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Parenting Advice: Staying Together For The Kids?

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Last night, one of my best friends called my cell phone twice in one minute -- our signal for distress -- the indication that I needed to pick up the phone right then, even if I was in the middle of dinner. I'd gotten previous distress calls when she found a suspicious lump (the biopsy was, thank goodness, benign) and when her daughter was in an accident. I knew that whatever was coming on the other line wasn't good.

"He is so mean to me," she sobbed into the phone. "It's the same crap year after year after year. I'm at that breaking point where it doesn't seem sane to continue to take it."

Oh boy: I hadn't seen that coming. This is the friend whose marriage sustains my (perhaps delusional) romantic belief in matrimony -- the marriage I point to as evidence that big love, deep connections, and truly equal partnerships are, in fact, possible.

But here she was struggling with the same question I've wrestled with for years: is it better for our kids if we stay in less-than-happy marriages?

Holy cow, is that a big question. And if you've ever seriously asked it, you know it can be an agonizing one. In the coming weeks, I'll be blogging about how I've answered this question for myself.

I know it's tempting to answer the question of whether or not we should stay together for the kids with a simple "yes." As a society we tend to think that kids will do better if parents stay together; that's what our grandparents' generation did, or tried to do. A mediocre marriage is better for kids than no marriage, right? We might believe this at least partly because of a hugely flawed -- but very influential and well-publicized -- study by Judith Wallerstein that "showed" that kids don't notice that their parents are unhappy in a marriage. Wallerstein argued that unless domestic violence is a part of the picture, kids are worse off when parents divorce.

Thinking that an unhappy marriage is better than no marriage -- whether the belief comes from our family or religion or a study like Wallerstein's -- has kept a lot of unhappily married Americans in their marriages. The study, by the way, while embraced by the press and published as a New York Times bestselling book, has been rejected whole-heartedly by social scientists because Wallerstein didn't use a random sample of families that had divorced or stayed married; instead, she looked at a group of divorced people with mental health problems. Her study doesn't meet accepted standards of scientific research, and its findings shouldn't be generalized to families that aren't struggling with the same things for which Wallerstein's tiny sample was being treated (usually histories of mental illness, clinical depression, and suicidal tendencies).

Here is what I've gleaned from the many good studies I've read on the subject: It is the quality of parents' relationships with each other, rather than whether they are married or single, that matters most for kids' well-being. Conflict is an important part of life, and kids learn from their parents how to handle conflicts that inevitably arise. But in general parental conflict—especially the anger and other negative emotions that conflict can create—isn't good for children's happiness, whether or not you are married.

"Studies of two-parent families have consistently found that when a couple's relationship is characterized by unresolved conflict and unhappiness, their children tend to have more acting out aggressive behavior problems, more shy withdrawn behavior, and fewer social and academic skills," write UC Berkeley researchers Phil and Carolyn Cowan.

Furthermore, when couples aren't getting along, their irritation or anger with each other often spills over into their relationships with their children. "Some children get a double whammy," write the Cowans. They suffer the consequences of both the "heated or frosty emotional tone of their parents' relationship" and the frequent result of co-parent conflict—"harsh or ineffective patterns of caring and discipline."

I've lived this: When my husband and I would fight I would have a hard time managing the powerful negative emotions that surfaced—anger, disappointment, hurt—while trying to keep Fiona and Molly's routines on track effectively. And I could usually win all the awards for crappy parenting if I also needed to handle a situation with the kids that required calm, consistent discipline. When I'm already upset, I tend to discipline the kids in a way that is, uh, not calm or collected.

So should you stay together for the kids? It depends on how high-conflict your marriage is, how unhappy you are, and whether or not you can fix these things.

Copyright 2010 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley's
Greater Good Science Center.
Best known for her science-based parenting advice, Dr. Carter follows the scientific literature in psychology, sociology, and neuroscience to understand ways that we can teach children skills for happiness, emotional intelligence, and resilience. She is the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and she has a private consulting practice helping families and schools structure children's lives for happiness, meaning, and ultimately, success.

References:

Cowan, P.A., and C.P. Cowan. "Strengthening Couples to Improve Children's Well-Being: What We Know Now." Poverty Research News 6, no. 3 (2002): 18-21.

Morrison, Donna Ruane, and Mary Jo Coiro. "Parental Conflict and Marital Disruption: Do Children Benefit When High-Conflict Marriages Are Dissolved?" Journal of Marriage and the Family 61, no. 3 (1999): 626-37.

Wallerstein, Judith S. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study. New York: Hyperion, 2001.