“Should you stay together until your children are a little older, or is it better to make a clean break now?” I hear this question every time I lecture to parents or participate on talk shows. People love their children, and they want to diminish any hurt from the divorce. So when it comes to the best time to divorce, parents want to know whether there’s an age when divorce is easier on children.
What is the best time to divorce?
The trouble is, there’s no simple answer. It all depends on what’s going on in your family, what kind of parents you are, how much you can cooperate, and also the age and temperament of your child. First take a close look at what’s happening in your family.
If there’s chronic violence at home, the answer is “the sooner the better,” unrelated to the age of your child. By violence, I mean physical attack – hitting, kicking, throwing objects – or chronic threats of physical violence. Exposure to violence has serious consequences for a child’s development that may last well into adulthood. They fear for your safety. They fear for themselves and their siblings.
If there’s repeated high conflict in your marriage accompanied by yelling, screaming, and pounding the table, then I’d also say the sooner the better. Since there are no meaningful measures of high conflict, this judgment is highly subjective. Some families are reserved, others are operatic. But if you’re in a marriage where almost every subject is material for another fierce argument, you know what I mean. In some high-conflict homes, serious differences between the partners are a recurrent theme in everyday life. In other marriages, fights erupt over insignificant issues – a grocery bill, local politics, a bad report card – leading to hurt and a sense of endless frustration. Like violence, high conflict is terrifying for children to witness because it creates a climate that leads to fear and trembling. In such an environment, a child can lose the capacity to trust, even to feel. The longer it goes on, the worse it will be.
Divorce in violent marriages provides important relief for one or both parents and can definitely help the children – but not automatically. When children have witnessed violent behavior, they need therapy in addition to divorce. This is an extremely important recommendation. Children who have witnessed physical abuse in their families absolutely need help in assimilating new and healthier models for male-female relationships. Nor is divorce by itself enough for children who have grown up under conditions of high conflict. They, too, need therapy to help them resume their development without a distorted view of how people treat each other.
The parents who terminate such marriages also need help, not only to protect their children but to learn how to let go of their fear and anger. Divorce does not end fear in a person who has been victimized. Nor does rage go away. After a divorce, angry people often tend to continue fighting. But if you are in a violent or high-conflict marriage, you should keep in mind that anger has the potential to escalate when divorce is threatened or actually filed. While you may not be able to prevent anger from dominating your divorce proceedings, you can be aware of how hazardous the victim-perpetrator interaction is to your children.
The Low-Conflict Divorce
If the conflict is low between you – and this encompasses more than half of all divorces – it’s a different story. Despite your disappointment in the marriage, you share some mutual respect and common interests.
Perhaps you’re divorcing because of long-standing loneliness or sexual deprivation, because you have lost respect for your partner, or because of alcoholism, drug abuse, or mental illness. There’s a wide range of irreconcilable differences. If this describes your marriage, then you should consider the fact that preschoolers tend to have the hardest time at the breakup and sometimes many years afterward. Much depends on the quality of your child’s life after the breakup. A good second marriage may or may not enable you to provide the care that your child needs.
With the risk of repeating myself, I want to emphasize that young children need a great deal of care from their parents. After divorce, many women who were able to stay home part-time with their babies are now required to re-enter the workforce full-time. Mothers who love taking care of their little ones with long bedtime rituals, reading together, and playing favorite games, find that they have to cut back these pleasurable activities not because they want to but because they no longer have the time or energy after a long day at work.
So if you can delay your divorce until your youngest child enters school and seems to be adjusting well, your decision will be easier on him. He’ll have an interesting world outside your home and a school structure that supports activities and friendships that will keep him developmentally on target. As he begins to find his own interests and friends, you may be better able to protect him from feeling that he has lost more than he has gained with your divorce.
The second most vulnerable age for divorce is early adolescence, when children are developing rapidly and need a strong family to guide and protect them. If you have a preteen child in trouble – failing at school or not keeping up with peers in some important regard – I advise you to hesitate before getting a divorce. Your child may be too troubled to adjust to the demands of a post-divorce family. So before you make any moves, consider whether your child is developmentally on target. If not, try to get her some help before you embark on the divorce.
The bottom line is that if you can figure out how to protect your little one from feeling bereft after the breakup and your young adolescent from feeling unsupported, you will be starting the journey better prepared. But let’s be realistic. People can’t always prepare for divorce. Traumatic events can engulf families and spit them out in lawyers’ offices with shocking speed.
If your partner has done something outrageous and intolerable and you’re seething with anger, you’re probably going to file for divorce no matter how old your children are or what I say about differences in ages. You won’t be able to wait for the “best time to divorce”. If this happens to you, keep in mind the importance of maintaining the stability of care with young children and the special vulnerability of children entering adolescence. This is the time to call on your family and friends for help and to set up plans for the young children and young teenagers before you separate.
Staying Together for the Kids
People also ask me, “Is it bad for my children if I stay in an unhappy marriage? Or would they be better off if we divorce?” I’m afraid the answer to this is yes and no. The notion that your child is unhappy because you’re unhappy is simply not true. If your external behavior looks normal and you really enjoy being a parent – while your internal state is lonely or dying from boredom – your child may not notice your unhappiness. Children can’t read your internal state unless it shows up directly in your relationship with them. They have no key to your sex life. They’re not mind readers. Moreover, they have no way to understand the complexity of your marital relationship. I’m afraid that children who have not yet reached adolescence cannot comprehend why a violent person just doesn’t stop if they are asked to show some restraint. They have no clue as to why a person behaves badly when drunk.
The choice to divorce is always a subjective, personal decision. No one can tell you exactly what the future holds. It may bring the man or woman of your dreams. I’ve seen that happen to young and old adults alike, although your chances diminish with age because the market is smaller. I’m reminded of one woman in her 50s who divorced her husband because she had grown to hate him. Within six months, she met a kind, loving man at her church who was exactly what she wanted in a partner. My point is that no one can measure how unhappy you are or predict what new opportunities divorce will bring. Only you can weigh the balance of inner misery and satisfaction in your life. In fact, all of us probably know couples who don’t love each other but find contentment in work, friends, and parenthood. Some may have given up the dream of romantic love or perhaps they never wanted a passionate relationship from the start. Clearly, disappointment in a marriage depends almost entirely on where you set your sights to begin with, and these are subject to change. One recent study of unhappy marriages found that many embattled but intact couples, five years later, were much happier and reported that their marriages were good. So it is important not to make critical decisions in the heat of your latest disappointments. Things may look very different if you wait a few months. You may change your mind altogether.
From your children’s perspective, the decision to divorce relates to how your unhappiness is affecting your ability to be a good parent. If you and your spouse enjoy being parents and together maintain a moral and protected life for your children, then I think you should consider staying together. I know many couples who have taken this path. They take great pride in their children and have decided, on balance, that it was a good way for them to go. Some have discreet extramarital affairs when they are away from home. Others settle for the limited love and sexuality in the marriage that they have. But if your unhappiness dominates your life, then you have to ask yourself probingly if one or both of you will be better parents after divorcing. Will your children be better off? These are hard questions, but again, only you can know your pain and satisfaction, how these play out now in the lives of your children, and how they are likely to play out in the future. The familiar question – “Is it better to stay married or not?” – doesn’t capture the many gradations or nuances of marriage. Nor does it touch on the source of marital problems and the extent to which they can be tolerated within an intact marriage.
On the other hand, if you feel humiliated, emotionally abused, mocked, and derided in your marriage, or just wake up miserable each day, you can use the divorce to take new pride in yourself. As an emancipated parent, you can decide the best time to divorce for yourself. You can become a far better role model and share with your children your new sense of freedom. You can take the opportunity to improve your life with knowledge that you didn’t have when you were younger. You can become a new kind of adult who has had the courage to bring about change in your life and the lives of your children. A new world is ahead of you, and it’s yours to define.
This article has been excerpted from What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce (Hachette Books, 2004) by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee. A child psychologist as well as the founder and executive director of the Center for Family in Transition, Wallerstein has spent the last 30 years studying and interviewing children of divorce and their parents. The results of her research provide answers to the question: how can you protect your kids during and after divorce? She shares these answers in this excellent, highly readable book. You’ll learn what you should say and do for children at each age; how to be an effective co-parent; how to choose the custody plan that’s best for your kids; and what you need to know to create a healthy remarriage.