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My Wife and I Can’t Stand Each Other, But We’re Staying Together For the Kid. Will This Screw Them Up?

A dad asks whether staying together for the kid is the right thing to do — or an act that isn't actually good for their kid after all.

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Goodfather,

My wife and I want a divorce. We’re going to get a divorce. It’s been a long time coming and we are both okay with it. But we also love our four-year-old and don’t want to divorce for his sake. We think we will put our life on hold for a few years — until he is 9 so we are both at home. It’s a sacrifice, we know, but we both strongly agree on this and think it’s for the best.

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The problem is no one else does. Our parents, our family, even our friends are outspoken about us not doing this. They are clearly uncomfortable with the whole thing but most of them are only comfortable couching it in terms of the kid. They think — or at least say — we are going to fuck him up for life. We disagree. In fact we think we’re willing to put our divorce on hold for exactly what’s best for the kid. Are we wrong?

On Hold in Honolulu

 

I’ve never been particularly fond of parenting based on the moral attitudes of others. That’s how many of us got trapped in the crazy idea that if sink our time and money into sports and education our kids will somehow turn into successful adults. After all, ensuring our kids could get a good job and financial freedom was a moral proposition. It’s not, of course, and thinking it is has put a huge burden on poor and middle-class parents and their overworked kids who are starving for affection. 

What does any of this have to do with you and your wife staying together strictly for your kid? Well, essentially, you need to worry about what’s best for your child and less about what offends friends, neighbors, and family. Of course, you know your family best, but I can probably help you untangle the main concern, which is: Will this fuck your kid up? 

The answer? It depends. 

Research is very clear that divorce is destabilizing for a child and outcomes aren’t particularly great for children of divorce unless relationships are managed very carefully. Part of the reason kids are destabilized by divorce is self-recrimination and fear of love lost. But another huge part of the equation is the simple breakdown of a child’s known environment and routine. 

Kids thrive when they know what to expect. Staying in the same school, home, and community allows them to have a safe place to develop. Instead of worrying about their day to day needs, they can concentrate on the business of growing up. So, in a very real sense, staying together for your child is a very thoughtful and appropriate thing to do. There’s a “but” here:

But staying together is only thoughtful and appropriate if you and your partner are capable of maintaining a united front. Because you see, stability in relationships is just as important as the structural stability of keeping put. You might be saving your child from the dizzying confusion of joint custody, but if the trade-off is watching you and your partner slowly tear each other to pieces, there will absolutely be ugly repercussions.

Your child is still looking to you to learn what a healthy relationship looks like. If you can’t provide a healthy relationship model — good communication and appropriate conflict resolution — then you might be better off considering going through with the divorce. Witnessing years of bad feelings, consternation, sniping, and anger will only wear your child down. And that’s really my only worry here. 

But look, there are hundreds of ways to be in a relationship. Kids have grown up just fine with parents who were openly non-monogamous. Kids have grown up successfully in situations were parents traded occupying a central house where the child lived full time. Kids have grown up successfully with divorced parents too. But I can almost guarantee you that in all of these circumstances, the ability for a child to grow up successfully those relationships was all about having open, communicative parents.

If you and your partner can commit to being good to one another for the foreseeable future, then I say, more power too you. If you think the arrangement will result in nightly shouting matches, then I would urge caution. 

That said, there are a couple more things to think about:

Please consider that just because your child gets older does not mean that they will better equipped to handle the dissolution of your marriage. It will hurt them whether they are 5 or 25. Further, if you reveal that you lived without love for the whole of their childhood, that lie will sit heavy and may have an effect on their ability to trust you as an adult. So don’t go into this thing thinking you are going to save your kid from the pain of your divorce. You’re not. Offering them stability by staying together may give your child a chance to develop the emotional skills to deal with your divorce better, but they will still have to deal. 

Finally, there is a possible bright side in the strategy of staying together for the child. It could be that if you double down on better communication and treat each other decently, the issues that you have with one another could be resolved. I’m not sure what brought you to the place you’re at now, but as long as you’re planning on staying together, why not engage in some couples counseling to see how things go. I bet it will help. 

I do hope things work out for you and your child. Just be thoughtful and try not to pay heed to the moralizers.