No-one gets married or enters into a relationship thinking it will end in divorce. Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all conditioned to believe in the fairy tale happy-ever-after version of life. Finish school, go to university, get a job, meet the partner of your dreams, get married / live together, get a dog, have kids, live happily ever after. But the story doesn’t always end like that. Divorce and living as a binuclear family, a term coined by Dr Constance Ahrons, is the reality for many families.
I’m a strong believer of couples doing everything in their power to work on their issues, heal themselves and repair their relationship. A healthy, happy partnership with both parents committed to the long-term nature of the relationship and the family, is of course always going to be better for the kids.
While there’s no single answer, no definitive ‘right’ way to handle a fractured or dysfunctional relationship and subsequent separation/divorce, staying together purely because of your children doesn’t always best serve them. And here’s why.
REASONS WHY NOT TO STAY TOGETHER FOR YOUR CHILDREN
CHILDREN KNOW MORE THAN YOU THINK THEY DO
A 2007 survey of 1,000 American children aged between 8 and 17 found that 90% of kids say they know when their parents are stressed and it bothers them, leading them to feel sad, worried, frustrated and annoyed.
They sense the disconnect between you and their other parent. They feel the tension and conflict even if you avoid arguing when they can see or hear. They recognise when you stop being glad to see each other, stop kissing, hugging or touching and stop saying ‘I love you’.
Kids know when their parents don’t love or even like each other. They understand when things aren’t right with you. And it makes them feel bad. They don’t want or deserve to feel like they’re the reason you’re miserable.
Not long after my children’s Dad and I separated, I overheard my daughter talking with a friend about why. Although we had tried our best shield our kids as best we could from the conflict and never argue in front of them, when asked why their Dad didn’t live in the same house anymore my then 6-year-old daughter said ‘It’s better this way. When my Mummy and Daddy lived together, my Mummy yelled, and my Daddy didn’t listen.’
Kids. Just. Know.
CHILDREN LEARN FROM YOU EVERY DAY
Kids learn what they live; yours are learning from you every single moment of their day-to-day life. They look to you, their parents, as role models. The way you conduct yourselves and interact with each other becomes their norm.
You are teaching them what it means to be in a relationship or marriage. How to behave as partners to each other, as parents and crucially, how to deal, effectively or ineffectively, with conflict in a relationship.
What are you teaching your kids by choosing to stay together just for them, when really your relationship is over? That it’s OK to accept mediocrity in your primary relationship?
That it’s OK to live dishonestly, to live a façade? That love, mutual care, support and nurture, joy, fun and happiness are negotiables in a marriage or relationship rather than essential?
Growing up in a household with two parents who are pretending – pretending to love one another, pretending to be relational, pretending to care about and nurture each other – teaches your kids that’s what marriage looks and feels like, and they come to understand on a deep, subconscious level that’s what they as adults can expect and should accept. That it’s OK to accept a loveless, unhappy marriage. Is that what you want for your kids in the future?
Ultimately which is better for your kids? Two unhappy parents in a dysfunctional relationship but living under the same roof to keep the family unit intact, or parents who are living in two separate households but are happy and functional?
CHILDREN NEED (AND DESERVE) THE TRUTH
Your kids want you to be truthful. To yourself. To them.
They want parents who honour themselves, each other and them enough to share the truth, however difficult and painful it will be for them to hear.
Maybe that means you can create a Parenting Marriage or try a Bird Nesting approach. But whatever the future of your family looks like, you need to have the strength to be honest with yourselves and with them and step out of a relationship that’s no longer healthy.
While it’s difficult to tell your kids your marriage is over, the truth is healing for everyone. It can be put simply and clearly, ‘We aren’t making each other happy living together. This has nothing to do with you. We both love you very much and want to be the best parents to you we can be. We’re going to do that living in two separate houses.’
Your kids deserve to know how to love and be loved in a relationship. How a functional, happy, mutually respectful, caring, nurturing marriage looks.
SHOULD I STAY IN A RELATIONSHIP FOR MY CHILD
EVERYONE DESERVES THE BEST LIFE
Your kids deserve the best version of a life you can offer them. Maybe that’s staying together but, just maybe it’s not. They deserve to see each of their parents happy and content; giving and receiving healthy, joyful love from a partner, even if that is someone other than their parent. YOU deserve that. And your kids deserve to see both of their parents receiving that.
You want the best life for your kids, right? You want them to grow into strong, happy, healthy adults, find the love of their life and live happily ever after. How can you want that for them, but not for yourself? And how is it serving your kids to grow up in a home where that is missing?
Staying together in a loveless marriage sends your kids the message that it’s OK to sacrifice your own happiness in an attempt to maintain theirs. Self-love and self-care aren’t luxuries or negotiables. To be the best parent you can be to your kids, you need to honour and love yourself first. Making your own health, well-being and happiness a priority; giving yourself the best version of life you possibly can, in-turn gives your kids their best life.
There’s an unspoken belief that divorce is always horrible and causes irreparable damage; that as soon as one needs the advice of a family lawyer, the happy-ever-after turns into a nightmarish long, drawn out, emotionally devastating and expensive litigation process. And while some do, many separating couples don’t end up in court. There are many, many families who prioritise the needs of their children, minimise the conflict and quietly, respectfully separate, creating a new version of their family.
Sometimes marriages don’t last. It’s sad and it’s hard. But if yours is over, everyone needs to grieve and move on, your kids included. Stepping out of a loveless relationship shows your children you believe in and are worthy of love, sending them a loud clear message that they are too.