Monday, January 25, 2010

Staying Together For the Kids

Last night, one of my best friends called my cell phone twice in one minute -- our signal for distress -- the indication that I needed to pick up the phone right then, even if I was in the middle of dinner. I'd gotten previous distress calls when she found a suspicious lump (the biopsy was, thank goodness, benign) and when her daughter was in an accident. I knew that whatever was coming on the other line wasn't good.

"He is so mean to me," she sobbed into the phone. "It's the same crap year after year after year. I'm at that breaking point where it doesn't seem sane to continue to take it."

Oh boy: I hadn't seen that coming. This is the friend whose marriage sustains my (perhaps delusional) romantic belief in matrimony -- the marriage I point to as evidence that big love, deep connections, and truly equal partnerships are, in fact, possible.

But here she was struggling with the same question I've wrestled with for years: is it better for our kids if we stay in less-than-happy marriages?

Holy cow, is that a big question. And if you've ever seriously asked it, you know it can be an agonizing one. In the coming weeks, I'll be blogging about how I've answered this question for myself.

I know it's tempting to answer the question of whether or not we should stay together for the kids with a simple "yes." As a society we tend to think that kids will do better if parents stay together; that's what our grandparents' generation did, or tried to do. A mediocre marriage is better for kids than no marriage, right? We might believe this at least partly because of a hugely flawed -- but very influential and well-publicized -- study by Judith Wallerstein that "showed" that kids don't notice that their parents are unhappy in a marriage. Wallerstein argued that unless domestic violence is a part of the picture, kids are worse off when parents divorce.

Thinking that an unhappy marriage is better than no marriage -- whether the belief comes from our family or religion or a study like Wallerstein's -- has kept a lot of unhappily married Americans in their marriages. The study, by the way, while embraced by the press and published as a New York Times bestselling book, has been rejected whole-heartedly by social scientists because Wallerstein didn't use a random sample of families that had divorced or stayed married; instead, she looked at a group of divorced people with mental health problems. Her study doesn't meet accepted standards of scientific research, and its findings shouldn't be generalized to families that aren't struggling with the same things for which Wallerstein's tiny sample was being treated (usually histories of mental illness, clinical depression, and suicidal tendencies).

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For more information, contact the Law Offices of Renee M. Marcelle at (415) 456-4444, or online at


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