For generations the conventional wisdom of this society was that unhappily married people should stay married "for the good of the children." Today, however, it is an often said that such couples should divorce for the same reason.

But should they? Two researchers in California have undertaken to find out.

Beginning in 1971, Judith S. Wallerstein and Joan B. Kelly began a project in which they followed 60 families who had recently gone through a divorce to see how they dealt with the experience.

What they found was that after five years only about a third of the children could be described as happy and thriving. "Characteristic of these children was their sense of sufficiency: the divorce had not depleted their lives by removing a loving parent or by pairing them with an angry, disturbed one," Wallerstein and Kelly report in Psychology Today magazine. "At times they still felt lonely, unhappy or sorrowful about the divorce but these feelings did not make them aggrieved or angry at either parent."

About 29 percent of the children were in the middle range of psychological health. They were doing reasonably well in school and with or anger continued to demand significant portions of their attention and energy . . ."

The final third were found "to be consciously and intensely unhappy and dissatisified with their life in the post-divorce family."

As to which is better, divorce or continued unhappy marriage: over the five years, "although individuals had improved or worsened, the percentages within broad categories of good of and poor adjustment had remained relatively stable.

Hence, it seems that a divorced family per as is neither more nor less beneficial for children than an unhappy marriage."