So, you’ve got a husband and you’ve got kids. This marriage isn’t working. You’ve tried and you’ve tried (I hope you’ve tried), and it’s not getting better. You put off thinking about it to get your family through the holidays. Another year has gone by and it’s smack in your face again. You don’t know what’s worse. Staying for the kids or going?
It’s a tortuous, painful place to be. There are repercussions on both sides of your decision and they matter. I want to honor how hard this is for you.
Should You Stay or Get a Divorce?
I’m not a proponent of divorce. In fact, my life’s work is helping couples improve their relationships, but I am also not someone who believes in avoiding a dissolution at all costs. I have witnessed couples throw away a marriage unnecessarily instead of putting in the work, and I have watched some stay together, allowing their desecrated marriage to become an idol as they continue to damage each other. Both are equally unhealthy.
I know that God’s best plan for us is to be in intact nuclear families—but not at all costs. Not at the cost of our children’s health and our health. I don’t believe that God’s plan for us is to sling injuries back and forth and make ourselves and our children miserable for the sake of staying together.
In fact, the real divorce and the legal divorce never happen at the same time. Jeff Domen (Christian divorce attorney) says it better: “God intends a married couple to be so close physically, emotionally and spiritually that they are ‘as one flesh.’ When something so serious comes between you and your spouse that you can no longer be ‘one,’ the marital bond is broken. Many times marriages end in brokenness even before someone decides to file for a legal divorce.”
Things to Consider When You Want a Divorce
But even if you recognize the brokenness in your marriage, it’s not that simple. Is it? There are many factors rumbling through your mind: finances, moving, disruption, future step relationships, co-parenting, “conscious uncoupling” (is that even a real thing?). With all of the jargon going around, society makes it seem like it’s a breeze to upend your family and become a single mother. It’s not. And that’s okay. Take a breath. None of this is easy, but, whatever your decision, it will be okay.
Your situation is unique. There are no cookie cutter answers here. Ultimately, it’s up to you to make this decision. So let’s look at some factors and possibilities to consider.
The dearth of research seems to muddy the waters, without a real consensus. Some studies conclude that it’s damaging to stay together for the kids and others conclude that the effects of divorce are more damaging than parents staying together.
There is a consensus, however, that whether you stay or you go, the most important factor is that you reduce the amount of contention (arguing, talking bad, bitterness, and anger) to which your children are exposed.
How Much Conflict is Too Much in a Marriage?
Okay, so we know it’s not good for kids to be in a home where parents are at war, but we know that divorce comes with its own damage. Many women ask: Where’s the line? How do we know how much conflict is it too much? What types of conflict are worse?
I have had clients who are in high conflict relationships and aren’t even considering divorce. It’s just how they live their life. It’s often paired with a lot of love and connection and this makes a difference. Conflict woven and embraced with love can still produce something healthy.
Verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and domestic violence: These create a chaotic environment that children don’t thrive in, and neither can you. You need to get out and get help. That’s clear.
What Should You Do When Your Marriage Feels Lifeless?
But what if there’s little affection, coldness, and lack of empathy and connection? You’re not sharing a bedroom, you’re not arguing, but you are not really engaging either. That’s where we get into the territory of what works best for for all.
Can two people who aren’t in love anymore still model out those healthy facets of marriage or family life where there might be conflict with healthy resolution and still a lot of love going around? Absolutely.
If you’re just not happy, my professional opinion is that this is no good reason for a divorce. Happiness is a one-person job, and ending your marriage, despite what you believe, will not fix that. Yes, you can be happy in a marriage that isn’t what your dreams and fantasies hoped it would look like. You can be happy even if your marriage itself is not ‘happy.’ Figure out how to fill yourself up. Find joy and happiness separate from your spouse and only then make a decision about your marriage.
Your kids are learning how to do relationships both with themselves and with a future spouse by watching you. That doesn’t mean they need to see perfect harmony. They just need to see you working it out. Not running, not sweeping it under the rug, but working it out.
If You Are Considering Staying for the Kids, Ask Yourself These Questions
Once you come to terms with the fact that your husband and your marriage may not ever be your source of happiness, here are some things to ponder about staying or going.
1. How much disruption exists currently?
First, kids always know. No matter how quiet you are about your issues, kids will pick up on it. That’s okay. If they see that you are compromising and working it out, they can learn a lot about relationship negotiating. If your kids are experiencing a lot of yelling, anger, and vitriol, then you are doing them no favors by remaining together. Either fix it or separate.
2. How much will divorce disrupt your lives?
Will your kids have to change schools, live in separate homes, or move out of state or country? What will custody look like? Will your lifestyle have to change? I know thinking about all these things may feel overwhelming and make you think, “Yeah, I’m just going to stay.”
Staying because you’re scared of change is also no good reason. People do it, and you can too. Just take it one question at a time.
3. How long?
How long will staying for the kids last? Are your little ones toddlers and you’re looking at staying together for 15+ years or are they teens and you’re thinking of hanging in there for another couple years? This makes a difference. Look at your overall goals for your life, and answer honestly if you can fold that into doing this for the long haul.
4. Are you trying to get rid of his influence on your children?
Your relationship with your spouse will never go away. Your spouse’s influence on your children will never go away. If you are wanting to end a marriage because you expect that he is going to go away and you won’t have to deal with him, that’s not going to happen. In fact, you will have to get more intentional about relating with each other as you walk the co-parenting journey. For some, this can mean a better relationship, for others it’s more of the same. How can you begin to be more intentional in your communication with him now?
5. How ugly will it be?
Most people assume that divorce is always ugly. This doesn’t have to be, but you know your spouse better than any attorney or therapist. So, you are the best one to answer this question. How mature is he? Could you two part in a healthy way? If the whole reason you are contemplating leaving is because he is unreasonable and immature, it doesn’t mean you should stay. It just means you need to take all of this into consideration as you make this choice.
6. Whose decision is this, anyway?
It’s unfortunate but true that we often put a lot of weight in what other people think about the way we live our lives. This is your life, and you have to do what’s best for you and your family. This decision is between you and God. It doesn’t matter what the tongue-waggers say. A good rule of thumb to is to imagine that no one cares or has any say or judgment about your decision whatsoever. What choice would you make? Now, it’s time to walk it out, even if it’s scary.
7. Is it worth it?
When you think of the sacrifices that need to be made with either decision, which is the least of two evils? Answer the question, because not making a decision is still a decision.
It’s hard to face the reality that sacrifices will have to be made, but allowing yourself to stay in limbo is increasing the emotional burden on yourself and it’s trickling down to your family. That is not good self-care.
Ultimately, when a choice is made, you can work towards making peace with your decision.
8. Are you putting your life on hold?
It’s not okay for you to put your life, goals, and dreams on hold until your children grow up and you can divorce. How can you prioritize yourself and not neglect yourself in the process of this decision?
If you’re going to stay for the kids, it’s imperative that you not view this season of your life as a holding pattern. Rather, be clear that this is your life. You are making this decision in the best interest of your family, but this season is still about living a vibrant, healthy, goal-driven life.
Make this present life that you have chosen as great as you can. If you’re going to remain in a marriage with this man, for at least this time period, you owe it to yourself to work on fostering health in your relationship with him during these years.
If you are staying, you are not pretending for the kid’s sake. You are actually doing marriage for the kid’s sake.
The reality is that an unintended consequence of staying together for the kids is that you and your husband may figure out how to actually make this marriage work. And if not, you are figuring out how to make co-parenting work in the future.
You may be thinking, “Dr. Zoe, you are all over the place. Are you supporting staying for the kids or trying to talk me out of it?” Yes and yes. Although it’s natural to want permission when making a difficult decision, you won’t find it here. Nor do you need it. Big decisions like this matter. A lot. But what matters more is how you make the decision work for you and your family. Get on your knees and search your heart. You’ve got this!
If you’re struggling with whether or not you want to stay in your marriage, we hope this video brings you some clarity: