Impossible decisions. Every one of them. Elise’s life had narrowed to a slick, bouldered ridge in her mind. Mile-deep gorges gaped on either side. Looking at how he treats me, should we stay together for the kids?
Her husband hadn’t yet turned on the kids physically. But he wasn’t shy with the emotional abuse, the twisted spiritual comments. Though he never struck her in front of them, the kids overheard.
What’s this teaching my daughters? My son?
But on more than one late night, she’d Googled short- and long-term effects of divorce on kids. The list grew bleaker; her chest clenched tighter. Increased risky behaviors. Physical decline. Depression. Diminished social competence. Their own likelihood of relationship troubles and future divorce.
Her constant fear and anxiety mingled with a sense of smallness from her husband’s incessant beration.
Which impossible choice meant less damage?
Should we stay together for the kids?
Whether your personal situation leans more toward Elise’s or another seemingly insurmountable issue, when you’ve gotten to the point of “Should We Stay Together for the Kids?” you’re wading through intense hurt, disappointment, and bewilderment.
Your situation has grown dire, and it’s tough to know where to go. Begin with questions like these.
Does divorce hurt the child?
Judith Wallerstein and Julia Lewis conducted a sweeping 25-year study of 131 kids whose parents divorced, comparing them to their peers.
Tragically, the study upset the standing premise that kids recover from divorce within a two-year period. It defines instead an “unexpected gulf” between kids of divorced families and those from intact families. Researchers outlined lifetime “difficulties children of divorce encounter in achieving love, sexual intimacy, and commitment to marriage and parenthood.”
And sadly, “although divorce sets many adults free … these benefits do not extend to their children.”
Further, the study found divorce to be “life transforming” for the child. The authors elaborate, “The divorced family is not simply an intact family from which the troubled marital bond has been removed. There are many stresses in the postdivorce family, and a great many daunting adjustments are required of the children. … [The child] may feel correctly that he has lost more than he has gained.”
Children from the study tended not toward continuity with their parents, but toward not wanting to identify with their parents. Additionally, “when the marital bond is severed, parent-child relationships are likely to change radically in ways that are not predictable from their course during the marriage.”
Unfortunately, the children’s suffering as adults wasn’t alleviated by frequent contact with both parents. And the lack of stable relational images between an adult man and woman became a central obstacle to healthy adult development, creating abiding insecurity even in healthy relationships.
“The major challenges of engendering hope, creating good images of man-woman relationships, and teaching young people to choose appropriate partners and create a relationship that will hold are staggering in their complexity and go far beyond any interventions yet attempted,” the researchers concluded.
The true cost of divorce on children, it seems, is far higher than most parents can anticipate.
Just how bad is this situation for my kids? When does the destruction become too much?
Some situations, however, are dire enough that damage can multiply if parents remain together.
Despite Jemma’s husband’s abusive behavior, it was an obscene text from him that finally exposed her profound fear. Soon, she comprehended that the longer she stayed, the greater chance she might not be able to undo the destruction to her kids.
Jemma was aware of “ACEs,” a term coined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention regarding a long, wide-ranging study examining effects of adverse childhood experiences.
- Physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse.
- Physical and/or emotional neglect.
- Violent treatment to one’s mother.
- Substance abuse.
- Mental illness.
- Suicide or attempted suicide.
- Instability from parental separation or incarcerated household members.
The more ACEs a child experiences, “the greater the chance of poor outcomes later in life, including dramatically increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, substance abuse, smoking, poor academic achievement, time out of work, and early death,” Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child reports.
How truthful is your assessment of your marriage?
Speaking the truth about what’s really happening in our marriages is critical. The Bible speaks repeatedly about God’s value on accurate judgment, weights, and measures (Leviticus 19:35-36, Proverbs 16:11, etc.); we know He values whole truth and justice. And that means no matter who you’re married to, what a wonderful Christian person others might see them as, or how difficult and mortifying the next step might be, at some point, overlooking becomes denial.
What would it look like to judge accurately what’s going on in your home, with no self-deceit or covering up?
Jemma realized godly courage and truth involved telling herself, and others who could help, what was really happening in her home. She explains, following a tumultuous divorce, “At least on the days my kids are with me, they are free from his emotional abuse. And hopefully, the safety they experience provides enough stability and support to make it through having multiple ACEs.”
But what does the Bible say? Is it better to stay together for the kids?
We hold a high, holy view of marriage because God does.
But even then, appalling circumstances may warrant separation or even divorce. Far more Bible verses declare God’s hatred of violence than those cautioning against divorce. Theologians early as John Chrysostom (d. 407 AD) have condemned physical and emotional violence, and despite misinterpretations of turning the other cheek, Jesus did vocalize moral opposition when He was struck (see John 18:22-23).
Renowned biblical scholar Wayne Grudem asserts more than two causes for divorce (sexual immorality [Matthew 19:9] and an unbeliever leaving [1 Corinthians 7:15]).
He acknowledges biblical reasons could include:
- Extreme, prolonged verbal and relational cruelty destroying mental and emotional stability. (As secular therapist Maria Consiglio offers, “The most harmful abuse sometimes does not look like abuse at all. Manipulation, insidious insults, conditioning and brainwashing, gaslighting and mental abusing will hurt a person where it hurts the most, in their soul. Don’t underestimate an abuser’s ability to destroy you without ever lifting a finger.”)
- Credible threats of serious physical harm or murder.
- Incorrigible drug, gambling, pornography, or alcohol addiction, accompanied by regular lies, deceptions, thefts, overwhelming indebtedness, and/or violence.
But Grudem states, “Restoration of the marriage, if possible, must remain the first goal … So long as it is consistent with the necessary protection for an abused spouse.”
To clarify, reconciliation is the first goal … if you can safely stay in a marriage. Leaving a violent or addictive spouse is not the greater evil. (In their future marriages, would we counsel our children to endure what we’re enduring?)
Dr. Rubel Shelly, author of Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology, agrees:
Stay married to your non-philandering mate until death separates you—unless your spouse is making it impossible for you to live your Christian faith….
…[D]ivorce may be necessary in order to protect yourselves … You are not being unfaithful to your vows or abandoning your husband; you are trying to live with a modicum of God’s peace in your life under extraordinary conditions … Get out of there before you get killed, have to see your children get caught up in his addictive behaviors, or become party to denying them the gospel.
What if my marriage is just loveless and cold? Can our unhappiness damage my kids?
Both staying in a marriage and leaving require more bravery, strength, and resources than you feel like you have.
But remaining in even an unhappy marriage restates God’s faithful love to our kids even when His people are not—the message of how Jesus loved us.
Consider the rich biblical story of Hosea, who was told by God to marry an unrepentant prostitute (see Hosea 1). Throughout the Bible, people like Abigail, Esther, and Sarah trust God completely as their omnipotent co-signer in marriage, a safety net even in unspeakably painful places to flawed, arrogant, unbending spouses.
The challenge for enduring love will require suiting up for one of the greatest and most worthy battles of your life. But the victory won’t just benefit the two of you. Generations will thrive from the work, sacrifice, and honesty poured into this front.
From the point you say “I do,” marriage is an act of faith in something bigger than both of you. But it’s not primarily faith in your spouse. What could happen if you let in Someone bigger?
Where do I go from here?
God’s presence is a place you can set aside the shame and fear associated with marital struggles and even divorce, and instead ask His equally intricate wisdom and deep courage for what to do next (see James 1:5) if you’re struggling with whether or not to stay together for the kids.
No two marriages look the same. Consider these steps moving forward.
1. Assemble a “care team” you can trust.
These are people who love God and His Word, love you, and have a reputation of wise, compassionate decision-making.
Keep the circle small, but consistently tell them the complete truth. Request their regular prayer for you, your family, your marriage, and your spouse.
Dr. William Doherty, founder of the Doherty Relationship Institute, recommends the Institute’s “Discernment Counseling” for any spouse “leaning out” of their marriage. Consider, too, resources like the Center for Relational Care, providing counseling and marriage intensives. Or find a referral to a counselor in your area.
2. Explore whether your relationship is abusive and what to do next.
Don’t miss, Are You in an Abusive Relationship? And check out the Emotionally Destructive Relationship Questionnaire.
Hard realities don’t mean your marriage isn’t worthy of rescue! But it does mean the only path to a healthy relationship lies through repentance, accountability, help, healthy boundaries, and lasting change.
3. Spend extended time praying for your marriage and God’s wisdom for it.
Get on your knees about your marriage; consider fasting on a regular basis.
Ask God for enduring love and the grace to love your mate beyond what they deserve. Then ask for wisdom to know what to do—so your marriage can show your kids just how deep, wide, and long He loves us.
Or ask if it’s necessary to draw a healthy boundary of safety because He does love and value us—and separate in hopes of reconciliation.
4. Remember: Your ability to save your marriage does not earn acceptability before God.
Your ability to perform (including saving your marriage) has never been what makes you worthy before God.
He accepts us for one reason: our trust in Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
No “failure” is bigger than God’s ability to create beauty and purpose, including when you’re the victim of someone else’s sin. “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
So keep asking God about the next holy, loving, courageous step for your marriage, for your kids. He stands ready as your family’s safest refuge.
Copyright © 2022 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write On Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.