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Children: Damage by Divorce Is Not Mandated

Rachel Alexander July 25, 2019

{3:30 minutes to read} A good divorce from a bad marriage may actually be better for children when the alternative is a malignant and dysfunctional family.

I invite parents everywhere, married and divorcing alike, to be disabused of an outdated belief: that children from married parents are automatically better off than children of divorced parents. This is a terrible untruth causing unnecessary suffering for the unhappily married, guiltily divorcing and their collective offspring. Misguided by this view, the unhappily married remain married “for the children,” and continue to subject the family to deleterious levels of toxicity, confusion, conflicted modeling, and high levels of stress, ultimately serving no one, least of all their children. Avoiding divorce at all cost is often too great a cost for everyone.

The truth is that children have the best chance of developing into well adjusted big people when they are parented by responsible, fulfilled, loving adults; adults attuned to their own needs, and empathically, to the needs of their children.

Of course, parents can model authentic self-care and high standards for relating by investing in their solid marital relationship. But, when that is not an option, adults can still model these values by ending their toxic marriage.

Though the effects of Married v Divorced on children has long been a collective, social dilemma, I suggest that the real litmus test is weighing the effects of a stable, loving, supportive environment vs. a toxic, unhappy environment. A healthy environment should be the non-negotiable goal; the marital relationship should be in service to this. If the marriage can neither contribute nor conform to this fundamental standard, the best interests of the children are best served by protecting them from the marriage rather than continuing to subject them to it.

Married or divorced are shorthand for things that no longer stand in that antiquated debate. Perhaps at one time “married” might have signified secure and safe, and “divorced” stood for financial collapse, social stigma and ostracization. But as our dialogues over the decades have become more honest, marriage’s meaning has expanded to include a wider, more realistic range of workable and problematic relationships.

Unfortunately, many marriages consist of one or both adults being continually subjected to destabilizing behaviors, abusive interactions and isolation. This type of marital environment impairs parenting. It fosters anxious, vulnerable, and conflicted children who are dysregulated by the ongoing crises and chaos of the marriage; the lack of familial emotional reserves typically results in an inconsistent responsiveness to children’s needs, further undermining their well-being.

A good enough marriage makes for a good enough environment wherein children can develop internal mechanisms for recognizing what is healthy and safe, and modeling their own relationships accordingly. Parental modeling of appropriate guidelines helps children internalize how to self care, relate to others, maintain standards and boundaries, and discern safe from dangerous relationships. Raised in this way, children internalize a stable and congruent sense of themselves and the world.

Conversely, children trapped in an impaired, hostile environment in which unhappy parents stayed together at all cost, are inevitably significantly disadvantaged than those children settled in two happy homes.