No decision to stay married for the sake of the children should be made without considering how the children will react to the eventual breakup.
My current guest, Kimberly had been married for eighteen years when her husband surprised her with the statement, “I don’t love you anymore.” With two young children, aged six and ten at the time, they decided that trying to staying together would be in the best interests of the children. That didn’t last long and the children’s reactions were quite different. Here’s Kimberly:
I think staying together for the kids is less common than it used to be, as being divorced is more acceptable than it used to be.
A lot of times, too, people that want to do that are willing to go for counseling and are willing to work on the marriage. Whether or not the marriage gets solidified in the time that you stay together for the children, you still have to deal with each other and with the children. So, there’s still a need to work on some issues. Generally, those people are interested in counseling. That’s why with me it didn’t work. He wasn’t interested in counseling.
I think children react differently to the eventual split depending on the age of the children, the relationship they had with the particular parent, the circumstances. I’ve talked to a lot of people about that and as I say, it can be quite different.
My children, in particular, as they were young—my daughter was six at the time—she didn’t really seem to notice. Maybe it’s because at the end of the relationship he wasn’t around much. But my son was ten years old and was at the age where he was playing baseball and doing a lot of things with his father, so it was very hard on him, much more so than my daughter.
My son never said anything, so that’s another issue, too. It’s really hard to know, because sometimes the kids don’t talk about it or don’t want to or don’t know how to. There’s a whole issue around how to get your kids to speak to you about the effects and how to help them through it, whether they want to talk about it or not. There are so many different variables.
It’s interesting too, because I remember when I was eighteen my mother actually told me that she wanted to leave my father. You would think being eighteen it would be like, “No big deal,” because I was very independent at that time but I was quite upset and told her that I didn’t want her to and actually based on our conversation, she didn’t. She stayed together because of me and yet had a very good marriage. It lasted almost sixty years and in the long run they were both very happy that they stayed together. So, there’s a case where you just never know.
Kimberly makes a very important point here – it’s naive to think you can stay together for your children successfully without at least some assistance from a qualified therapist to help you renegotiate your relationship and to navigate the parenting challenges. And with that help and commitment, I can see how a couple might reconcile and ultimately have what they would describe as a happy marriage.
I think that’s less likely to happen today because for many people marriage is no longer the economic contract it was for our parents and grandparents.
One of the challenges with staying together for the children, is that when the separation eventually happens and the children learn that they were the reason mom and dad stayed together, the children’s view of the family and their parents’ marriage is challenged. They can feel that all their happy family memories are fake and they can feel that they’ve been lied to.
I don’t think this is reason enough not to stay together but I do think it’s an issue that you have to be prepared to deal with and help your children accept. It’s like everything else in life, you make the best decision you can at the time.
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