Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Unhappily Married: What’s Best for the Kids – Together or Apart?


Unhappy Marriage: What's Best for the Kids - Together or Apart?

Deciding whether to stay in an unhappy marriage or leave is possibly one of the hardest decisions a parent could make.

Sometimes despite the greatest ‘happily-ever-after’ intentions, a relationship can become a tense, unhappy, conflicted union. If this is the case there’ll be no hiding it from the kids – they’ll know and according to a growing body of research, they’ll wear the impact.

A number of studies have pointed to the negative impact of divorce on children but there is compelling research suggesting that many of these problems have their roots in the conflict and tension that preceded the breakup. It is widely accepted that parental conflict does damage, particularly when it is any of the following:

  • frequent;
  • heated (verbal insults and raised voices);
  • physically aggressive;
  • unresolved (in the child’s eyes);
  • about the child;
  • brings on the silent treatment between parents.

Parents will do anything for their children and this may fuel the decision to stay together in an unhappy marriage. Conflict though, might do more harm to children than divorce:

  1. Harm to the parent-child bond.

    In an unhappy marriage, where tension and conflict is the norm, parent-child interactions also seem to show signs of strain. As explained by researcher and psychologist Chrystyna Kouros, ‘…if mom and dad are fighting, it will show up initially – and in some cases on the second day – in a poorer quality relationship with their kids.’  The exact reasons for this are unclear but there are a number of likely explanations. Conflict drains the resources of a relationship and in doing so, can give way to ineffective or inconsistent parenting. Parental energy is also strained, leaving less to invest in the children.

  2. The trigger for psychological and behavioural problems.

    Marital conflict is associated with a range of internalising (such as depression, anxiety, withdrawal) and externalizing (such as aggression, non-compliance) outcomes in children.

  3. Poorer academic performance.

    Children who report higher levels of hostile, intense or unresolved conflict between their parents show poorer academic performance. 

  4. Poorer interpersonal skills.

    When there is ongoing tension and unresolved conflict between parents, there is likely to be minimal modelling of effective ways to resolve conflict. Disagreements are a part of life and the first place children learn how to handle them is in the home, by watching their parents. If there is limited modelling of successful conflict resolution, there will be limited learning of successful relationship skills.

  5. Trouble with their own future romantic relationships.

    Children who are exposed to frequent marital conflict are more likely to have trouble with their own romantic relationships in adolescence and through to adulthood. For children from high conflict homes, their experience with romantic relationships and is a negative one, effectively limiting their knowledge on how successful relationships work.

  6. Leads to emotional insecurity.

    Research has found that when parents are in an unhappy marriage, the conflict compromises the social and emotional well-being of children by threatening their sense of security in the family. This in turn predicts the onset of problems during adolescence, including depression and anxiety.  

  7. Causes cardiac stress and an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone).

    Tension or conflict between parents causes a physiological response in children. According to research, when children see conflict between their parents, they experience cardiac stress and a significant increase in the level of cortisol in their body. This physical response can harm their stress response systems and interfere with their mental and intellectual development.

  8. Non-verbal and verbal conflict cause similar responses.

    In a study conducted at the University of Notre Dame, it was found that children responded similarly to both verbal and nonverbal forms of conflict between their parents. Yelling, name-calling and verbal spite induces the same stress response in children as eye-rolling, heavy sighs, silent treatment and non-verbal intimidation such as finger pointing or glaring.

  9. Increases the likelihood of adult children divorcing.

    Research has found the highest rates of divorce occur for adult children whose parents divorced after a high conflict marriage. The second highest rate was for those whose parents stayed together but had a high conflict relationship. 

How to Disagree Well – Even if it’s an Unhappy Marriage

Disagreements are a fact of life. Disagree well, and you’ll provide your kids with the opportunity to learn some valuable life skills that will hold them well throughout their lives. Here’s how:

  1. Don’t fight dirty.

    Reduce the hostility and don’t fight dirty. No name-calling, yelling, personal attacks, eye-rolling, glaring or silent treatment. If a dirty fight is all you have in you, just keep it away from the kids.

  2. Resolve the argument and let the kids know you’ve made up (they’ll be able to tell if you’re faking).

    Make sure you let the children know that the argument has been resolved. Research has shown that conflict is particularly damaging to kids if they believe it to be unresolved. Let them know that you and your spouse forgive each other and have made up. It’s important to do this respectfully and warmly. Children are sharper than we often give them credit for and if you’re faking the make-up, they’ll know it straight away.

  3. Keep the effects of the clash separate from the kids.

    Be deliberate in keeping the effects of a marital clash on you separate to your relationships with your kids. Conflict takes its toll on even the strongest person. An unhappy marriage will drain your energy but its important to stay patient, sensitive and consistent with your kids. Do whatever you can to make sure your children feel that you still have enough energy for them. 

  4. Be alive the possibility that the kids may blame themselves.

    Let them know that grown-ups sometimes get cranky with each other and that it has absolutely nothing to do with them. Let them know they are actually the biggest reason you love each other or care about each other and that no matter what, they’ll never be the reason for the fight. They might blame themselves whether the argument is over them or not – it’s just the way it is. If you are arguing over something to do with them, do everything you can to keep it away from them or at the very least, do whatever you can to shut it down.

Not all marital conflict is unhealthy. It’s important for children to learn how to effectively manage conflict and one of the best ways for this to happen is for them to see their parents doing exactly that – loving each other through the bumps. Conflict that is resolved respectfully and with warmth and empathy will have a positive effect on kids and equip them with valuable tools for their own lives.

 Children of divorced parents can flourish and be as successful as children from families where the marriage is intact.

Nobody but you can decide whether it’s best to stay together or separate but what we know from the research is that if you stay together, it’s critical to minimise conflict, especially in front of the kids. Constant tension and arguing can harm them more than divorce. 

I’ve never met a parent who went to divorce as anything but the last option – but it is an option and perhaps a sound one if the marriage is one of tension or high conflict. 

Showing respect to your relationship doesn’t always mean staying. If you’ve fought to keep it intact and it continues to fall apart, respecting it might mean ending it rather than sending it to a slow cold death. Only the couple involved can make the decision and it’s not for anyone else to judge.

Every family is different but there are common reasons that relationships fall apart. If you have more fight left in you, see here for the 6 most common reasons relationships come undone and ways you might be able to get them back on track.

There’s a big difference between giving up and knowing when to walk away. Deciding to divorce in no way means you have failed or that the relationship wasn’t important, right or wonderful in its prime. What it means is that it has run its course and has little more to offer either of you. Think carefully before you decide to stay together for the kids, they may be the reason you need to make the heartbreaking and brave decision to walk away.

How children deal with divorce depends heavily on how the parents deal with it. See here for ways to help  children safely and soundly through to the other side of divorce.

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If you and your spouse have agreed that a divorce is necessary, but would prefer to avoid the stress and expense of a drawn-out court process, uncontested divorce may be a good option for your family.


Hello. I was recently divorced less than a year ago, and we had a smooth divorce, and we both agreed on the terms of our divorce, in fact I went back to the home we shared the same day after the judge signed off of what we wanted. I did my best to comfort my ex-wife. I am still faithful today, but one thing I noticed is my ex-wife turned to be greedy and very mean, and uses our children to dislike me in every way. I never committed any adultery. We just could not get along anymore. Church counselors tried to help us, and now that we are divorced, they don’t help me when they were helping us to begin with. I guess life goes on.


You sound like a nice guy. Good luck in the future with the love that you deserve.


I’m reading this and crying. I’m so scared that my husband and I are ruining our 2 young children. We have an almost 4 year old boy and a 4 month old girl. My husband has a lot of good qualities and I think if we had never had children our marriage would have been relatively easy, but my husband has a terrible temper. I hate the way he talks to our son. Our son can be strong willed and difficult at times and my husband cannot deal with it at all. I try my best to remind him gently and respectfully that we all need to take some deep breaths and be calm and work things out but this only makes him angrier. He has started saying things like “I’m done with both if you.” I’m trying so hard to keep it together but i don’t know how to make him understand how important it is that he work to control his temper. After he has calmed down he often acknowledges that he needs to work at it
but he just does it over again sometimes minutes later. Of course I’m not perfect either and after years of this behavior and seeing the negative effect it is having on our son I’m really starting to dislike my husband at times which then in turns just leads to more negative effects for my son as described in this article. I’m afraid to stay with him for the reasons mentioned but I’m also afraid to leave him. I don’t want my children to be alone with him and have no one to act as a buffer. I’m not sure his behavior is enough for me to get full custody. I feel trapped and in despair over my poor kids every day… I don’t know how to fix it.


Annette, you are not alone. I have a 6 and 3 year old and I’m staying mostly because I don’t trust my husband with my children alone and I know he will push for at least half custody just to spite me. He doesn’t spend time with the kids now, when I’m not home, which is rare, he plunks them in front of the tv. I’m with them 95% of the time. His form of discipline is belittling them or making fun of them. He threw water on a tantrumming 2.5 year old!!! I’m so tired of this relationship, but so scared.


As a mother of 3 , now ranging from 15-20, I wish I had ended my marriage when they were young. Reading your situation here is like reading about my own experience. I am a very forgiving person which I realise now has been to my detriment. I allowed the good qualities of my husband excuse his bad temper. He was not physically violent but when I reflect, that is not a good enough reason to excuse him and try endlessly to hold the family together.
The situation now is that I have young adults who willl not accept my husbands temper and confront him. My three children have all suffered with their mental health and self harmed due to their inability to process and deal with their fathers expectations on them.
After years of working hard to keep my family together and work through difficulties because I just want a loving, caring and peaceful family unit, I realise that I have contributed to the terrible state of my children’s lives now.
Finally, I am ending the marriage. I do not know what affect that will have on my children but I don’t believe it can be any worse than what they have already experienced.
Life in our house has always been calm and happier when daddy is not here. I’m hoping in time that that will be out new normality. Not the tense and anxious state I convinced myself was normal.
I cannot tell you what to do nor can I directly advise you, I don’t know you. All I can offer is general advice and say, stand back and look from the outside in. Look to your future and your children’s future. What does it look like if this situation remains the same. What can it look like if things change? Only you know and you do know.
I sincerely wish you, your beautiful children and your husband the very very best, whatever that looks like.
Take care and be true.


Annette and Sadie- have things gotten any better for you?

I’m currently dealing with the same situation. I have a 3 year old and a 8 week old. I’ve been in a unhappy relationship for quite some time- even during my pregnancy I felt so alone and as if my pregnancy wasn’t even existent to my spouse. He cannot balance work and family time. I have left the house and am staying at my parents currently, he is now telling me everything I want to hear to go back to him. It’s been so difficult to say the least. I’m now at the point where I need to make a decision. Do I sell the house and try to move forward or give it another chance? I feel as tho things would only change temporarily and then we would be in the same situation. When he knew I was packing up and leaving he became very verbally adusive. Name calling me and putting the rest of my family down.
He works so much yet I somehow end up finacially supporting these children all by myself.

Looking for any advise.


I feel for all these people in the comments. I am also in a horrible relationship. We fight EVERY single day. I am not married and sometimes I’m glad I never actually said yes. I have two of the most amazing children. 6 year old girl and 4 year old boy. I can see it affecting my daughter and it’s killing me inside. She has this personal trait of having to do everything perfect. And if she knows she can’t do it, she won’t even try. I feel like this has to do with what we say to each other. I always say I feel like I do nothing right I. His eyes. He’s says I’m ruining this family because I want to leave him. Everything is my fault and I’m a bitch, whore, trash. I don’t work so he says don’t even think about touching his money. I have come to hate the person he is. I have stayed with him through drug rehabilitation. He has stayed with me through some really bad depression. But it’s from him! I just can’t do it anymore. But I feel selfish for wanting to leave. My kids come first no matter what. But what is best? Any advice is welcome.


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