Cindy Girard’s parents wanted to do what they felt was best for their kids. In their minds, this meant staying together. Their marriage was already failing when she was born, but they chose to wait to get a divorce.
“My parents didn’t fight,” Girard tells HealthyWay, “but they basically lived separate lives.”
Girard wishes her parents had made a different decision; she doesn’t believe their choice was best for her and her two siblings. When her parents eventually divorced after years of trying to make their difficult marriage work, Girard and her two siblings were 11, 13, and 15, respectively.
“It would have been far easier on the kids had they divorced when we were little, rather than when we were adolescents trying to figure out who we are and what this world is all about,” says Girard, who believes her parents’ divorce was the catalyst for decades of struggles for her and her siblings. She has coped with depression ever since their split, and her brothers have both dealt with their own demons.
Girard’s sentiments about her parents’ delayed divorce aren’t out of the ordinary. Even when parents believe they are making a choice that is in the best interest of their family, it may have unintended effects on the kids.
A 2015 poll by Resolution, a family-law organization, found that the majority of children would prefer their parents didn’t stay together for their sake. And even when kids initially wanted their parents’ marriage to stay intact, many of them eventually came around to the idea that divorce was the better option for the family.
Even with numbers like this, ending a marriage is never an easy decision, and there are many things to consider before making the leap. Here’s how you can know when you should call it quits instead of staying together for the kids.
A Suffering Home Environment
Constant conflict is reasonable grounds for separation, according to Mayra Mendez, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center.
“When children are exposed to a lot of conflict, disagreement, negative social problem solving, name-calling, bashing … that kind of constant, conflictual turmoil on a day-to-day basis … is very, very negative,” she says.
This constant exposure to extreme conflict, especially at a young age, has a negative effect on the social-emotional competence of a child, Mendez says. Social-emotional competence refers to a child’s ability to identify and express their emotions, regulate their emotions and behavior, relate to others, and engage in healthy relationships.
Long-standing research backs up Mendez’s assertion. The environment in which a child grows up directly impacts their mental and physical health, according to one 2002 profile of at-risk families published in the journal Psychological Bulletin. In homes where conflict and aggressive behavior are the norm, children are less likely to learn healthy responses to stress and how to process their emotions, and may eventually engage in risky behaviors.
“Their primary mode of learning is modeling,” says Mendez. “Modeling by their primary caregivers who they trust—mom and dad. So in those situations when there is all this conflict going on, divorce might not be such a bad idea because they’re not living that battlefield day in and day out.”
Lack of Safety in the Home
The safety of a child, both emotionally and physically, shouldn’t be compromised for the sake of saving a marriage. If one parent is unsafe or prone to abuse or neglect, this is a valid reason for separation or divorce. Sometimes, even when obvious abuse isn’t present, one parent exhibiting hostility toward a child is enough to warrant separation.
“When the couple is experiencing one or the other being a bit more hostile, irritable, more angry, the very first step is to be able to talk about it and have open communication with each other,” says Mendez. “If they’re able to get to a point of actually getting some help, that might be really, really helpful.”
Professional support can create a safe environment. Mediated by someone with an education in this type of conflict, support allows the involved parties to talk through the conflicts within the home.
If parenting or marital support isn’t beneficial, or one party isn’t open to change, separation may be necessary. This is especially true if anger elevates to abuse or neglect of a family member. Mendez believes the next conversation should be concerned with the safety of the home and how exposure to conflict can affect the children.
“What’s in the best interest of the child might be separate homes,” says Mendez, “and then maybe thinking about the custody arrangements, because a parent might not be very comfortable with sending a child home for visitation with somebody who is blowing their stack all the time because that’s not safe for the child.”
Preparing Children for Divorce
“The breakup of the family unit is traumatic—even in the most amicable divorce,” said Fran Walfish, PsyD, author of The Self-Aware Parent, in an interview with Fatherly.
“Encourage open, direct expression of these feelings. The more comfortable you become with her verbalizing anger, the more validated and accepted she will feel—flaws and all.”
—Fran Walfish, PsyD
Parents can expect a range of emotions and behaviors from their children during a separation or divorce, Walfish tells HealthyWay. She cites trouble in school, worries about custody arrangements, anger at the parents, and more.
“You need to give her permission to have powerful emotions about the huge disruption in her life,” says Walfish. “Encourage open, direct expression of these feelings. The more comfortable you become with her verbalizing anger, the more validated and accepted she will feel—flaws and all.”
In addition to open communication about the divorce experience, Walfish offers practical advice for parents guiding their child through this life change.
First, she suggests helping children find someone they feel comfortable talking with. Some kids might worry they can’t be honest with their parents because they might hurt their parents’ feelings. Another family member or even a therapist can provide a safe place for kids to process the experience.
Secondly, Walfish says that a physical outlet for emotions can be helpful. She suggests gymnastics, sports, dance, or taekwondo.
Additionally, it is helpful for parents to remember how difficult a custody arrangement can be on children and to help mitigate the complications.
“Most teens get frazzled when their favorite shirt or jacket is at mom’s house or dad’s, and they are not there to retrieve it. Or perhaps they left their history book or homework assignment at the other parent’s house,” she says. “It is very anxiety-provoking for the teen.”
Walfish recommends that parents navigate these worries, along with worries about differences in rules and parenting styles, by working together. When parents are polarized on how they approach parenting, it can create alarming behavioral responses in kids. Agreeing on a shared strategy can help make this transition less disruptive.
What Kids Can Learn From Divorce
As difficult as divorce might be, not all its consequences are negative. Children can, and do, learn a lot about relationships from a divorce. For Girard, her parents’ divorce was a lesson in how to approach her own separation. First, she learned that staying together when the marriage couldn’t be repaired wasn’t in the best interest of anyone involved. Secondly, she learned how she wanted to approach her divorce for the health of her two boys.
“I refused to badmouth [my ex] to the boys,” she explains. “I helped the kids work through their feelings toward their dad and slowly worked us all toward forgiveness.”
According to Mendez, one of the most valuable lessons children can learn comes from watching parents divorce in a way that exemplifies problem-solving and compromise. It reminds children that it is possible to have differences of opinion without tumultuous conflict.
“They’re modeling for their child that problem-solving can happen in a very peaceful, positive way,” Mendez says. “Children learn that through their parents, so that’s a huge, huge benefit.”
Divorce also teaches an important lesson about relationships; it’s a reminder that some relationships do change, says Mendez. She also stresses the importance of children understanding that things continue to move forward even when they don’t stay the same.
Lastly, divorcing parents can help their children understand that the change in the relationship between two parents doesn’t have to harm the child-parent relationship.
“Give your kids permission to love and respect both parents,” advises Walfish. “If his father says derogatory remarks about you, tell him that divorce is a grown-up matter, and sometimes moms and dads are mad at each other, but it is not the kids’ fault or responsibility to fix.”
It isn’t a happy thing to see your marriage come to an end, but it can be the best choice for everyone involved. In homes where conflict is abundant and previous attempts to repair the marriage simply haven’t worked, separation can bring peace to an otherwise turbulent situation.