You feel stuck in an unhappy marriage with kids. What do you do? If you stay, the future looks personally bleak. And what are you modeling for the kids? If you leave the unhappy marriage, your kids suffer. Or would they be better off without the bad modeling? It’s confusing and complicated, there’s no doubt about it.
It is critical to take your time and do your research before deciding if you should stay or go. The consequences of the decision are far-reaching for you and your children. You must be clear-eyed, level-headed, and do your best to keep your emotions out of decision-making.
Know what the research says about the effects of divorce on you and your kids. That way, if you decide to divorce, you’ll know how best to lessen these effects.
If you decide to stay in an unhappy marriage with your kids, the research will help you be clear why you are doing so. And research also can guide you to make the best of your marriage for yourself and your children.
Helpful Guides For Your Decision About Your Unhappy Marriage with Kids
Additionally books like the following can help you with this important decision:
- Lundy Bancroft’s classic Should I Stay or Should I Go
- Susan Pease Gadoua’s Contemplating Divorce
- Mira Kirshenbaum’s Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay
Before getting into the research on divorce’s effect on yourself and kids, here’s an important caveat. If you are in an unhappy marriage with kids and are experiencing domestic violence, it is doing great harm to your children. Find a local domestic violence support service to guide you on (ideally) how to get out of the relationship or, at a minimum, on how to protect your children.
The Effect of Divorce on Families
Judith Wallerstein, Phd, created a landmark 25-year study on the effects of divorce on families, particularly children. Beginning in the 1970s she followed 131 children whose parents had divorced. She checked in with them every 5 years and reported these longitudinal observations in a book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce.
At the time of initiating the study (when Wallerstein anticipated only a 1-year study), she assumed the findings would validate the common wisdom at the time. That is, that divorce was a short-term crisis that families and children weathered well. At the 1-year mark, the data shocked Wallerstein. Every member of the divorcing families was doing poorly on every measure of well-being. Consequently, they extended the study’s end-date 5 years.
Even at the 5-year mark and again at the 10 and 15-year marks as the study further extended, the data were painted a dismaying picture. While most of the parents experienced noticeable emotional healing in the early years, the children did not. At 5 years, over a third of the children were even worse emotionally than they had been at the beginning of the divorce. Just because you may become happier after divorce does not mean your children will.
She also noted that just because divorce is commonplace doesn’t make it less devastating for those involved. Her findings revealed that all children suffer from divorce, no matter how many of their friends have gone through it. Despite societal stigma of divorce reducing enormously, the pain each child feels is not assuaged. It is happening to them.
Wallerstein noted that divorce is not a singular event in children’s or adults’ experience. It is a continuum experience that begins in the unhappy marriage and extends through the separation, the divorce, and any remarriages and second divorces.
The Effect on the Adults
- The cumulative data on the adults over the years of the study revealed the wrenching nature of divorce in the parents’ lives:
- Tremendous stress in single parenting.
- Persistent anger at the former spouse and continuing emotional pain, despite technically moving on.
- Less likely occurrence of a happy second marriage – or marriage at all for women over 40.
- Significant, persistent financial insecurity for the majority of females.
- Increased loneliness – for virtually all females despite social support – and for all un-remarried males.
- Increased sense of loss, particularly in females.
- Worsened physical health for half of the women who did not remarry.
- Emotional distancing of fathers from children in a significant percentage of families (with devastating effects on the children).
The Effect on the Children
The data results on the children in divorce disturbed Wallerstein, particularly given how persistent the effects remained over the years. If you’re in an unhappy marriage with kids and considering divorce, the following may be difficult to read. Again, do your best to be clear-eyed and level-headed. Wallerstein found:
- Children were more devastated by divorce than adults. Children were especially affected because divorce occurred during their formative years. What they saw and experienced became a part of their inner world, their view of themselves, and their view of society – the foundation of their lives as adults. Simply put, for children divorce is life-transforming.
- For all children, the loss of the intact family structure stripped away the felt sense of safety and protection provided by the family structure – whatever its faults.
- The loss of the family structure also collapsed the scaffolding upon which the child’s psychological, physical, and emotional growth was mounted. This interrupted the child’s growth process.
- Virtually all children of all ages felt rejected in the divorce because they interpreted the parent leaving the spouse as also leaving themselves.
- Almost all children in the study were angry at their parents and remained so for years. Wallerstein theorized this was because the parents had violated the unspoken and unwritten rule that parents sacrifice for their children, not the other way around.
- The children in the study felt intense loneliness. Shockingly, only 10 percent of the children indicated an adult spoke to them sympathetically as the divorce unfolded.
- Children in the study experienced a tremendous sense of disloyalty. If they believed they had to take one parent’s side (usually to protect that parent psychologically), they felt disloyal to the other parent. Even if they did not take sides, they still felt isolated and disloyal to both parents.
- A significant percentage of children felt guilt and even fault for the divorce. They consequently believed it was their duty to mend the marriage. Virtually all children held reunification fantasies for years.
- Unlike parents, children did not perceive divorce as a “second chance.” Rather, it was the loss of their childhood (as they had known it) forever.
- Children in the study experienced low self-esteem in adolescence at greater rates than in the general population. This was especially true if fathers had become emotionally distanced from the child.
- Adolescence was a period of grave risk for children in the study. Those who entered adolescence in the immediate wake of their parents’ divorce had a particularly hard time given the loss of family structure when they needed it most. An alarming number of teenagers felt abandoned, physically and emotionally.
Longer Term Effects
- Even 10 and 15 years into the study, most of the children continued to feel strong emotions: a deep sense of loss, feeling less protected, feeling less cared for, etc. Most continued to have significant painful memories of the divorce. And the loss of the intact family was not the only loss, but one of a series of losses as people came and went in their parents’ lives.
- The study participants showed significantly lower college achievement than might have been predicted from the socio-economic backgrounds in which they grew up. This was due, in part, to nearly two-thirds of fathers in the study offering no college tuition assistance whatsoever. The expense of divorce often depleted what would have been college savings for both parents.
- Almost half of the children in the study entered adulthood as worried, under-achieving, overly self-deprecating, and sometimes angry. Additionally they showed a lifelong vulnerability to the experience of loss.
- Upon entering adulthood and beginning to make adult decisions regarding love and intimacy, all study participants had significant fears of rejection and betrayal. Most felt the lack of a template for loving, enduring, and moral relationships. Anxiety carried over from divorced family relationships threatened to obstruct the young people’s ability to create new, enduring families of their own.
- A sleeper effect that showed up in their 20s seemed to primarily affect female children. While in the years immediately after the divorce the girls appeared so much better adjusted socially, academically, and emotionally, this apparent adjustment fell apart for a significant percentage in early adulthood. Many suffered serious psychological problems.
- And in one of the few good news results, many children of divorce had become stronger for their struggles. This was particularly true in areas of self-responsibility, morality, values, economic independence, hard work, and having a reverence for good family life. Divorce was not universally detrimental to all children, but these positive effects often weren’t displayed until well into adulthood.
When You Should Leave
Wallerstein’s study indicated two situations where children did better after divorce. First, when there is chronic high expressed conflict or violence or abuse in the marriage. The second was when there was an ongoing presence of active addiction in the family. Divorce in these situations actually benefited the children. Other studies also have also demonstrated that divorce is better for children in cases of domestic violence.
The study has criticisms. It used all middle-class, well-educated, therapy pre-selected subjects rather than diverse subjects. The research used no control group. And while many divorce researchers since this study have found lasting effects of divorce to be of the same type, the effects found were less intense. Feminists have been particularly critical of the study, saying that it disempowers women because it encourages them to remain in unhappy marriages.
Wallerstein vehemently denied this latter criticism, saying she was not advocating a position of no divorce. She noted that her purpose in disseminating the results of the study was to provide important information. That is, she wanted divorcing parents and policy makers to be aware of children’s experience during and after divorce so that parents and society can better support them.
The study remains one of the few longitudinal studies on the effects of divorce, and so remains very influential.
How to Best Support Your Children in Divorce
Wallerstein advised that if you decide to leave your unhappy marriage with kids, prepare the children. Give then an honest appraisal of how the decision will disrupt the parents’ schedule and time with the children. Honestly describe the impact that divorce may have on their school experience, play time, shopping, and possibly their friendships.
Don’t pretend that leaving an unhappy marriage is no big deal to the kids. If you lie to them, you will undermine their trust in you. Worse, you will lose the chance to stay included in their lives when they grow up knowing you were not reliable.
Other important supports for your children include making it clear to them that the divorce is not because of anything they did or didn’t do. Rather the divorce is the result of the parents’ actions as adults. If the decision is the last resort after unsuccessful attempts to repair the marriage let the children know that. Acknowledge to your children your sorrow over the effect of your decision on them.
Also make it clear that just because the adults are divorcing does not mean you are divorcing the children. Then work to make this last part so. Remain an active presence in your children’s lives, even if they attempt to push you away in their anger. Acknowledge their right to be angry at how the divorce totally changes their world as they knew it to be. Acknowledge the children’s sorrow and all their emotions – and continue to acknowledge their emotions.
Keep repeating these fundamental messages that the divorce was not their fault and that you are not divorcing them. Because of how the brain develops in children, especially under 12, they will likely be resistant to believing the fault for the divorce does not lie with them. Also, continue to talk about the divorce here and there over the years and demonstrate your willingness to hear their feelings as they evolve.
Do your best to keep things as consistent and predictable as possible for the children. The children residing in the same house they’ve lived in accomplishes much of this goal. However, this housing desire must balance with the real economic realities of that choice. Talk with a tax professional Do not trade short term consistency for long-term chaos. Ideally keep the children in the same schools and do your best to keep their extra-curricular schedule the same if at all possible.
Wallerstein noted the importance for children of keeping expressed conflict with your ex low both during and after the divorce. Support the relationship of the children with your ex. Be open to the children communicating with the other parent even on “your” time with them. Work with your ex to have consistency in parenting, especially for parenting adolescents.
An excellent resource with much more detail on these and other considerations for supporting your children through divorce is Robert Emery’s The Truth About Children and Divorce.
Options That Can Help You in Divorce
If you’re in an unhappy marriage with kids, keep the divorce process as low conflict as possible for your kids (and yourself) by considering mediation to accomplish your divorce. Mediation is an alternative way of divorcing that allows you and your spouse to design your own settlement and parenting plan. It allows you to take into consideration the unique circumstances of your family. It costs less and is less divisive than divorce by court litigation due to the court’s foundation as an adversarial system. Not every marriage should be dissolved through mediation, particularly those affected by addiction or domestic violence, so consult with a mediator to determine if your marriage is a fit for mediation.
There are a variety of co-parenting apps that assist with communication and scheduling. These apps can be a godsend for divorcing spouses who need distance from each other, yet still co-parent smoothly. Utilizing technology like this can help create the consistency your children need to weather this difficult time.
Divorce ranks second only to death of a spouse in the well-recognized Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory of life stressors. Consequently it’s normal and healthy to feel the need for support during this tumultuous time. Consider therapy for yourself to help keep you on an even keel. If your children are displaying signs of distress during or after your divorce, consider therapy for them, as well.
In order for you to weather this significant stress, self-care is a must. If you don’t have a self-care regime, take a look at the self-care suggestions in this article on grief and in this article on depression and anxiety for ideas.
If You Choose to Stay in Your Unhappy Marriage with Kids
Many people choose to stay in their marriage. There’s even some evidence that doing so yields more happiness than divorce in the long term. Choosing to stay can be out of desire to keep the family intact and prevent emotional damage to children. Or it can be a financial decision to remain in the marriage. Or any number of other reasons. The point is that the choice to stay is as personal and as individually valid as is the choice to divorce.
If you decide to stay in your unhappy marriage with kids, you have to figure out a new way of being in relationship that is at a minimum tolerable for yourself and not damaging for the children. While this will take work, it’s absolutely necessary for your mental health and the well-being of the children to find a low-conflict “new normal.” No one can thrive in an atmosphere of ongoing conflict and high emotion.
This new way of being tends to fall into one (or both) of two categories: (1) reshaping the marriage itself and (2) focusing on personal change.
Reshaping Your Marriage if You Stay
If you’re in an unhappy marriage with kids and you’re contemplating divorce, you’ve probably already gone to couples counseling. But if you haven’t and your partner is open to the idea, marriage counseling can be a helpful intervention to bring about change. It’s important, though, to work with a counselor who has specific training in working with couples successfully. Research-backed approaches that are associated with successful outcomes include the Gottman Method and Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples among others.
But what if couples therapy failed? Or your partner is unwilling to join you in marriage counseling? There are other methods to reshape the marriage with your partner. Therapist Susan Pease Gadoua and journalist Vicki Larson lay out a number of ways to do this in their book The New “I Do.” They discuss redefining your marriage by consciously creating the kind of marriage that suits you, your partner, and your circumstances.
So instead of continuing to fail at the “one-size-fits-all” marriage, Gadoua and Larson suggest other ways to define your marriage and your role in marriage:
- Companionship marriage
- Parenting marriage
- LAT (living alone together) marriage
- Covenant marriage
- Safety marriage
- Open marriage.
All of these take open and direct communication with your partner. But redefining the marriage may be better for both of you. It brings expectations more in line with reality, which reduces frustration and anger.
Focusing on Your Personal Change
But what if you’ve made the decision to stay in the unhappy marriage with kids and your partner is unwilling to do anything? There is still hope, and this is why. Marriages are systems and, like all systems, they must respond to change from any one part of the system in order to regain balance. Think of your marriage like a kinetic art mobile – move one part of the mobile and the other parts move to regain a balance in the system.
So by persistently focusing on changing yourself, not only do you grow personally, your marriage has a high probability of shifting. So how to start?
First, and perhaps most important, let go of any expectation of reciprocity. Decide that you are taking actions for your own personal growth – period. If the marriage benefits, that’s gravy.
Second, find something to believe in more important than yourself and your marriage to support and guide your change. Mark O’Connell in his book The Marriage Benefit notes that “When we believe in something more important than ourselves we see ourselves in scale, we open ourselves to learning from a world that has much to teach us, and we grow into our less self-centered, therefore better, selves.” Whether that something is God, wanting to create a good life for your kids, being the bigger person, or something else, it’s important to have something more important than you and your marriage. That something to believe in will be your north star through your change process.
Third, pick out something about yourself you want to change. It might be a habit to let go of, an attitude to change, a healthy routine to develop, or loving action to take. Some ideas: quitting smoking, developing a true attitude of gratitude, committing to walking every day, or consistently thanking your partner every time he or she does something even remotely helpful. These are just ideas – you will have more. Just pick one and start. Again, your focus is on bettering yourself as a person. If the marriage shifts as a result, that is a pleasant perk, not the main event.
Fourth, once your chosen action above becomes routine, choose another action and develop it until it also becomes a part of you.
Fifth, rinse and repeat. Continue to take new actions, over and over.
As you change yourself, not only do you personally benefit, you also cause the system to shift. One the system reaches the tipping point, your partner must respond to that shift in order to re-balance the marriage system. Notably you cannot control how your partner will respond, but there will be a response. The good news is those responses are generally positive ones.
Support for Your Journey if You Decide to Stay
Deciding to stay in your unhappy marriage with kids and finding a new, happier normal is not easy. You deserve support.
Surround yourself with supportive friends; if you have friends who are not a support to you, ask yourself if you really need them at this time.
Consider group support, whether group therapy, a mutual help support group like Codependents Anonymous, or a group you’re already in – perhaps in the community, like a church, temple, or mosque. Groups can protect you from isolating yourself and be the source of encouragement, new learning, and sometimes even new friends.
This also may be a time to invest in individual counseling to help support you along the way as you shift to a new normal.
If you would like to learn more about navigating whether to leave or stay in your unhappy marriage with kids, or guidance in reaching the new normal, contact us in our Chicago area offices in west suburban Glen Ellyn and in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Chicago.
Rhonda Kelloway, LCSW, SEP
Rhonda Kelloway is a co-owner and principal therapist at Life Care Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice in Glen Ellyn and Chicago (Jefferson Park neighborhood), Illinois. She is a trauma specialist utilizing a Somatic Experiencing framework to utilize the body’s wisdom in healing. She also uses EMDR and a variety of traditional psychotherapy approaches in her work. In addition to being a psychotherapist, she is a trained divorce and family mediator.
1 “divorce” by Tony Guyton is licensed under CC BY 2.0
2 “Broken Hearts” by Free For Commercial Use (FFC) is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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