Does An Unhappy Marriage Mean Unhappy Kids?

Recent research indicates that a majority of Americans feel that divorce is a better result than staying in an unhappy marriage. The research results show that two-thirds of the respondents feel that the children will be better off if the parents end an unhappy marriage.

The attitude of many Americans has transitioned from “We can work it out” to “Should we even try?” Disharmony and discontent over time has led many people to consider cutting their emotional losses. When it comes to their children, in lieu of a happy couple, many would opt for a peaceful single parent household.

The July 2007 Pew Research Center report, “As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public Is Concerned about Social Impact Generation Gap in Values, Behaviors,” surveyed 2,020 people. Of these, one-third have been divorced. The results of the report show that 69 percent of the respondents agree with the statement that a child needs a home with both a father and mother to grow up happily. 

If the parents are unhappy in their marriage, sentiments change markedly for the respondents, regardless of whether they have ever been divorced. Divorce is seen as preferable to maintaining an unhappy marriage for 58 percent of the respondents. Women agreed with the view more than men, 61 to 55 percent. Fully two-thirds of the respondents felt that children are better off if unhappily married parents divorce. For those respondents who have been divorced, agreement jumps to 76 percent.

Dr. Michelle New is a clinical child psychologist and founder of Kentlands Kids, a private practice in Gaithersburg, Md. A more realistic view is that a child benefits from a home with a mother and father, but it is a matter of what is optimal as opposed to what is ideal. What they really need is love, consistency, discipline and access to both parents.

New adds that the key really depends upon the age of the child. The younger the child is, the more important it is to have more than one parent in the home, even if they are not biological parents. Studies show that in the first years of life, that having a single caregiver is highly stressful for both the child and parent.

“My parents divorced when I was 15,” said Stormy Mercer, 45, a court clerk from Camdenton, Mo. “I was thrilled.” Matrimonial bliss had been lacking for many years and Mercer had tired of having to endure her parents fighting daily. When her parents finally did divorce in 1977, life improved for Mercer. “My life was much better. No more fights in the night, no more crashing sounds of glass breaking against the walls. Who wants to live in a war zone?”

New says it depends on the age of the child: If there is bickering between the parents, even though there is a high degree of stress in the home, it doesn’t impact the child as much if they are young. Any reduction in stress is better for everybody’s mental health but it is important to consider that there will still be emotional and financial fallout.

After the divorce, life improved for all concerned Mercer recalls. “I had always been a ‘daddy’s girl’. But I became much closer to my mother. She and I remain best friends today. Both parents went on to find love with someone else that made them both happier.”

The divorce that Mercer experienced as a child yielded much more of a win/win scenario for everybody. More often than not, positives to that extent are rarely a result according to New. No matter how difficult the family environment was before the separation, the children’s experience will be negative. Divorce will come as a shock for both the parents and the child regardless of how much preparation they have.

Mercer feels that her experience as an adult child of divorce helped her communicate better with her son during her divorce. “I think I was better equipped to make my son understand that we were going to be fine. While his dad still loved him, we just didn’t love each other enough to stay together. It better prepared me as well, to handle the changes and responsibilities.”

New sees the parent experiencing divorce as a child to be a double-edged sword. It is not necessarily helpful. The parent’s experience in divorce highly forms how they communicate with their child. This is not necessarily a good thing as the parents may have issues of their own from the past that gets played out in the current divorce. It is fair to say that it is likely that a divorce in your own family will help you to be more sensitive to what your children are going through.

As divorce is more common in the past 30 years, Mercer feels that it is now easier for children to adjust as they know friends and family who have experience it. “I remember thinking as a small child when my parents spoke of divorce in the late sixties and early seventies, that I didn’t know anyone whose parents were divorced in the small town I grew up in.”

Her divorce did present challenges for her son, as he was 10 years younger than she was when her parents divorced, and she and her ex live far apart. It was much harder on him as a small child as his father lives 500 miles away. “I took him there every year to spend summers with his father. Now that he is 18 and is old enough to work summer jobs, he hasn’t gone there in three years.”

Mercer feels that people who did not experience a divorce in their family as a child may overestimate the degree of negative impact on the children in that they have no experiences to rely upon for their own opinions.

New adds that there are traditional family values that can lead people to overestimate the impact of divorce upon a child. There are people, especially if there is a religious or moral overtone in the family that divorce is bad, that see it as devastating for the child when, in fact, it may not be. This is more likely to true with people who have no experience with divorce in their family. They may overestimate the negative impact.

Having gone through her parents’ divorce as well as her own, Mercer concludes that, “I truly believe that it is easier on children to live with a good divorce than a bad marriage.”


1. Don’t be self-centered.

If you put the child’s needs ahead of your own, the child will come out of it as well as possible.2.Kids can be selfish.

They are concerned about the next seven days and getting the stuff that they want. It may be disturbing for parents as the parent may be looking for emotional support or approval. They can get blown away when the children are only concerned with themselves.

3. It is best to avoid taking the child to court, being evaluated by a judge, or mediation hearings.

It is better for the child if they are at grandma’s or day care while the parents figure out the legal matters.

4. Watch for any changes in the child.

View changes in moods, behavior, or school performance as a warning sign.


The full report of the July 2007 Pew Research Center report; As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public Is Concerned about Social Impact Generation Gap in Values, Behaviors may be downloaded at

About the author: Bruce McCracken is a seasoned journalist and senior analyst for FAO Research. McCracken has an MA in communications from the University of North Texas and resides in Irving, Texas.