“STAYING TOGETHER FOR THE SAKE OF THE KIDS IS USUALLY A TERRIBLE IDEA” by Barbara J. Shah, Esquire

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No two families are alike, and everyone’s marriage and marital problems are unique, to a point.  However, after many years of divorce practice, there are some things that have become clear.  First of all, for the purposes of this article, I am not going to discuss religious beliefs and practices.   I can safely assume that no one’s religion or religious practices countenances the torture of children.  If yours does, stop reading; this article is not for you.

People who carry on marital battles in an “intact household,” that is, where no one moves out and the parties remain residing in the same residence while fighting with each other (or maintaining a stony silence), seem to be to be like people who are beating their heads against the wall.  Why are they doing this?  If they are just two adults living together, some just work it out and go and come like ships in the night.  Everyone has their own reason, and if it is not emotionally exhausting to carry on such a lifestyle, well, who am I to stop them?  Except that how can they be truly happy?  How can they carry on socially, have friends over for drinks or dinner, etc?  How can they develop a new love life?  Why are they hanging on to this empty husk of a marriage?

The real rub comes in when there are children of any age in the household.  What is the purpose of family life?  To form an economic and emotional unit where each supports the other and the children learn love (and independence, hopefully) under the loving guidance of their parents (or parent, in the case of a single-parent family)?  Well, that is the plan.  The children observe and learn how to behave in a family, and they are able to take risks, because they are secure in the love and guidance of their parents.  If they fail at an enterprise, they have the confidence that they will still be loved at home, and most parents will encourage them to keep trying until they succeed.

What happens when children live in a household where their parents are at war?  At the very top of the terrible scale, if they observe domestic violence perpetrated on one parent by the other, it will form a permanent impression on them.  There is plenty of solid research available which tracks the effect on children’s later lives of witnessing parent-on-parent violence, and it is pretty depressing.  A parent who stays with an abusive parent is doing no favor at all to the children.  I realize that it is not easy to separate from a violent parent, but ignoring the effect on the children of witnessing parent-on-parent violence is not a wise option either.

Although domestic violence is a serious and under-reported marital problem, living in an unhappy household where there is no actual physical violence is not very healthy for children either. Let’s assume this is a household where the parents argue regularly, whether over money or any other major issue.  First of all, those who believe that their children do not know they are fighting are kidding themselves. Children ALWAYS know when their parents are fighting.  We know that even in the most stable of marriages parents fight.  The difference is:  do they make up?  Do they apologize to each other?  Do they figure out ways to work out the issue their fight was about?  When children see their parents working out their differences in a constructive way, it is an important learning experience for them. They learn how to cope with different ideas and opinions of their partners and work out their differences in a civilized manner.

The problem in a household where the parents are always at war or always angry with each other is that children don’t observe a healthy pattern of behavior to pattern themselves after. Studies clearly reveal that these children are at risk, and that they will experience problems in forming healthy adult relationships later in life.  So, if you are one of those parents who is “staying together for the sake of the children” with an abusive/angry spouse, but in doing so are exposing them to ongoing marital strife, think again.

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