One expert's controversial take on marriage, divorce and staying together for the sake of the kids.
People often say that you shouldn't stay married for the sake of the kids. After all, the logic goes, if parents are miserable, it will only hurt the kids.
It's better for kids, they say, to have two happy parents who lead separate lives than to be exposed to sadness, emotional distance and conflict in their family. Makes sense, right? Wrong.
I've specialized in work with couples for nearly three decades. At the start of my career, I was one of those people who believed that staying together for the sake of the kids was foolhardy. Now, after seeing the havoc that divorce wreaks on the lives of families, I am an unabashed marriage-saver. And since I became dedicated to helping people resuscitate flat-lined marriages and keep their families together, I have learned a great deal about the process and the benefits of working things out.
First, I learned that implicit in the question, "Should people stay together for the sake of the kids?" is the assumption that they will inevitably remain miserable in the marriage. This is insanity. Over the past decade, we have learned a tremendous amount about what constitutes a successful marriage. We actually have a very concrete understanding of what spouses need to do and stop doing to make marriages work.
Falling in love is easy. Staying in love is another thing altogether. It requires skills — relationship skills. We learn about relationships as we grow up and unfortunately, most of us didn't have great role models.
Even if we did have great role models, we might choose a partner who wasn't so fortunate. If we don't have adequate relationship skills — knowing how to co-parent, communicate, resolve conflict, compromise, build on relationship strengths—our relationships fail.
The good news is that today, there are marriage education classes couples can take to improve their Relationship IQs. Couples can transform an unhappy or ho-hum marriage into a great one. Additionally, although choosing a quality therapist takes some investigation and effort, couples can go to therapists who are skilled at helping them resolve their differences, not just talk about their feelings or the problems.
In short, although it's understandable why someone who is unhappy in marriage might envision the future to be nothing more than a miserable extension of the past, it aint necessarily so. Marriages can heal, change and improve with the proper help. In fact, studies show that, even without professional help, couples who wait out the storm report that they are extremely happy five years later!
When it comes to marriage, patience isn't only a virtue, it's a necessity.
Parents who want a divorce often say that, although it won't be easy, children are resilient and they will be better off in the long run ... but here's what the research says about this: Divorce takes an enormous toll on children.
Change is very difficult. Dissolving a family has enormous repercussions. Children often are shuffled from home to home. Family finances suffer due to the need to maintain separate households. Parents are often preoccupied with their own emotional well-being.
Frequently, there are moves to new school districts, requiring major emotional adjustments. And then there are second marriages and the unique challenges of step-families. Plus, second and subsequent marriages are less likely to succeed than first marriages, requiring even more changes to children's lifestyles.
Studies also suggest that even when the adults are happier in their new lives, there doesn't seem to be a trickle-down effect to the children. Children, it seems, get the short end of the stick.
Here's one more thing to consider. There is never just a single reason people remain together; there are many, many reasons couples decide to stick it out. Marriage is a package deal.
People choose to remain married because they want companionship, sex, financial security, family ties, extended family, someone with whom to share responsibilities, a person to grow old with, a preference to share life as opposed to going it alone and so on. If one of the reasons people choose to remain together is for the sake of the kids, I say, "Bravo." That's great.
The bottom line is this: We only have one go-around, and we all deserve happiness. No one should plan on simply acquiescing to a life of misery. Having said that, given the miraculous changes I've seen in couples' relationships, even in the 11th hour, I feel like a psychotic optimist.
You don't have to just stay together for the sake of the kids; get happy for the sake of the kids! It will be a gift for a lifetime.
Michele Weiner-Davis is the author of Divorce Busting and The Sex-Starved Marriage and founder of www.divorcebusting.com.
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