Should couples stay together for the sake of the kids?

Remaining in an unhappy marriage “for the sake of the kids” is an historically common mantra and practice as many parents believe—not without good reasons—that children are better off being raised in stable families with married parents. Debate remains, however, over whether staying together in an unhappy marriage benefits children, or if prolonged exposure to parental unhappiness harms them.63 We’re not able to address the costs and benefits of sticking together for the sake of the children; rather, we’re only documenting Americans’ opinions about the issue (absent a particular context or example). We asked people how much they agreed with the statement “If a couple has children they should stay married unless there is physical or emotional abuse.”

Figure 22.1Married couples with children should stay married

Americans are split—no surprise there. Just under 40 percent disagreed, while 28 percent agreed, and one-third were on the fence. Younger people are slightly more likely to say couples should stay together than are older Americans, although the differences are not profound. Meanwhile, men are more likely than women to say that staying together is the right thing to do.

Religious groups vary widely in their beliefs about the acceptability of these terms for divorce. Many Christian faiths have strong objections to divorce and believe that divorce ought to be a last resort for those whose spouses are guilty of serious offenses. Other faith traditions have more lenient guidelines (and no doctrines) about the acceptability of divorce. Yet American believers in almost every religion are split as to whether having children exerts a moral imperative on couples to stay married in the absence of serious abuse. Hindus are squarely in support of sticking together—64 percent say they should. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jews are the least likely to report that couples ought to stick it out—just 17 percent say they should. Most other faiths are divided here, with substantial portions of their ranks on either side of the issue. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated are far more likely than their affiliated peers to believe that the presence of children does not obligate couples to stay together.


63As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public is Concerned about Social Impact.” Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project. July 1, 2007. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

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