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Is It Ever a Good Idea to ‘Stay Together for the Kids’?

Advice from a family counselor, a divorce lawyer and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

I hate to say it, but I really don’t know how much longer my marriage has got. It’s been pretty apparent for a few years now that as a couple, things just don’t work between my wife and I. There’s been no infidelity or anything like that, but it’s just been constant fighting nearly every day and when we’re not, we both walk on eggshells around each other, nervous about when the next spat will erupt. I still love my wife and I think she still loves me, but after about a decade of being together, I think we’ve just grown apart and the people we are now aren’t the same people who got married. We’ve even tried counseling, but it’s not enough. Honestly, our marriage would already have ended but for one thing: We have a kid together.

I don’t know if we’re intentionally staying together for the sake of our son. We’ve never said exactly that, but he’s the only thing keeping us bonded at all. On one hand, of course, I don’t want to see my marriage end, especially for his sake, but part of me thinks that the situation we have now with two unhappy parents can’t be what’s best for him either. What’s the lesser of two evils? Divorce sucks and it’s going to fuck up a kid, but is staying together only for our child any better, especially when we don’t get along anymore?

Basically: Is it ever a good idea to “stay together for the kids”?

The Expert Advice

Leani Spinner, family counselor: Determining whether or not to divorce or stay together for your children is difficult, and it’s going to depend on your individual situation. If you’re in a situation where there are high levels of conflict and tension, I don’t think it’s in the best interests of the child to stay together because of what they’re being exposed to. Even when parents say, “We don’t fight in front of the kids,” the kids still know what’s going on and they’ll pick up on the tension in the house.

Divorce, on the other hand, while stressful, at least you know what it is. It may be a difficult process, but after a time, a child can settle into a sense of norm. Now, there’s still that loss that comes with mom and dad not being together anymore, but with constant tension and fighting, I personally feel, as a clinician, that, that tension and conflict takes a greater emotional toll on a child.

That said, there could be some cases where it might be okay, but it’s very rare. It only works when you have two very self-aware people who can communicate well with each other and their child, and can co-parent well despite them not being “together” in a traditional sense. It’s very rare, though, that people can live like this and still provide a stable, safe, tension-free environment for their children. Things can also become much more complicated if one or both of the parents begins seeing other people while still living in the same house, as this can lead to a distorted view of how relationships are supposed to work.

In some situations, people also try what’s called “nesting,” where the parents are separated but reside in the same home. A common situation is where mom lives on the first floor and dad lives in the basement and the child switches off from upstairs and downstairs from week-to-week. In some cases, a child may literally not be allowed to go upstairs during “dad’s time,” or downstairs during “mom’s time.” Honestly, I feel like this kind of scenario can be extremely confusing to a child, and as it’s often done for the sake of financial reasons, usually no one is happy with the arrangement.

Regardless of what they decide to do, parents should be sure to assure their children in order to give them a center. Don’t promise them things that you can’t guarantee, so don’t say that you and the other parent will never get divorced, but you can say that you love them and you’ll always love them and you’ll always be their dad, and that mom loves them and they’ll always be their mom.

Also, no matter how tense a situation or living arrangement may become, I urge parents not to badmouth each other to their child. It puts the child in a situation where they have to possibly defend the parent being badmouthed or having to pick a side between the two. Ultimately, this can end up damaging the child’s relationship with both parents, even the one who’s doing the badmouthing. Unfortunately this kind of thing is extremely common, and very damaging, so I urge parents to refrain from doing this to their kids.

Dan, whose parents stayed together until he was through high school: My parents stayed together until I was in college, and frankly, it’s hard to say if it was a good thing or not that they remained together for as long as they did. On one hand, the “pros” were that I do remember stability. I got to have a lot of “tentpole” memories of us as a family. I remember nice Christmases and big family dinners — those kind of “Hallmark” moments that, now as an adult, I’ve really grown to appreciate because I know so many people who never got to have that growing up. Another plus was that I didn’t have a stepdad until I was in my late 20s, which I’m grateful for, as I didn’t have to be put in the confusing situation as a teen of having to meet my mom’s boyfriend or anything like that.

The downside was that I never got to see my parents happy, which is something I didn’t realize until after their divorce. Sure they fought a lot about money and stuff, but it wasn’t like it was all the time, and all parents fight. More notably, I notice now that they weren’t very “couple-like,” if that makes sense. They did a lot of things separately, and I don’t ever remember them holding hands or cuddling on the couch together or anything like that. But that’s one of those things that if you don’t know what you’re missing, you don’t miss it. It was just normal to me.

Another downside to when parents wait to get divorced until their kid is much older, is that the kid is old enough to realize what’s going on and you can put two-and-two together much more quickly. In other words, you understand much more than you want to. It can be pretty damaging, to be honest, and it can make you question the choices your parents make and even their own morality.

When my parents were heading into divorce, things got brutal very quickly. I remember being put in situations where my mom would say, “Don’t tell your father about this,” and I remember a time when my dad was just hysterically crying. I couldn’t deal with any of it. I was in college and trying to figure out a career; meanwhile, I had to be put in a situation where I played therapist for both of them. The whole thing made me very angry, so much so that I distanced myself from both of them for a good couple of years.

Even now, some 13 years later, I keep my distance a bit and neither of my parents really ever call me as I always have to call them. I think that’s because, following the divorce, I put up this wall since I was so angry at them both for making me so involved in their shit.

Mark, who got divorced from his wife when their child was 14: My wife and I got married really young. I was 19 when I had my daughter, and I think we did things a bit too early — my wife and I eventually outgrew each other. We stayed married for 13 years, and by the end, we’d only stayed together as long as we did because of our daughter. Ultimately we decided that though we were both great parents, we weren’t great as husband and wife, and in order for us to be our best selves, it was better for us to get divorced.

When we split, we acknowledged that we were both great parents, so we decided to share custody and make all decisions concerning our daughter together. We ended up living only a block away from each other, and my daughter still got to see me every day. Divorce was difficult at first for my daughter and her grades did dip a little bit, but after we settled in, it got better and she was able to have support from both of us. Even now with our daughter in college, my ex-wife and I still speak via phone at least once every two weeks to talk about financial matters, or discuss where our daughter is headed.

The way I see it is — and I tell this to the parenting classes I teach — if you can’t be your best self, then you can’t be good for your children or anyone else. Your own happiness is important. I remember one time, when my daughter was like 16, my ex-wife and I were considering getting back together to see if we could repair things or not, and our daughter said, “You know what, I like you guys the way you are. You’re your own people, and you’re better parents and better people that way.” Then, as a joke, she added, “Plus, I get extra gifts this way.”

Arnold Cribari, divorce lawyer in Westchester County, NY: Staying together for the sake of your children is a valid thing to consider, as I feel most any couple cares about how a divorce will impact their children. But if your marriage has reached a point where things have become completely intolerable and you can’t stand to be around your spouse and the only reason that you’re staying together is for the children, then that’s not an ideal situation and it’s worth exploring the idea of at least considering a separation or divorce, especially if you’ve already gone through marriage counseling and things still don’t work.

If people do decide to end their marriage, I tend to recommend that people try to go through divorce mediation or what’s called a collaborative divorce as opposed to going through litigation and having a trial. When people end their marriage via one of these methods, I find that there’s generally a greater prospect of a good aftermath to the divorce, where both parties don’t hate each other and they can have a cordial relationship.

When I act as a divorce mediator, I don’t represent either party. I act as a neutral mediator to facilitate a settlement to resolve custody issues, alimony, division of property and a variety of other issues. This type of divorce is good when both parties feel that they’re on an even playing field negotiating on their own behalf. However, when you go into mediation you do so alone, and there’s no lawyer for someone to confide in or to have operate on their behalf. In mediation, if someone asks me for legal advice, I would have to have the other party consent to me giving it and they’d also have to be present. Mediation tends to be good for simpler cases, but it lacks the support that one would find in litigation, where each side has their own lawyer representing them.

In situations, though, where one side feels that their spouse may have a leg up on them in mediation, either because they tend to be more assertive or they have more information, that’s where I might recommend a collaborative divorce, as this method seeks to combine mediation with litigation. With a collaborative divorce, both sides hire their own attorney, but in the beginning they and the parties sign a “participation agreement,” which states that if these two lawyers cannot resolve the issues and reach an agreement, then both parties have to start over with new lawyers. Why this is significant is because then the motivation for the lawyers isn’t to “win” but to simply settle the case. In traditional litigation, a lawyer just looks out for their client’s best interests with little to no regard for the spouse, but in collaborative divorce, it’s a complete paradigm shift.

Divorce is difficult regardless, of course, and sometimes you have a situation where both parties come in for a mediation and decide that they want to save their marriage — I’ve even seen this happen in litigation — but it’s very serendipitous when this occurs. If you do decide to seek a divorce, I do feel that either of these two approaches is preferable to a knock-down, drag-out fight via litigation, because with mediation or collaborative divorce, you may find a result that suits everyone’s needs and interests — your children included.