Heart of the Matter

How to create relationships that work

Are Children of Divorce Doomed to Fail?

Explaining the recent research on the intergenerational transmission of divorce.

As a child of divorce growing up in the 1980s, I was acutely aware that my parents’ decision to end their marriage meant that I was doomed to suffer serious and lasting negative effects—including academic difficulties, behavioral problems, and psychological issues. This was the period following the rise in divorce rates in the U.S. (in the 1970s), and the “crisis perspective” of divorce was rapidly becoming part of our collective consciousness.

By the time I entered high school, however, I was starting to believe that I could overcome the “crisis” of my parents’ divorce. Not only had I managed to escape the serious negative outcomes I feared, but the media’s fatalistic picture of children from “broken” homes was increasingly being supplemented by a growing body of research utilizing a more “objective” framework to address this issue. But amid this more balanced view of the effects of divorce on children was a growing groundswell of concern about the serious long-term effects of divorce on future relationships, led by researchers like Judith Wallerstein. Her work, published widely in academic journals (Pediatrics) and in the “popular” press (The New York Times), led me (and many children of divorce) to fear the “sleeper effects” of my parents’ divorce, which would likely include serious problems with intimate relationships, and the eventual dissolution of my own marriage.

So, if your parents are divorced, does that mean your marriage is doomed to fail?

On one hand, there is consistent evidence to indicate that it might be. As recently as 2004, Wallerstein asserted that divorce begets fewer marriages, poorer marriages, and more divorces—and that divorce is not an acute stress from which children recover, but a life-transforming experience. While many scholars disagree with Wallerstein’s fatalistic assessment of young adults from divorced families, the fact remains that numerous empirical studies have found that those who experience a parental divorce are significantly more likely to divorce themselves. In fact, there is a substantial body of research on this phenomenon, sometimes referred to as the “intergenerational transmission of divorce.”

Why does the outcome of your parents’ marriage likely affect the outcome of yours? There are a few theories on this. First, many researchers have focused on parents as being important marriage role models. They argue that most of us model our own marriage after our parents’ marriage, and are therefore likely to experience the same result. Second, more specifically, those of us with divorced parents (or parents with poor quality marriages), are not likely to learn important relationship skills that we need to build successful marriages. For example, research has linked growing up in a divorced family to the use of more negative or destructive strategies for dealing with conflict, and conflict resolution skills (not surprisingly) are linked to overall marital quality and stability. Finally, growing up in a divorced family is likely to change your attitudes about marriage. That is, you are less likely to consider marriage to be a life-long endeavor, and are more accepting of divorce. Some studies have even shown that those from divorced families are more likely to consider divorce as an option at the first sign of trouble in a new marriage, as opposed to their peers from married families who may consider some conflict to be a normal part of marital ups and downs.

On the other hand, there is newer research indicating that there might be more to the story. For example, in a recent nationally representative on-line survey commissioned by the USA Network (embed link), most of the 18 to 49-year-olds surveyed reported that their relationship was not like their parents’—rating their relationship as a 3.5 out of 10 in similarity (on a scale where 1 is nothing like their parents’ relationship and 10 was exactly like it). In many important ways, relationships and marriages are evolving and changing, which means that we might not be predetermined to the same outcomes as our parents. Moreover, newer research has found that there are different ways in which our parents’ marriage influences our own, and that experiencing a parental divorce does not necessarily doom offspring to repeat that pattern. In cases of parental divorce, there may be other important factors to consider, including the child’s perceptions of the parents’ relationship (before and after the divorce), and how they are able to reconcile that experience (in other words, view it as a learning experience) before they enter into their own relationship.

Specifically, in my research with newlywed couples, I found that many couples described diverse ways in which they evaluated the marriage model that their parents provided and then deliberately decided if and when to follow that model, rather than simply using parents as a model of what marriage should be. One couple described the process as “cherry-picking”—deliberately choosing what they wanted to emulate from their parents’ marriage model, and what they were striving to do differently in their own relationship. Some couples indicated that their parents had provided no role model when it came to marriage, and reported that they did not model their marriage after their parents’ example in any way. Some couples even considered their parents to be a model of what not to do, and described the ways in which they learned from their parents’ mistakes. In fact, those couples that came from divorced homes were more likely than couples whose parents had stayed married to consciously evaluate what their parents had (or had not) taught them about marriage, and thoughtfully supplement with information from other sources as they actively constructed their own marital relationships.

Considering all this, does experiencing a parental divorce doom your marriage to fail? I don’t think so.

Overall, recent research paints a more complex picture of the effects of parental divorce on future relationships. It has become clear that simply modelling your relationship off of your parents’ relationship isn’t the only option. Many couples take steps to consciously create their own relationship patterns, and many are able to actually learn from their parents’ “mistakes.” In addition, there are other important marriage role models besides parents. Parents are important, of course, but about three-quarters of the couples I interviewed discussed important and influential marriage models beyond their immediate families—including peers and peers’ parents—that they used to supplement their own learning about marriage, and develop the tools necessary to build what they saw as a successful marriage.

More and more couples are actively constructing their own paths to relationships, and therefore actively determining their own marital fate. Interestingly, coming of age in a time of higher divorce rates in general may have taught the current generation that marriage isn’t something that should be entered into lightly. In USA network survey, 73% of respondents believed that couples should take at least one additional step (such as engagement therapy) before being granted a marriage license.

After decades of research, and over a decade of marriage, I continue to work to understand exactly how my family of origin affects my current marriage—but I no longer live in fear of the “sleeper” effects of my parents’ divorce. After studying and talking to many couples who have successfully navigated a path from parental divorce to personal marital success, I am confident that the fatalistic picture of couplehood for those exposed to parental divorce is flawed, and that the “transmission” of negative relationship outcomes is by no means inevitable. The bottom line is we play an active part in constructing our own marriages, and therefore have an active part in determining their success.

To get specific advice on steps to take to make your marriage successful, listen to my recent interview on I DO podcast, and watch for future blog posts here on Psychology Today.

Renée Peltz Dennison, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of psychology at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

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