When to stay, when to go: To split up, or struggle on: what is best for the children? Lee Rodwell talks to women who faced the choice

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Caroline Reeves and her partner were together for 10 years - 'and happy for nine', she says. Their daughter was five when they decided to part.

'He fell in love with someone else. He was unhappy, I was unhappy and desperate. It felt as if there was a black cloud in the house - that's no way to bring up a child.'

In the past it was not uncommon to find couples who weathered similar crises and decided to stay together 'for the sake of the children'. These days couples are more likely to argue - like Caroline - that children are better off out of a relationship beset with misery or conflict. Yet according to the findings of a new study carried out at Exeter University, they are wrong: children suffer more when their parents break up than when they stay unhappily together.

'That's an outrageous view,' says Caroline, 37, from Islington, north London. 'You can't possibly generalise in that way. Surely so much depends on how you break up, and how you go on relating as parents afterwards?

''We went to see a therapist and discussed the possibilities: either we could try to patch up the relationship, or work together to manage the break-up.

'It was obvious that we were no longer the trusting couple we once had been. We decided to part, but we needed a lot of therapy to work through how angry we felt with each other. Yet we had a common goal: to bring up our daughter in a happy environment.

'We settled for shared parenting. When she was little, our daughter had Mummy days and Daddy days. We'd take it in turns to pick her up from school and have her overnight.

'When she was about 9 or 10, she said she felt she had two half-homes, not a whole home of her own. She suggested boarding school, and now she is a weekly boarder and very happy.

'I know that if you have education, money and access to resources of help, it makes things a lot easier. And if there is a lot of resentment between the parents, it can be a nightmare. But it can work out for the best.'

Pauline Jacobs, 41, from Chichester, West Sussex, runs Kids No Object, an introduction agency for single parents. She understands the kind of choices that her clients have made: her own marriage broke up when her son was two.

'We met at 16, were engaged at 18 and married at 20. By the time I was in my mid- twenties, I felt as if I was entering middle age.

'When we split up my son was too little to know much about it, but when you are emotionally upset and depressed you don't really think too hard about long-term problems which might affect your children.

'I know some couples manage to put up a front. My own parents were terribly unhappy, but I never knew that until I was in my twenties. But had my mother been born later, she would have upped and gone.

'If you are deeply unhappy, you'll do anything to get away and start your life again. I think that if a mother isn't happy, her child won't be either. They pick up the vibrations. My son, for instance, became terribly naughty when I was depressed.

'And I don't think children should witness verbal or physical abuse. That's how violence breeds violence. And some relationships are extremely volatile.'

Pauline has now remarried, and her son is 17. 'He's a very stable child,' she says. 'He did say a year or so ago that he wondered what it would be like to live with your mother and your father. But it's a bit late for me to start feeling guilt now. And I don't see why I should.

'I don't think you should deny yourself - or possibly, your partner - the chance of happiness just because of the children, providing you give them a stable upbringing and do your best for them.'

Carrie Collings, 45, of Manchester, took the alternative course. She had been married for 21 years when she discovered that her husband was having an affair. There followed a series of bitter rows. He suggested that she move out so that his lover could move in. He also wanted the children to stay with him.

Finally it was agreed that Carrie would go and live elsewhere with the two girls, leaving the boy with his father.

'I'd just made an offer on a house when my husband announced that the affair was over and he wanted me to stay,' she says.

'I had very mixed feelings about everything. I knew I would never really trust my husband again. I was still very shocked and angry. But splitting up the family seemed a terrible thing to do. The children, who were then 13, 15 and 17, were also very upset and it was clear they wanted us to stay together.

'Then there were financial considerations - everyone, including the children, would have had to go without things as we would have been considerably worse off. In the end, for their sake, I decided to try to patch things up.

'It was extremely difficult at first. The atmosphere was very tense for at least six months. There were no more rows, but both of us were walking on eggshells. And the children were watching us all the time.

'Now, four years on, things are a lot better. I suppose we've come to terms with what happened. We never refer to it. Sometimes it's almost as though it never did.

'I'm sure staying was the best thing for the children and in a way it's been easier for me. As anyone with teenagers knows, it helps if there are two of you when it comes to discipline.

'Deep down I wonder what the future holds. Once the last child leaves for university, we'll have to see what we've got in common - whether there is really anything left.'

Some names have been changed.