What’s Better for Kids: Staying in an Unhappy Marriage or Divorce?

  •   |   Meghan Freed

Happy child playing with sand.Updated November 22, 2023

When good parents find themselves in bad marriages, they understandably often grapple with what’s better for their kids.  Should they stay in their marriage, even though it’s unhappy, or divorce?  In other words, they seek the answer to one critical question: which is better for their children — divorce or staying married?  In this article, we’ll review the research and dive into the pros and cons of staying together or splitting up and how to prioritize children, no matter your decision.

Staying together can provide children stability and security, maintaining their familiar routines and relationships.  On the other hand, studies show that staying in an unhealthy or unhappy marriage can adversely affect the children’s emotional well-being.

Divorce, while disruptive in the short term, may offer a healthier and happier environment for the whole family in the long run.  It can reduce conflict and provide the opportunity for personal growth and freedom for the parents, which is good for parents and kids alike.  Plus, parents who demonstrate the importance of self-care and healthy relationships set their children up to thrive both personally and in their future romantic relationships.  Remember, increasing your happiness increases your kids’ happiness as well.

By exploring the pros and cons of both options, we aim to help parents make an informed decision that puts the best interests of their children at the forefront.  Whether you’re navigating the complexities of divorce or considering staying together, this article will equip you with valuable insights to prioritize your children’s health and happiness.

Read: When to Leave a Marriage

The Impact of Divorce on Children

Divorce is undoubtedly a significant life event that can profoundly impact children.

According to Dr. Donna Matthews in Psychology Today: “Children thrive in predictable, secure families with two parents who love them and love each other.” Separation can be unsettling and stressful for kids, especially in the short term.  They may also struggle with changes in their daily routines and the division of their time between parents.

“Of course, children usually find their parents’ separation extremely upsetting, but as this research demonstrates, eventually many come to terms with the situation and adjust to changes in family life,” explained Relate counselor Denise Knowles in Divorce Magazine.

As University of Virginia psychology professor and divorce researcher Dr. E. Mavis Hetherington explains in her book Coping With Divorce, Single Parenting, and Remarriage: A Risk and Resiliency Perspective:

“The response to divorce is influenced by the quality of family relations in the predivorce marriage, the circumstances of marital dissolution and the experiences and changes that follow the divorce. It involves an interplay between individual characteristics of parents and children, family relationships, and extra-familial factors, that serve to support or to undermine the well-being of family members as they negotiate the changes and challenges associated with divorce.”

In other words, not all children experience the same adverse effects.  Factors such as age, temperament, and the level of conflict between parents can influence the impact of divorce on children.  So does the way the parents handle the divorce itself and how they support their children through the process.

Read: How to Talk to Your Kids About Divorce

Drawbacks of Staying Together for the Kids

While staying together may seem like the best option for the children, studies show that an unhealthy or unhappy marriage can adversely affect their emotional well-being.  Children are perceptive and can sense tension and conflict between their parents, even if it is not explicitly expressed.  Witnessing constant arguments, hostility, or even emotional distance can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem in children.

Furthermore, staying in a toxic relationship can create an unhealthy model of relationships for children.  They may grow up believing dysfunctional dynamics are normal, which can negatively impact their future relationships.  It is essential to consider the long-term emotional and psychological effects on children when deciding whether to stay together.

Dr. Matthews states, “In the long term [] divorce can lead to happier outcomes for children.  When parents are arguing or incompatible in a deep and lasting way, divorce can be a relief for children, a chance to breathe healthier air, free of the tensions of an unhappy relationship.  When changes in family structure are handled well, children experience a temporary disruption but can achieve long-term resiliency and strength.” Counselor Knowles agrees.  “There are plenty of steps that separating parents can take to ensure they reduce the negative impact on their children such as working to avoid constant arguing or speaking badly of the other parent in front of the kids.”

Read: Options When You’re Unhappy in Your Marriage

Importance of Prioritizing Children’s Well-Being in Decision-Making

Dr. Matthews explains, “If you are thinking about your children’s ability to create happily productive adult lives for themselves, then, the answer is no, [don’t remain in an unhappy marriage].  Try your best to make your marriage work, but don’t stay in an unhappy relationship only for the sake of your children.”

When deciding to divorce or stay together for the kids, it is crucial to prioritize the well-being of the children above all else.  This means considering not only their immediate needs but also their long-term development and happiness.  It may require setting aside personal desires and evaluating what is truly in the children’s best interests.

Open and honest communication between parents is vital to meeting the children’s needs.  Both parents should engage in thoughtful discussions, actively listen to each other’s concerns, and work together to create a plan that prioritizes the children.  Consulting with professionals, such as therapists or counselors, can provide valuable guidance and support during this decision-making process.

Read: Making the Decision to Divorce

How Do Kids View Their Parents’ Divorce Once They’re On the Other Side?

Many people deciding whether to divorce or remain married under the theory that staying together is better for the kids find the Resolution poll informative.  This poll — out of England and Wales — asked 514 teenagers and young adults between 14 and 22 if they’d rather have their parents divorce than stay together in an unhappy marriage.

The poll on behalf of Resolution – an organization representing 6,500 family lawyers in England and Wales – surveyed 514 youths who had experienced their parents’ separation.  According to Resolution, 82% of the young people surveyed revealed that divorce was better for the family than staying unhappily married.

Read: Be the Best Co-Parents You Can Be: 8 Tips for Effective Co-Parenting

How to Decide Whether to Divorce or Stay Together for the Kids

When deciding whether or not to divorce, and you have children, it’s important to work with a professional to determine whether you want to repair your relationship with your spouse.  As you work with your therapist to decide whether to stay or go, remember that children should not play a role in their parents’ divorce decision-making process.  This is a decision for adults to make.

If you choose not to work on the marriage, your next step is to do everything possible to set the stage for a smooth, child-centered divorce.  Meet with a divorce attorney to understand more about your divorce options.

On the other hand, if you want to work on your marriage, the next question is whether your spouse wants to.  If you’re both willing to try, embrace counseling, delve into enlightening books, seek counsel from trusted friends and confidants, and dedicate yourselves to trying to reconcile.  A thriving marriage unequivocally benefits children.

That said, it’s essential to recognize that staying together “for the sake of the children” is not an infallible solution.  Living with parents in an unhappy union can be more detrimental than stabilizing for kids.  Your marriage will serve as a blueprint for your children, shaping their perceptions of relationships, what it means to be a spouse, and how to navigate the complexities of relationship conflicts.

Children are keenly aware of the tension between their parents.  Over time, through the subtle yet consistent messages conveyed in their daily lives, your children internalize and replicate these patterns.  Thus, there is no escaping the profound impact of your actions on their future relationships.

Read: Should I Try Couples Therapy Before I Divorce?

More From the Experts

The good news is that if you decide to divorce, by committing to having a good divorce where you put kids’ needs first, they will come out just fine.  As the editors of Parents Magazine wrote:

In other words, it is not necessarily divorce itself that determines whether or not your kids will be ok, but rather how each adult behaves during and after the divorce.  Remember, divorce is not an isolated event – it unfolds over many years.  Parents who can remain civil, avoid bad-mouthing and blaming each other, work together to create unified parenting strategies and give their children consistent time, attention and reassurance have a very good chance of seeing their kids grow up just as happy and healthy as those of healthy intact couples.”

Read: Healthy Habits for Children in Two Households

Helping Children Navigate Divorce

In essence, it is not the divorce itself that determines the well-being of your children but rather the conduct of each adult during and after the divorce.

First, keep your divorce amicable.  Remember that your former spouse will be your co-parent for the rest of your lives.  Divorce approaches like mediation and collaborative law are designed to support you and your co-parent in this goal.

By fostering an environment of understanding and cooperation, you can pave the way for your children to navigate not just your divorce but also the complexities of their own lives and relationships with resilience and grace.

Open and age-appropriate communication is critical for children to understand the changes happening in their families.  Kids shouldn’t be involved in their parents’ decision whether to divorce — that’s for adults.  But they can be involved in certain age-appropriate choices during the divorce.  For younger children, this might include helping pick out the theme for their new bedroom.  Above all, children should not be put in a position that forces them to pick one parent above the other.  Children overwhelmingly agree with this point.  88% of those interviewed in the Resolve survey agreed it was important to ensure children do not feel like they must choose between parents.

Ultimately, reassurance of love and support from both parents helps alleviate their fears and anxieties.  Maintaining consistent routines and providing a stable environment can also help children feel secure during times of transition.  Creating a safe space where they can express their feelings and emotions without judgment is essential.  It can also be beneficial to engage in activities that promote their emotional well-being, such as therapy or extracurricular activities.

Read: How to Talk to Your Kids About Divorce

Next Steps

According to Parents Magazine: “Ultimately, the bottom line is this: unhappy parents do not tend to raise happy children.  And unhealthy relationships that ‘stay together for the kids’ when the marriage is destructive tend to produce children who have unhealthy relationships as adults.”

Deciding between divorce or staying together for the kids is a deeply personal and complex choice.  While staying together can offer stability, divorce can provide a healthier and happier environment in the long run.  Kids can thrive in either scenario, but how parents handle the divorce is key.  Ultimately, by prioritizing their children and making informed choices, parents can lay the foundation for their children’s health and happiness for years to come.

Freed Marcroft LLC

Freed Marcroft LLC