhappiness, have a good long think about your real reasons for staying together. Are you scared of being alone? Do you think you won’t find anything better?

If your marriage is heading towards a nuclear meltdown, don’t let your kids become collateral damage. You might be fine with it, but they deserve better than that.

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