For The Sake Of The Children

(Column apeared on July 30, 2009, in The Montclair Times)

The issue of family values has been in the news these days, since Gov. Mark Sanford's extraordi nary June 24th press conference and various subsequent statements and musings to the press from him, his wife, and assorted political pundits. The South Carolina Republican Party has since sanctioned the governor, stating his private conduct is not in accordance with the party's core principles and beliefs. Many in his state and on the national political scene are now poised to see if he will ultimately "do the right thing" regarding his wife and children. His actions may well determine his future in politics.

But what constitutes "doing the right thing"? It is not as simple as it is being portrayed.

As a psychotherapist who's worked with families coping with divorce and separation for over 30 years, I've been especially struck by the fact that it is widely assumed by commentators that both Gov. Sanford's family and his political career will greatly benefit by his returning to his wife, and will be greatly harmed if he does not. While I can not comment on his political prospects, I can make a few observations about "doing the right thing" for children in these - or similar - circumstances that should be kept in mind.

  • To state the obvious, it is never good for children to have a parent publicly discuss painful marital issues, infidelities, feelings of betrayal, etc., whether one is a public or private figure. This holds true if parents are separated or married.
  • If Gov. Sanford were to "toe the line" and return to his wife, after declaring his passionate love for another woman, whom he describes as his soulmate, that may well not be in the best interest of his children. A deeply unhappy man who is yearning to be with another woman who is not his wife will find it very difficult to be a truly engaged, emotionally accessible parent. Furthermore, it is absolutely not in the best interest of children to be made to feel that a parent has sacrificed his or her personal happiness for their benefit. This is a heavy and unfair burden for any child to bear.
  • It is not in the best interest of children to live in a household permeated by tension, anger, and/or hostility - even if this is expressed in a civil way and not a single sarcastic or hostile word is actually spoken, and is most definitely not in the best interest of children if one parent disparages the other (no matter how subtly this is done, or how much a parent has been provoked). Nor is it in children's best interest if they are put in the middle of parental disputes and asked (however subtly) to take sides, to carry messages from one parent to the other, or to report private information about one parent to the other.

Essentially, remaining in a painful or dysfunctional marriage, purely for the sake of the children, does not necessarily help children and may in fact harm them far more than if parents separate and focus on repairing their lives and being the best parent they can be . This means spending meaningful. time with children, being sensitive to their emotional needs, working to keep communication open and honest (without sharing inappropriate personal details of marital difficulties) and providing love and nurturing.

Of course this kind of parenting can be done within a marriage, but if the level of marital conflict, pain, and anger becomes overwhelming when parents are living together, they may be better able to parent wisely living apart.

It is time that people understand and acknowledge that remaining in a bad marriage "for the sake of the children" does not necessarily make someone a better parent, a better public servant, or a morally superior person.

Dr. Janice Cohn is a practicing psychotherapist and consultant. She has designed a parent education program for divorcing parents of young children for the New Jersey Superior Court system.
 
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