Thank you for all of the thoughtful and heartfelt comments last week regarding the question of whether or not to stay in a marriage once children are involved. Nancy Prisby had a very important clarification about conflict and what isn't good for children:

I just want to comment on the statement "Parental conflict is not good for children's happiness." I would change it to "Acting on the anger/strong emotions that result from parental conflict is not good for children's happiness." This is why: Shying away from conflict and putting on a facade that everything is always OK provides a disservice for children. Conflict is part of life and inherent in human relationships. If we can work to manage strong emotions and model how to work through some of it, this is helpful. Of course, many adult conflicts are better left unseen/unheard by children. At the same time, we can teach by modeling, "We're having a disagreement, I need to calm down first and then talk about it."

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I completely agree with this comment, and in fact have blogged about why conflict is, in fact, a good thing in many contexts . I've also blogged about how to fight with your co-parent in a way that is constructive. And as Chris Cicchetti points out,

parental conflict is not good for kids whether or not the parents are married. Seems like one question to ask might be: Will getting a divorce really reduce the conflict between us? Once you have kids, it's not like you can get a divorce and just walk away from the person and have no more contact. (Well, OK, it's possible, but we are talking about what is good for the kids here, and obviously that isn't!) Will there really be less fighting, or will a contentious marriage become a contentious divorce?

And will a contentious divorce lead to co-parenting that is even more contentious than it was in the marriage? Although a divorce might temporarily increase conflict, will this increased conflict last? Or do you think that you will get along better with less contact (post-divorce)? Are you the type of couple that is good at working together to make parenting decisions? Will divorce increase or decrease the conflict you experience in your co-parenting?

Sofia raised several more issues that I will address in future postings on divorce:

  • What is the level of the mother's ability to provide ECONOMICALLY? Statistics on divorce and childhood poverty?
  • Think parenthood nowadays is overly busy, hectic and over-extended? Try single parenthood. When do you ever get time to play, hang out, enjoy your children and show them that you enjoy being with them? Almost never.
  • Potential nightmare: STEPMOTHERS. Stepmothers have a lot of say in what your children experience growing up.
  • SERIAL parenting. What are the statistics on serial divorce? Isn't it OFTEN not just an issue of a one-time divorce? If you have serious issues with a spouse, consider what the spouse's level of good judgment is going to be in choosing their NEXT spouse, and the one after that?
  • How much instability is REALLY okay for the children? Isn't divorce the ultimate role-modeling for how NOT to get along?

Clearly from the many moving comments and emails I received this week, there are a lot of readers struggling with this question. Ana sums up what a lot of readers seem to be going through:

What a question! I am currently struggling with it myself. I watched my own parents struggle and I always told myself that I would never do that, never stay in a relationship just for my kids. Now, here I am in my parents' shoes and is such a tough decision to make. Although my parents had their fair share of issues, their relationship was never the abusive kind. I guess it was somehow easy for me to say "mom, why do you not divorce him?" My husband comes from a divorced family, and I can tell you it was not fun for him. But where is that breaking point where you decide that it no longer works? When do you stop fighting and trying? Is having an abusive relationship the only thing that should count on getting divorce? How about loneliness, feeling like furniture in a house, emptiness and abandonment? Is it really going to be better with someone else? These are all questions I find myself constantly trying to answer. Luckily, my parents have overcome a lot of their issues and they seem happier than ever. I do not know if that will be my case or not but at least it shows me that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Thank you for contributing to this dialogue! Let's keep the discussion going.

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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I would also ask about obtaining advice where it comes to the economics of the situation.  When you are married with both incomes, you develop a lifestyle and become accustomed to it.  Divorcing brings on about a whole slew of financial considerations that end up crippling folks and making the feel trapped in their situation.  It seems in the world in which we live in, being able to really get by on one income is darn near impossible.  At what point do we sacrifice our happiness and desire to be alive for mediocrity and the routine?  In my situation, it has been rather difficult because my decision will effect the entire family and could cause us to lose the house and the neighborhood where my children are growing up.  They have established friendships and support themselves.  Definitely not an easy answer.  Everyone has thier own limits, I suppose.  Mine was the second affair.

Ila | 8:37 am, November 11, 2009 | Link


“Potential nightmare: STEPMOTHERS. Stepmothers have a lot of say in what your children experience growing up.”
Wow, talk about a limited perspective. Yes, they have a lot of impact, but you’re implying/assuming it’s negative.  Not only did I grow up with a step-mother, but my six year old daughter has had one for the past 2 years.
First of all, my relationship with my step-mother…. It went through some rocky times during my teen years, but just about every parent experiences that with their teenagers. Once I hit my late teens and early twenties, I realized what a wonderful woman she is and how much she cares for me. Not only that, but she’s an awesome grandmother to my daughter. Plus, she and my father have been married, happily I might add, for over 25 years. They are a perfect example for me, right in my face, that two intelligent, independent and dare I say stubborn people can develop a healthy, lasting relationship.
Secondly, my fiance has basically been a step-mother for the past 2 years (I waited several months to introduce them). We certainly do things differently in our house than they are at my daughter’s mother’s house, but that’s going to be the case in 99% of divorces whether they involve a step-parent or not. Being a step-parent is difficult, but if you have a healthy, communicative, intelligent relationship it can be a very positive influence on the child. I tell my daughter that, like her father (me), she’s lucky to have two mother figures that love her dearly. And no, my fiance is not trying to replace my daughter’s mother. She wants to be a good role model and provide a healthy family environment, which I encouraged from the start of their relationship.
Lastly, you single out step-mothers which implies to me that you have personal issues with the role. Either you have one and don’t get along or you are one that is experiencing hardships or something else entirely. It’s a potential nightmare that any STEP-PARENT will use their influence on your children in negative ways. If you’re going to place blame, then place it equally. In my case, I’ve already seen a negative affect on my daughter with the parade of boyfriends her mother has had over the past several years. One was a really nice guy and my daughter went through a bit of a depression when they split up. I really have no idea how the others are because they come and go so quickly, yet she still introduces my daughter and gets her involved. Remember, it’s a two-way street.
Christine: Shame on you for re-posting this comment without obfuscating the gender bias. I sincerely hope that you address this objectively and more in depth at a later time.

tod | 1:54 pm, November 11, 2009 | Link


I wanted to respond to Sofia’s comments – I am a stepmom (and a mom) and I’m offended by the idea that somehow my influence is automatically something bad or against what my stepdaughter’s mom would want in their lives. There are ways to reinforce positive parenting even when the details of what happens at mom or dad’s house are different.
Also, the assumption that if a dad gets remarried, he will divorce from his 2nd wife and that will be bad for his first kids. My husband knows the pain he and his kids went through with his divorce and that makes him even MORE committed to better communication, warding off problems before they get big, ensuring mistakes aren’t repeated again with me. His ex-wife has promised their daughters she will never get married again so that they don’t have to go through a divorce again. Sounds great on its face until you realize that in the time that their dad and I have been married, she has had 2 serious boyfriend relationships. So I’ve watched our stepdaughters navigate those breakups, which although not as serious as a divorce, still impact them and their mom. And she has set up what looks on the surface as a big gesture from their mom (and maybe as a subtle dig on their dad, since he remarried?) to be something that ensures if she is in a relationship, she can’t make a serious commitment to it. Not good for the kids.

Anne | 4:18 pm, November 11, 2009 | Link


Just read a chapter in NurtureShock (great book by the way) that talked about the importance of resolving conflict in front of kids so that they can see the resolution as well as the fighting. The conflict itself isn’t so terrible for kids to see but if they don’t see parents resolve issues and move on in a loving way then they have problems later with aggression etc. I don’t do the issue justice and the book really is terrific. Interesting even for people who don’t have kids, to think about our own parents and how we deal with life as a result.

L.S. | 7:35 pm, November 11, 2009 | Link


I love when I get updates and new blog posts from this website!!!

Thank you for sharing!

C.N. | 7:37 pm, November 11, 2009 | Link


Hi all,
Thank you for adding to the discussion, particularly with regard to step-parents.  I WILL be posting on this topic in more detail, from both a scientific (what does the research say about step-parenting) and a positive angle (what can be good about having/being a stepparent?).  While I’m sure many readers share Sophia’s worry that another mother could have more influence over their children in the case of divorce, I also know that there are many people out there, like Tod and Anne, that have had positive experiences.  I would like to hear more from you on this topic: what have been your experiences, both positive and negative?  What questions do you have?  This will help me guide my research.
One more thing: I am not inclined to “obfuscate” potentially offensive comments before I repost them, as Tod suggests I should have.  Sophia’s comment is provocative, and without it we wouldn’t have heard about his two interesting experiences here.  I may not share her gender-bias or even agree with her comment, but I appreciate the fear that she put out there–I’m sure she’s not alone, and now we can address it.  So no, I don’t feel shame.

Christine Carter | 6:59 am, November 12, 2009 | Link


Sometimes divorce is good for kids.  No matter how well you try to hide it, most kids are smart enough to figure out that something is wrong.  My parents tried to stay together for me, but I wish they had just divorced years earlier.  It was a terrible marriage and now I feel guilty that my parents went through all that just to spare me.  On top of that, my dad cheated many times.  My parents set the example that cheating has no consequences.  If the I’m ever in the same situation, I will get a divorce.  I wouldn’t want to teach my kids that they should put up with a terrible spouse.
Divorce wouldn’t be so painful for kids in the first place if we didn’t train them to believe in some idealistic world where relationships never end.  Of course any child will be hurt about seeing one beloved parent less often than they used to, but if we teach them to have a realistic view of human relationships, it won’t be so devastating.

catgirl | 9:12 am, November 12, 2009 | Link


It seems as though we are all going to believe whatever it is that suits us best.  The people who just aren’t willing to try to keep a marriage together, are going to convince themselves that it “just isn’t worth it” and the parents who stick it out in misery will convince themselves “this is what is best for the children.”  I don’t know you really, truly know what is best for anyone.  I know that after you have children your sole responsibility is to create a stable, family environment for them.  It will never be “un-proven” to the fact that raising a child alone, as a single parent is the best method.  When faced with horrific circumstances, single parenting is sometimes your only option, yes but you can’t use that example for everyone.  I actually read the step parent comments in the initial post and didn’t think of them as being “negative” I just thought of them as something to consider, allowing another person to be involved in your child’s life.  I was raised by a step father, but I would still say that it is hard when you allow someone, who isn’t your biological parent to be involved in the raising of a child.  Period.  Good or bad, they are NOT the primary parent of this child and it always makes situations more difficult, not easier or “natural” so to speak, so that can’t be disputed without knowing the entire context.

The result of any conversation is that, again, people will only believe what they are comfortable believing is “best” for their paticular situation.  It isn’t to say that it is good or bad, it is just to say that people will do what they want and seek out information that suits them.  Very few people can see that sometimes their argument or offense to situations, tends to stem from actual issues that they may not ever research or resolve.

At our worst, all I wanted was someone to tell me that I was putting up with too much and I should leave.  That’s all I wanted to hear and anything to the contrary was ridiculous to me.  I found the people who understood and who told me what I needed to hear.  I didn’t do this intentionally, as I find myself to be of a high enough level of intelligence to know better, but looking back, I did exactly that.  After hearing what I needed to, I felt inspired to “be free” and stop “putting up” with so much, because “poor me” why should I have to live like I had and deal with so much.  Only by the grace of God, was I allowed a glimpse of the path I was on and the mistakes I had made and was making.  My choice hasn’t been easy and definitely hasn’t been exactly fun but it is what is best and when I look at it from every angle, it is what I know will be the best decision I made for me, for my daughter and for my family.  Never once, when considering divorce, did I ever think that entire statement applied, so I knew it had to be wrong.

Brandi | 4:39 pm, November 12, 2009 | Link


The “Stepmother” issue is highly relevant and one that perhaps causes the most pause for women I know considering divorce. Chances are good that after divorce a new person will enter your child’s life as a “parent” and you’ll have zero control over the quality of their character, values and judgement. Of course men considering divorce can have the same fear but lets face it, men are more likely than women to remarry (and more quickly).
p.s. I love this blog as a reasoned and scientific approach to tough issues of parenting but hope it doesn’t devolve into a battle of “is divorce good or bad”. To me, that is the same rabbit hole as the question of “working versus stay at home parents.” Keep to the nuanced discussion of parenting issues that we can’t find elsewhere and that apply universally to all parents. We need you!

Lisa | 10:08 pm, November 17, 2009 | Link


I just wanted to chime in and say that I was certainly bitter in the early years after my parents’ divorce and we really tested my stepmother’s limits (turns out they are pretty boundless).  But now as an adult, I am grateful to have two stable marriages (my father & stepmom and my mother & stepdad) as role models to learn from in my own marriage. 
Now I can’t imagine my parents were ever married to each other.  They were a terrible match!  I really admire the people my parents have grown to become and the contributions of a spouse that really brings out the best in each of them. 
I would have NEVER believed it at 13, but it has been my parents’ second marriages that have taught me that, yes, there are relationships in which there is communication but no fighting.  There are marriages in which there is compromise but not “sacrifice.”  When you’re with someone who understands you, marriage doesn’t have to be hard work.

Janine | 1:48 am, November 19, 2009 | Link


This is a really good topic.  I struggled for a long time deciding whether to divorce.  I didn’t understand at the time that he was emotionally abusive and I wasn’t prepared for how vindictive he was going to be.  He has done a great deal of damage to both of our children and to my relationship with them.
My improved mental and subsequent improved physical health came at a price.  If I had it to do again, I would, but I would do it differently.
On the topic of step parents, I was one and their mother was comfortable in knowing I would take great care of her daughters.  On the other hand, my X’s girlfriend didn’t think/voice an opinion that leaving a 13 yr old girl out on the street in front of a bar at night while the 2 went in drinking was a bad idea.  It is scary indeed.

Lauren | 1:17 pm, March 7, 2010 | Link

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