When to stay together for the children -- or not

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2010 - 3:20 PM

Couples in low-conflict but unhappy marriages often are well advised to try to keep the family together.

During tough times in the sports and business worlds, participants often "take one for the team." In the smaller units known as families, parents at odds often are faced with a similar quandary: whether to "take one for the teens."

Whether the unhappy pair are Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren or a working-class couple in Cottage Grove, the question of whether to "stay together for the sake of the children" is fraught with complexities well beyond the emotions of the principals.

But experts agree on one thing: It's up to the parents to explore all aspects of everyone's future, make the best call and set the right tone.

"Kids are very resilient. They can deal with any reality as long as they know what the reality is," said Judy Dawley, a child psychologist in Rochester. "First and foremost, the kids have to know it's not their fault. You cannot make the child responsible for the adult relationship."

Even with less stigma attached to divorce than in the past, the consequences are enormous in the short term for all concerned, and in the long term for those in their formative years. All too often, Dawley noted, the parents' troubles "become the template for the child's dating relationships and future marital relationship."

The children of divorced parents are at least 50 percent more likely to get a divorce than those from an unbroken home, said Penn State Prof. Paul Amato, a nationally renowned expert on parent-child relationships. When both the husband and wife come from divorced families, the odds of divorce are 200 percent higher.

For that reason, parents should be very cautious about divorcing for what William J. Doherty calls "soft reasons."

"Research shows that in marriages that are unhappy but not high-conflict, the children do better when those parents stay together," said Doherty, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Family and Social Science. "And the majority of divorces are low- to moderate-conflict.

"Children don't really care that we're happily married. They just want us to get along. But if you're not each other's best friends and the sex isn't great, they don't care. Actually, they don't want to believe you have sex," he said with a chuckle.

"There was a time when people believed that if they didn't have a truly intimate, very happy relationship, the kids would notice. That's pretty bogus, we have learned. Children are not able to assess anything beyond 'You seem to be OK.'"

Type of conflict is crucial

In marriages with "high conflict," divorce often is the best, if not only, course.

"If there's any safety issue, domestic violence or even a major power imbalance," divorce might be the best option, said Deborah Clemmensen, an Edina-based licensed psychologist and neutral child specialist. "Or if parents constantly argue in front of the kids, so the family system becomes one of discord and kids can't anticipate anything else.

"But if the situation is kind of existential, more about the quality of life rather than a violation of trust, they should consider staying together. But there needs to be enough energy to be thinking about doing something different."

Starting with counseling. Doherty said only about 50 percent of divorcing parents with minor children in Hennepin County have had any counseling. Even those in more high-conflict marriages should give that a try, he advised.

"It is not like the Minnesota weather, like there's nothing you can do about it," Doherty said. "People have an obligation to seek treatment. They're not doomed to that state. The great majority, with help, could have a healthier marriage."

Regardless, parents should put a lot of thought into their children's post-divorce world.

"A lot of damage from divorce comes from what happens in the years immediately afterward -- the negative impact of [parents having] new boyfriends or new girlfriends, moving and changing schools, having step-siblings," Doherty said. "Sometimes dad's new wife hates your mother.

"It just sort of rolls on, the churning of new relationships in the child's life that are apt to occur in the next decade, and people at the threshold of divorce don't imagine that."

Parenting skills the key

Couples can fall out of love with each other, but in one scenario, staying together is an especially viable option.

"Even with a lot of other problems in a relationship, you can put together a reasonable marriage if you really love the parenting part," said Judith S. Wallerstein, author of "What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce." "You have to have enough strength and enough interest in parenting to carry on that way."

However -- there always seems to be a "however" in these situations -- people "can be excellent co-parents under two roofs," said Clemmensen. "And co-parenting is a skill set you can learn. In the absence of effective co-parenting, kids are going to struggle, whether under one roof or two.

"You need a safe container for the kids to grow and thrive. It doesn't need to be perfect; it just needs to be good enough."

And there's one potential bonus to trying to do that under one roof, Amato said: "Another alternative is simply to wait. Our research shows that unhappily married couples often drift back together with the passage of time."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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