- In most cases, partners should work on their marriage diligently with a qualified therapist before ending it.
- Ending an unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship can provide a more positive environment for the children.
- Divorce can provide an opportunity for parents to improve their co-parenting relationship.
Contrary to popular belief, divorce may be good for your family. I can't tell you how many married clients I see in my practice who have been indoctrinated to believe that staying together, even in an often "toxic" marriage (their words), is better for their children than a separation. In some or even many cases, this may be true. Culturally, we seem to heavily endorse this notion, and there is a body of corroborating psychological research spanning over decades (e.g., Amato, 2000; Garriga and Pennoni, 2022). However, in some cases, divorce can actually be positive for all family members (Kendler, 1987; Becher et al., 2019). Below I review four key, often overlooked, reasons.
As a caveat, I'm not proposing separation or divorce lightly; in most cases (excluding severe abuse or domestic terrorism, for instance), I would still recommend partners work on their marriage diligently with a qualified therapist before ending it. Married parents are likely to have similar issues with future partners if they don't work on the roots of issues in their current relationship. It's also usually easier and healthier to divorce or separate only after both partners can say with certainty they've tried everything and given it 100 percent, and it still didn't work.
Reduced exposure and, therefore, conflict: While it's unlikely to fully eliminate conflict as some contact between separated parents is always required to co-parent effectively, divorce can reduce the level of conflict between parents. This can create a more stable and peaceful environment for children, even if it's split between households. Clearly, high levels of frequent and intense conflict between parents is stressful for children and, in some cases, traumatic. It also makes children feel less safe. When they feel unsafe, they can't focus effectively on learning, socializing, or other important and healthy activities. Ending an unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship can thus provide a more positive and supportive environment for their children to not only develop healthily but also thrive.
Better co-parenting: No matter what struggles and difficulties they face in their intimate relationship, the odds are that parents love their children. Sharing this love can help unite them in a new mission focusing only on co-parenting. Divorce can thus provide an opportunity for parents to improve their co-parenting relationship for their children's benefit. When parents are no longer forcing a romantic/intimate relationship that hasn't worked (hopefully despite their best efforts in most cases), they may be better able to communicate and work together to raise their children. This can lead to a more positive and collaborative parenting experience for children; divorced parents may be able to provide a more stable and consistent presence in their children's lives. Also, not struggling in their relationship can also free up more time, emotional space, and patience to parent; an extra hour spent arguing, for example, is now freed up to bond and attend to their children.
Increased individual fulfillment: Divorce or separation can also provide parents with more opportunity to pursue their individual goals and interests. This includes pursuing healthier intimate/romantic relationships with better-suited partners. When parents' romantic/intimate needs are met, and they are happy and fulfilled in their own lives, they will likely be better able to provide a patient, loving, and supportive environment for their children. Also, by modeling healthy self-care and personal fulfillment, parents can help their children learn to value their own needs and interests.
Positive role modeling: Staying in a highly conflictual marriage can give children the false impression that unhealthy dynamics are "normal." Divorce can also provide an opportunity for parents to model healthy relationship behaviors. By ending a relationship that is not working, parents can demonstrate to their children the importance of self-respect, healthy communication, addressing and repairing conflict, and boundaries. It bears repeating that this can help children learn to form healthier relationships in their own lives. Family relationships serve as a default blueprint for children's future relationships, as they develop, grow, and relationally expand out of the family.
I know that decisions around divorce are not easy by any means; in fact, they're among the most complex, thorny, and challenging decisions one may ever make. While divorce is often a difficult and painful experience, it is not always negative (Kendler, 1987; Becher et al., 2019). It can be beneficial, salutary, and therapeutic for all family members. As long as parents are loving, collaborative, engaged, responsive, accessible, and responsible, they can work together to create a supportive environment for their children, after divorce. Good family therapy can help this become a reality, if needed. Uniting to co-parent may even be easier and more effective after separating. If you're only married for your children, it may behoove you to reconsider carefully.
Amato, P. R. (2000). The consequences of divorce for adults and children. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(4), 1269–1287. Chicago.
Becher, E. H., Kim, H., Cronin, S. E., Deenanath, V., McGuire, J. K., McCann, E. M., & Powell, S. (2019). Positive parenting and parental conflict: Contributions to resilient coparenting during divorce. Family Relations, 68(1), 150–164.
Garriga, A., Pennoni, F. (2022). The Causal Effects of Parental Divorce and Parental Temporary Separation on Children’s Cognitive Abilities and Psychological Well-being According to Parental Relationship Quality. Soc Indic Res 161, 963–987. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-020-02428-2
Kendler, H. H. (1987). A good divorce is better than a bad marriage. Annals of Theoretical Psychology, 55–89.