When Is the Right Time to Divorce When You Have Children? Join the Conversation!

At some point after the wedding festivities died down, you woke up and realized that you’d made a mistake. After the infatuation faded you recognized that you didn’t want to live with this person for the rest of your life. As you’ve both grown older you’ve both changed, but in different directions. Maybe it’s the day after or maybe it’s years down the road after you’ve had 2 or 3 children.

You think it’s just a phase and you try to handle it. You talk to friends. You confide in family. Maybe you seek marriage counseling alone or as a couple. But as the weeks turn into months and the months turn into years you come to realize that you need to make a decision: (1) whether to stay in an unhappy marriage and stick it out “for the sake of the children” or, (2) whether to leave an unhappy marriage and part ways “for the sake of the children.” The same rationale for the same concerns, but with completely different answers. The right time to end a failing marriage is all about perspective.

They say that “timing is everything,” and I completely agree. However, the question remains: When is the right time to divorce when you have children? The question of “when” seems to be closely tied to the age of the children and their stage in life. And interestingly (but not surprisingly), everyone seems to have a different view on at what developmental stage in a child’s life will a divorce be least traumatic. Unfortunately, often the births of children are spaced out with multiple years in between them. This results in a significant disparity between when the oldest is on his way to college, but the youngest is just entering elementary school. Below are some of the reasons I’ve heard over the years from my clients for why they ended their marriage when they did. For some, waiting was like wearing a Badge of Honor: “I waited until all of my children were grown and out of the house before leaving my husband.” For others, waiting was not an option: “I couldn’t live a lie and couldn’t expose my kids to such a toxic and hostile environment at home.”

The following are just some of the responses I’ve heard over the years:

Rationale for Divorcing When Children Are Young

  • Adjustments are easier when they’re young and unaware of what’s going on around them.
  • If they’ve always grown up in two households, they won’t know any differently.
  • “I’d like my children to grow up in a loving household with good role models of what a truly healthy relationship looks like.”
  • If I pretend that everything is okay, when we finally do divorce they’ll feel like they were living a lie.
  • I really want my children to see what I look like when I’m happy.”

Rationale for Divorcing When Children Are Teenagers

  • We’ll be able to explain the divorce to our older kids and they’ll accept it more easily.”
  • They have their own lives and relationships as teenagers, and won’t be focused on us.

Rationale for Divorcing When Children Are Adults

  • Divorce won’t impact them because we won’t all be living under the same roof.”
  • Older kids are more mature and will be able to handle their parents’ divorce.”
  • Older kids are less emotional than when they were teenagers.
  • I don’t want my kids to ever have to switch households.”
  • I don’t want to disrupt them when they’re in school (starting college, starting a new job, etc. etc.) so I’m waiting for the right time.”

In the end, I submit to you that there simply isn’t one right or wrong answer. Regardless of a child’s age, a parents’ divorce is perceived as a traumatic event, which must be managed with sensitivity and patience. A successful transition is often dependent on the parents’ behaviors. When both parents handle their divorce in an open, honest and positive manner, the children will often mirror their parents’ moods and attitudes about the divorce. This “reflection” period will allow the children to ease into the changes with less conflict and lessen the likelihood of long-lasting negative effects.

What do you think about the above reasons for determining when it’s the right time? What are your thoughts and experiences? Join the conversation!

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