One prevailing theme related to fear of divorce is that the act of divorce, in and of itself, will damage the children. People research multiple studies to substantiate this concern. By all means such an upheaval in our children's lives should not be taken lightly. Divorce needs to be well considered, and navigating the children through this process should be undertaken with insight, reflection and empathy.
Yet, very few people consider the consequences of children growing up in unhappy yet intact homes, as they witness conflicted, unloving and uncooperative parental relations. Children tend to model what they see in their parents' relations. Certainly, as parents we want better for our kids. Yet, the likelihood is that such children will incline toward similar marriages. Worse still, many parents claim their kids really don't know anything is wrong with the marriage. The irony is that they will therefore normalize what may be a mediocre, disappointing or conflicted marriage. At least the kids ought to know that the marriage is indeed falling short of the mark. In that way, they can note the failure and aim higher for themselves when they come of age.
I have heard everything from friends who have stayed together unhappy for years, just waiting until the "last one is off to college", to others who have divorced, but maintained healthy relationships with their spouse and the children have thrived.
5 Reasons to Divorce
Hearing their parents argue was more stressful than the divorce itself.
They would have realized something was wrong with the relationship, even if their parents had stayed married.
Their home life before the divorce was less than ideal.
Unhappy parents take their feelings out on the kids.
Adapting to the divorce as a kid isn’t as hard as you’d think.
Research (including some of my own) suggests that children do better after separation from a high-conflict marriage. However, children do worse after separation when their parents' marriage was low-conflict. This suggests that their parents' low-conflict marriage would have been "good enough" for the children. That is, compared to divorce the children in these families may have fared better growing up in a less-than-perfect married family.
So, I firmly believe that parents need to carefully consider (and consider again and again) how a divorce will affect their children. Parents who are good at protecting children from their grown up concerns may need to ponder this issue with particular care.
In the end, however, I believe that no parent should stay together (or divorce, as many parents have told me they did) "for the children's sake." Why? For a very simple reason: This is a grown up decision, and parents need to take responsibility for their own choices. You need to own your decision to stay together (or not). You can stay together, because you decided to put your children's needs ahead of your own (or for 100 other good reasons). But any such a decision should be about your values not "for the children's sake."
In other words, I don't want you to be a martyr. I don't want your children to bear the guilt of your misery. You need to make your own decisions. And especially if you have children, staying together despite your unhappiness most certainly is an option to consider with great care.
By the way, if you decide to separate, turning your marriage into a living nightmare is not the way to make the decision easier on your children (so they will be relieved by the dissolution of your high-conflict marriage). Instead, you probably need to talk with your children in advance. You need to give them some warning about the possible implications of your well-concealed marriage problems. And if you do go ahead and separate, you also will want to keep your "children first" policy both in your own parenting and in working with your children's other parent. I offer loads of advice on how to do so (and more on the issue of staying together) in The Truth about Children and Divorce.
Even when you think you're putting on a good show for the kids, you're not. Even if your children can't put their finger on what's wrong with Mommy exactly, they know that their mother is not happy.
And most likely, although I know you don't want to hear this, your kids see you in an unhappy marriage, especially the older children who have the outside world to compare your situation to. But because you're a great mother, you stick around in this unhappy situation, believing wholeheartedly that you must be doing the right thing by staying married for your children. You feel by choosing unhappiness for yourself, you are choosing happiness for your children. Besides, how could you do it by yourself anyway? It would be impossible. You settle for your miserable marriage because you've told yourself it could be worse. They could be worse. You could be worse off. Your kids could be worse off.
Although you don't mean to, you're lying to yourself and hurting yourself . . . and your kids.
Your Depression May Become Your Child's Depression
No matter what you choose — marriage counseling, divorce, or your own individual therapy — it doesn't have to be this way. You are in charge of your destiny. Show your children that caring for yourself and your heart is important so that as time goes on, they will do the same.