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Custody: Stay together for the Children?

When dealing with issues of child custody, a question that arises with some frequency is: "Should we stay together for the children?" This is a question that has undoubtedly been asked over countless years by parents struggling with a desire to achieve personal fulfillment in the context of trying to balance that with the desire to do what is best for their children when determining custody.

This question is not easily answered, however, and much debate has be made around this topic. It has been said that "children want to be from a broken home; they don't want to live in a broken home," and that may be true. It has been equally advocated that by all means parents of minor children should remain together, regardless of the fray that exists between their parents. How to know which is correct, however, is not an easy task.

Every family is different; every family dynamic is different, and it is these very differences that will ultimately dictate what is (or is not) best for the children when dealing with custody.

To be sure, many families have tried staying together for the children and that has proven to be a success, and many other families have split up, with the results being similarly successful. Truth be told, this is a very personal decision that will impact everyone, parents and children alike, for the remainder of their lives, and what really is the best custody decision for the children will be a question that only history can answer.

One thing is certain: this is a significant decision in the lives of children and thus  must not be made lightly or "from the hip." Too often, persons going through a divorce find themselves swept downstream, like a leaf in the gutter, bumping and crashing along the way, hoping for a soft landing at the end of the storm, and for some people that process works just fine. Be aware, however, that if you choose that path you are essentially at the whim of your lawyer's agenda, the opposing attorney's agenda, the other parent's agenda and the court's agenda. What is the missing piece here? YOU. In any divorce when children are involved, it is absolutely imperative that you place the children first. 

Is yours a home where you and your spouse frequently fight and argue in front of the children? Are there frequent arguments when the children are in the house? If so, how can continuing to subject your children to that environment possibly be good for them? Do you think they don't "feel" the hostility that exists between their parents? Of course they do. Children may be resilient creatures in many respects, but they are also incredibly observant creatures, especially of the behaviors modeled by their parents. Children do not do what their parents tell them (any parent of a teenager will tell you that). What they will do, however, is what their parents show them, and if what they are shown is that it is acceptable to maintain a household where fighting, arguing, dissension and disrespect is the norm, what kind of a household do you think they will seek out when they are on their own?

If children continue to live in a home where their parent fails to leave an abusive spouse, what message is being sent to these children? The message is 1) this type of behavior is "normal," 2) that it is alright to abuse and disrespect your spouse and 3) that it is alright to be abused and disrespected by your spouse. Are you the parent of a little girl living in a house where you are the victim of abuse and disrespect? If so, every day you accept that dynamic you are teaching your daughter that this kind of relationship is normal and expected. What kind of relationship do you suppose that little girl will grow up to have for herself? Similarly, what is the message being sent to little boys living through this dynamic?

This is just one of example of situations that a parent might feel are "normal" and thus unworthy of change, even in the context of a divorce. I t  becomes a pattern of behavior that has become the "norm," and by so doing becomes the defining nature of the relationship. Such negativity and abuse and disrespect are not, however, the proper elements of an environment in which to raise children. Unfortunately, after years and years of this type of behavior it may be very difficult to see the forest for the trees and those behaviors may simply become the expected fabric of your reality, and along that same vein these behaviors become the expected fabric of your children's reality, Is that what you want for your children? Every family is different; every family dynamic is different. If things were going along well in the family, well enough for the parents to continue to reside and respectfully interact together under the same roof then the odds are they wouldn't be getting a divorce.

Divorce is a difficult and painful process and it will, by definition, change everything. It will bring with it jealousy, resentment, anger, hostility, disrespect and a whole host of negative emotions and behaviors that, in this author's opinion, should be kept away from children, especially little ones. So if you are wondering "should we stay together for the benefit of the children," approach that custody analysis with open eyes, an open heart and the courage to actually make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish the goal of doing what is best for the kids. Get a therapist or a marriage counselor to help the two of you work on whatever issues and problems your relationship with each other is experiencing; such a person can help you both see what is happening more clearly, and that type of clarity is essential when trying to answer the question: "What is best for our children?"

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William A. Feinberg 1928 - 2001

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