After a terrible Christmas, Dinah and her husband have decided to divorce. But should they stay together for the sake of the children, aged four and five, living separate lives in the same house?

When my parents separated, my mother returned to my father and me every evening and weekend for a year to cook our evening meals. It was all "for my sake." All I remember is night after night of awkward silence, or my mother's occasional tragic flirtatious jollity to try to get my father to ask her back. It was utterly mad, totally confusing, and far from being "civilised" it was downright loopy. I didn't like it. Their unhappy, tortured relationship sat like a fourth guest at the dinner table, killing all spontaneity or joy. Even my mother's delicious suppers tasted of sad dust.

Some new reports say that children would actually prefer their parents to stay together rather than get divorced - but one wonders whether the children interviewed mean that they'd prefer it if their parents didn't get divorced with the proviso that they could live together happily as well. A very different kettle of fish to simply staying together. Living in an atmosphere of strain, deceit, coldness or rows is horrible for children.

Children, feeling they are the centre of the universe, tend to believe ,wrongly, that they are responsible for their parents' disagreements, but parents who actually stay together for their sake can start really resenting the children for keeping them trapped in this icy, loveless half-life. Then the children may well blame themselves quite correctly for being part of the cause of their parents' rows. "We're miserable for your sake," is the parents' unspoken dialogue, and it's a statement that hangs like a black cloak over children's young lives.

Anyway, are Dinah and her husband really thinking of staying together for the sake of the children, or is the truth that one or other doesn't really want a divorce and is terrified of being on their own? Or are they both so potty about the children that selfishly they'd rather put their own desires to be close to them first rather than acting in a way that, though shocking and hurtful to start with, may well be the best for the kids in the long run?

Far better for the children is that their parents should part but remain friends or at least on amiable speaking terms, with no backbiting or rows about access, than they should stay together in an atmosphere of hostility.

They might be best off going to a Relate counsellor, not to try to glue their marriage back together again, but for help in discovering how to part in a friendly way. Certainly, few counsellors would recommend living separate lives in the same house with or without children. What happens when the new young girlfriends arrive, or the old mutual "harmless" bachelor friend suddenly turns out to be a loving sexy old dog after all? Why should all the old rows not be perpetuated unless the whole place is redesigned with separate entrances and separate kitchens and bathrooms - in which case they might as well be living in separate flats?

After my parents finally separated they rarely spoke on the phone, used me as a post-box, and only met for lunch once, when my mother was dying of cancer. If they could only have got together for my birthdays, or enjoyed the odd drink together when I wasn't there, how much happier I would have been. For a child's desire, second to having parents happily together, is to have parents happily apart. Harmony is what they want and how it's achieved, whether in the same or separate houses, doesn't really matter all that much.

what readers say

Avoid a bad atmosphere

My parents were in exactly the same position that Dinah and her husband now find themselves. They stayed together under the same roof for the sake of myself and my younger sister, but had frequent disputes and often made bitter remarks about each other behind the other's back, sometimes in the presence of my sister and me.

The atmosphere was very unpleasant to grow up in, so my advice to Dinah is to seriously consider whether she and her husband can continue an amicable relationship under the same roof. An unpleasant atmosphere at home can be just as damaging for children as a divorce.

Susan Butterworth


Don't hurt the ones you love

My parents stayed together "for the sake of the children" and finally divorced when I was 20-years-old. My advice would be move on with your lives and live apart.

My brother, sister and I grew up in an estranged household, filled with arguments - this gave us huge problems with relationships in later life. In fact my sister and I have both had to have professional counselling to come to terms with the effects our childhood has had on us.

Both of our parents are now happily remarried. Dinah and her soon-to- be ex-husband owe it to themselves to get on with their lives through creating new, separate lives apart from each other. The children will grow up much healthier in spirit.

Name and address withheld

Move out and move on

Under no circumstances would I recommend staying together under the same roof. There would be no opportunities for making a new life.

Children are very "matter of fact" and world soon get used to a situation where Daddy lives somewhere else, especially if both Dinah and her partner are reasonable about access arrangements.

The stresses and strains that drove them apart would still occur by living under the same roof. What if a new relationship occurred - how would Dinah feel about her ex-husband getting ready to go on a date or vice-versa?

Whilst it all sounds terribly grown up and sophisticated, I would suggest it is a recipe for disaster. Children are far happier with one calm, caring partner, than living together for the sake of them. Move out and move on.

J Marshall


Scars that last a lifetime

Despite the absolutely terrible dilemma Dinah and her husband must be going through, the idea of living in the same house must be a big no-no! I am grown-up, with a wonderful husband and little girl aged 11. Our marriage is very happy, however, my parents' "marriage" was and still is a nightmare.

My brother and I always knew our parents were different from others. No kisses on the doorstep, kind words or hugs to each other. From our earliest memories, mum and dad lived separate lives in the same house. We (my brother joked) must be the only children who wanted our parents to divorce!

My parents have always been indifferent to each other, only seeking glory in each pot-shot. My father was an emotional bully who enjoyed making mum feel small. Unbelievably, in their seventies, they are still together, but apart.

How sad to live such an affectionless life "for the children's sake".

Dinah's children will only feel torn and continually aware of their parents' troubles. Unfortunately, these childish views never leave. My brother and I still try to reason with my parents to at least lead some kind of happy existence. As individuals, each parent will grow and be able to give the children love and attention. Naturally the children want parents to stay together. But, not, I can assure you, "at any price".



next week's dilemma

I have been overcome by a great urge to clear out my house, which I've been in for fifteen years. But I'm a hoarder and I can't face starting to chuck everything out.

I've tried clearing out one drawer at a time, but halfway through, I end up in tears just by contemplating the enormity of the problem I face. I have to make an emotional decision about each object, and I don't think I'm strong enough.

Some friends have said just to leave it, or to move into a smaller house. But I like where I live, it's just that the house is starting to feel squalid, with things bursting out of cupboards and wardrobes full of old clothes. Not only that, but I have some things of value that I am keeping to sell on a rainy day. The place is like a junk shop.

I am getting really depressed about it, and the more depressed I get, the more indecisive I become. Do other readers have this problem? How do they cope? Jo

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora.

Send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax: 0171-293 2182), by Tuesday morning.

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