Reader Unhappily Married writes:
After years of unhappiness in my marriage, including fights, lack of communication, and feeling that my husband does not value me, I am strongly considering divorce. In my mind we have tried everything, including more than one attempt at couples counseling and reading self-help books. My husband tells me this will harm our children, now 2 and 5, permanently. Am I a terrible mother to consider divorce?
First, let me say how sorry I am to hear that you are struggling so much. It sounds like you and your husband are in a very painful and hopeless seeming situation. To address your question, there are many negative effects of divorce on kids, but the good news is that research shows that most children bounce back from divorce and go on to do as well on many measures of life functioning as do children from intact homes. Of course, many specific issues determine how your children will be affected.
Children who are exposed to a great deal of conflict in the home often do better after divorce than children whose parents seem on the surface to be getting along well. They are less surprised by the divorce (although your kids are young enough that they would be surprised no matter what), and often their life becomes calmer and less conflictual when the marriage ends. If the divorce is contentious and parents openly tell the kids about their anger toward the other parent, this will have a negative impact on the children and cause them to feel that they have to take sides.
Hopefully, you and your husband would take steps to minimize the negative impact on the kids if you were to divorce. Some parents now leave the children in the same home to minimize disruption, and the parents take turns coming in and out; this is called birdnesting; it does have its critiques in that logistically it may be very difficult. More sensitive children may benefit from seeing a child psychologist to talk about their feelings about the divorce. Both parents should ideally try their hardest to refrain from talking badly about the other in the children’s presence. As a therapist, I see many adults who are still very resentful of parents whom they felt made them take sides after a divorce. Other adults have no relationship at all with one parent, usually the dad, because they felt it would be disloyal to the other parent. This can lead to lasting emotional pain.
Research does show that children from divorced vs intact homes have a harder time with relationships as adults and are likelier to divorce themselves. However, as with all research studies, you must think about potential confounds. It may be the case that there is another variable at play, e.g. a higher overall tendency to be unhappy in both people who end up divorcing, which is genetically passed to children. (For more on the idea that it is mostly genetic legacy, rather than parenting behaviors, that is responsible for the majority of parent-child similarities, see The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised and Updated). Research also shows that more easygoing children do better after divorce, as they do after anything. But unfortunately there is no way to change the temperament of your children.
The most important issue that I see is that your children need to learn how to exist in a loving and mutually supportive relationship. They will learn this from watching you and your husband. Whatever you do and however you act will become your children’s automatic default when they grow up and enter into their own intimate relationships. They can break the patterns that they see, but this is very difficult and takes a lot of hard work. So, the best course of action for you is to live the relationship that you want your children to see, whether this is with your husband or with someone else in the future. But, the best case would of course be if you and your husband can reconcile and show your children the sort of relationship that you want them to have one day for themselves.
To that end, I hope that you have truly taken every last possible measure to save your marriage before accepting that divorce is your choice. Although your children may end up fine, they would still thrive even more in a loving and happy family, and if there is any way to seek more counseling and to work on the marriage even one last time, I would recommend this choice. It may still be within your power to provide your kids with a healthy and intact family experience, and to reconnect with your partner on a deep emotional level. Thanks for writing in and I wish you the best of luck.
Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Wants You to Be Happy.