Staying Together for the Children: Wise or Not?

There are two camps of thought when it comes to dealing with children when you can no longer deal with their other parent. The first says that enduring the bad relationship in order to keep the children living with both parents is better for the kids in the end. The other says that kids are better off switching back and forth between two parents who are each individually happier and presumably emotionally healthier than they were together. In either case, the assumption is that you’re acting for the children — and you should be, so let’s at least stick with that one.

As is not really a surprise to anyone who keeps track of science’s discoveries about human society, the answer is “neither.” Or more accurately, the answer is “it depends, but not on anything the common wisdom tells you to pay any attention to.”

The answer, according to a group of researchers at the University of Ann Arbor, is that (strictly looking at the mental and emotional well-being of the child until adulthood) some couples should stay together, and others should split up. It depends entirely on how much conflict the child lives with on a regular basis.

Defining ‘Conflict’
The intuitive definition of ‘conflict’ is mostly accurate for the purpose of the study — it just means ‘a stress-inducing disagreement.’ But the study does add a couple of qualifiers: it specifies “overt, unresolved conflict.” In other words, the kinds of conflict that actually matter for the children are the ones that they children notice, and that don’t reach a conclusion that they notice.

Which means that if your martial conflicts are bad enough that you can’t keep them under wraps when your kids are around and you can’t bring them to a resolution where the kids can see it, the children are likely to be better off if you and your spouse go your separate ways.

Two Paths Toward Unity
This means there are two different ways you can deal with a serious martial conflict without causing your children enough stress to profit from your break-up. First, you can keep your martial conflicts away from the kids entirely. Well, OK, mostly — kids are perceptive, and they’ll know that something is up, but just knowing that something is wrong doesn’t generally inflict enough stress to cause a negative reaction.

Second, you can have your problems in front of the kids, and then resolve them in front of the kids. One of the worst things you can do is start having a problem where the kids can see it, and then go behind closed doors and reach a resolution that they don’t see! Several independent groups of social scientists have all come to the conclusion that a child witnessing a conflict between their parents, even a huge one (as long as there is no domestic abuse involved), can be a very constructive experience if they see how the conflict is resolved.

In short, if your problems are too big to contain and too persistent to resolve, divorce is the better option for the children in the long run. If not, stick it out!

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