In marriages with a lot of conflict, "staying together for the kids" might do more harm than good, a new study suggests.
Children of parents who fight a lot yet stay married experience more conflict in their own adult relationships than children of parents who fight and do get a divorce.
"The basic implication is, 'Don't stay together for the sake of the children if you're in a high conflict marriage,'" said study researcher Constance Gager, of Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Some studies have shown children of divorced parents are more likely to get a divorce themselves, but it was not completely clear whether it was the divorce itself or the parents' conflict that had the greater impact on a child's relationships.
Gager and her colleagues analyzed the results of a national survey involving nearly 7,000 married couples and their children in the United States.
The parents were first surveyed in 1987. They were asked questions to gauge their level of marital conflict, including how often they disagreed over money, household tasks, the in-laws and other topics that might spur an argument.
Then between 1992 and 1993, both parents and children were surveyed. Children had to be at least 10 to be included, with 1,952 participants meeting the criteria. The researchers also assessed how the parents' conflict changed between the two surveys, including whether the couple got a divorce.
The children, now adults aged 18 to 34, were again surveyed between 2001 and 2002. The participants, who were either married or cohabiting, were asked about their level of happiness and conflict in their current relationship.
Children who grew up in high conflict families fared better in their adult relationships if their parents got a divorce.
The results held even after the researchers took into account other factors that could have influenced the children's relationships when they were older, such as the whether the participants acted out as a children or had trouble getting along with others.
That isn't to say divorce doesn't affect children in the short-term, the researchers say.
"There is research to show in the short-term, kids go through a one- to two-year crisis period when their parents divorce, but that they are resilient, and they come back from that divorce," Gager said.
Constant exposure to their parents' strife is likely what causes children's future relationships to suffer, the researchers say.
"If they're constantly exposed to conflict, and the parents stay together, that means there's many more years they're exposed to conflict by their parents," Gager told LiveScience. "Whereas if their parents get divorced, at least there's a chance the parents will have less conflict after the divorce," she said.
In contrast, parents' happiness did not appear to affect the children's adult relationships - children of happily married parents did not necessarily grow up to have happy partnerships themselves.
The researchers presented the study last year at the Annual Meetings of the Population Association of America and are currently preparing the work for publication in a scientific journal.