Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandmother Questions Parents Staying Together


I am a widow with two wonderful grandchildren, Diane, 9, and Toby, 11. Their parents are my daughter-in-law, Susan, and my son, Miles. For several years I suspected that Susan and Miles just go through the motions in their marriage and are together just for the sake of the children. Although Susan and Miles are always polite and cordial to each other, there is a stiffness and aloofness in their interactions with no show of warmth or affection toward each other. As parents, they are devoted and attentive, always showing lots of love and affection toward Diane and Toby. They spend a lot of time doing things together as a family.

My suspicions have been confirmed. I know for sure that both Susan and Miles are seeing someone else on the sly, and apparently have been doing so for many years. I suppose they will continue with this deception until the children go to college, at which time I assume they will divorce.

Since divorce seems inevitable, in all fairness to the children, I think Susan and Miles should just divorce now. This is what I plan on telling them. What do you think?

Divorce is an important and relevant topic because of the disheartening statistics and short- and long-term impacts it has on children. For example, as cited in an October 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, approximately 50% of American children will experience the breakup of their parents’ marriage; of these, close to half will also see the breakup of a parent’s second marriage.

With divorce so prevalent, a core question is: Under what circumstances are children better off if their parents divorce? (The answer is easy and straightforward if there is sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, going on: in these cases a child needs to be protected immediately from those destructive behaviors.) At the heart of the issue are the impacts divorce has on the children involved.

A common response to the question is that parents should divorce when they don’t love each other any more, with its corollary that it is detrimental to stay together “for the sake of the children.” This view is supported by many, including author and divorce and parenting coach Rosalind Sedacca: “Happiness, harmony, cooperation, respect and joy are all absent when parents are emotionally divorced while still living together. Children feel it, are confused by it and too often blame themselves for their parents’ unhappiness. Consequently, they grow up anxious and guilt-ridden, experiencing little peace in childhood. In many ways, the scars are much the same as for children who experience a poorly handled divorce”.

On the flip side, research conducted by psychologist Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., with co-author Julia M. Lewis,Ph.D., summarized here, is considered by many experts to be a landmark in describing the effects of divorce on children. Dr. Wallerstein began her research in the early 1970s with 131 children of divorce; she interviewed at length both the children and their parents every five years over a 25-year period.

Dr. Wallerstein’s research set off a firestorm of national debate, when, as summarized by Wayne Parker, she asserted that “. . . children are almost always better off if the family remains intact, even if the parents are no longer in love. If mom and dad can remain civil and work together to parent, even if they are sad or lonely, and can avoid exposing the children to fights and squabbles, then co-parenting under the same roof is better . . . the effects of divorce on children, and particularly among these children who grow up to adulthood, are so devastating emotionally that parents should stay together at virtually any cost . . . a marriage, kept together for the kids, is better than the best divorce.”

A bridge-building perspective between these opposing positions is provided by behavioral scientist Paul R. Amato, Ph.D., who has done extensive research on the effects of divorce on children. Dr. Amato differentiates between high- and low-conflict homes. In high-conflict homes there is constant hostility, aggressiveness, and destructive fighting between the parents. In low-conflict homes the parents may be feeling unhappy and unsatisfied in their marriage, but these households are experienced as stable and peaceful by their children.

According to Dr. Amato’s research: “Children ending up with the highest levels of anxiety and depression either had low-conflict parents who divorced or high-conflict parents who remained together. The termination of high-conflict marriages can be relatively inconsequential or even beneficial to children as it moves them from an antagonistic and stressful environment. Children of high-conflict marriages tend to see their parents’ divorce as a welcomed escape from a dysfunctional home life. As adults, they are better off in terms of the quality of intimate relationships, social support from friends and relatives, and general psychological well-being.

“On the other hand, children from low-conflict marriages tend to see their parents’ divorce as a personal tragedy and appear to experience inordinate adversity, both psychologically and socially, including their own ability to form quality intimate relationships . . . Dr. Amato finds two categories of children who are most at risk for future psychological problems: those who grow up with parents who stay married but remain conflicted and hostile, and those whose parents are in low-conflict marriages and divorce anyway. These low-conflict divorces are very disturbing for children [italics added].”

According to your description, your grandchildren are living in a low-conflict household. It appears that your son and daughter-in-law have developed a collaborative parenting plan that focuses on what they believe to be best for Diane and Toby. Whether Susan and Miles decide to stay together or divorce at a later time when their children are older, and if they can continue to provide a low-conflict environment, there is evidence indicating that this strategy will be better for your grandchildren in the long run.

So, to answer your question about what I think you should say to Susan and Miles about their marriage, I suggest you say nothing. Rather, put your time and energy into helping them continue to provide a low-conflict household for your grandchildren. They have perhaps made decisions that you would not make under similar circumstances, but they are trying to do right by their children. My advice is that you be helpful and supportive and keep your judgments and opinions about other aspects of their lives to yourself.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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