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Is staying married better for the kids than divorce?

What was it that made me stick out my marriage so long? It wasn’t what we tend to think about, like obligation or vows…it was fear. Fear of the unknown, of how I would support us, of where I would go, of how he would react…but I was afraid of how a divorce would affect our children most of all. Interestingly, in the end, I realized how much remaining married was actually destroying us all piece by piece.

First of all, our unhappiness was not hidden from our children. Kids aren’t dumb — they could see our unhappiness, distance, and fighting. (I won’t even share the details of some writing I found by one of my daughters about her feelings and experience when their dad and I were not getting along.) Even worse, was realizing that we were creating the blueprint for marriage for their lives. They were learning what marriage should look like and feel like. When someone pointed this out to me (and even got deeper by asking me what I would want my daughters to do in the same situation), I could hardly breathe. It was one of those moments where I wished I could climb out of my skin. I felt immense pain and panic at the thought of either of them spending their marriage feeling the way I did. So, how could living this way possibly be better than being divorced?

It turns out, it’s not. Michael Lamb’s meta-study, “Mothers, Fathers, Families, and Circumstances: Factors Affecting Children’s Adjustment,” concluded that 80% of the children do well with no long-term negative effects on their social adjustment, mental health, or grades. Even bigger, it showed that supportive childhoods have a few key things in common.

  1. The kids have good relationships with both of their parents, and the parents more or less get along.
  2. The parents are emotionally stable and recovered enough from their relationship to focus on parenting — meaning they can be emotionally responsive, give stability, and love.
  3. The kids have basic life resources like ample food, acceptable shelter, and a good network of social support.

The most interesting feature of the childhoods of well-adjusted children? The parents don’t need to be married or even living in the same house! This study has implications beyond divorce, too, has implications for foster, adoption, and other situations. Marriage has nothing to do with our children’s happiness and success and life — but how we support and love them, and how we manage our coparenting, has everything to do with it.