Can I Stay in an Unhealthy Marriage for the Sake of a Child?

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When a couple marries, they expect and hope that it will last forever. Sadly, that is often not the case. Leaving an unhealthy marriage is a huge step, and even more difficult and emotional when there is a child to consider. Whereas couples from previous generations may have been likely to stay in an unhappy marriage for the sake of children, psychologists today warn of the dangers of remaining married in name only. Ultimately, it is a personal choice that should be given a great deal of thought.

Seeking Professional Help

Mark Banschick, M.D., psychiatrist and author of "The Intelligent Divorce" book series, recommends therapy if you are in an unhappy marriage and have a child. A divorce can undermine a child's sense of stability and security, warns Dr. Banschick, and should not be rushed into. If you have explored all other options, however, and counseling has proven unsuccessful in helping you resolve your issues and come to a mutual decision to stay together, it is definitely possible to separate and still do right by your child.

Staying Together

A child under 10 who is aware of constant conflict between parents is likely to internalize blame, says psychologist Dr. Neill Neill. In the short term, this can lead to the child withdrawing from one or both parents. Behavioral problems may arise, such as bullying, fighting and breaking rules. The main long-term consequence comes from the child's incorporation of what was witnessed during childhood, says Dr. Neill. It is likely that, grown up and in the context of a new family, this child will handle conflict as it was handled in the family of origin, be it through shouting or shutting down.


Separation may be upsetting for a child initially, but, in the long term, this is preferable to witnessing parents trapped in a miserable marriage, says Rosalind Sedacca, divorce and parenting coach and founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network. The key is how the parents deal with conflict. Provided they are able to separate and co-parent in a way that is respectful of one another and the child, the child will benefit from a positive change in the home environment. If one-time partners are happier apart than together, the child will be happier too. Be prepared to consider counseling for your child, says Dr. Banschick. Older children are more likely to need therapy to deal with the change.

Making Your Mind Up

Whether you stay in your marriage for the sake of your child is entirely your decision. A counselor can help you see things more clearly, identify the issues in the relationship, work on becoming a happier as well as stronger individual and make a more informed choice; ultimately, however, nobody can tell you what the right thing to do is. If you and your spouse are both committed to making the marriage work and willing to make whatever changes are necessary to realize that goal, staying together could be the right thing for the whole family. On the other hand, if you know in your heart that the marriage is over, staying together simply for the sake of your child is likely to cause more hurt than it prevents. Consider what advice you would give your child who was trapped in a desperately unhappy marriage, suggests Dr. Neill, and apply that to your own situation.