- Research shows that children of divorce are more likely to experience a divorce themselves.
- Personal skills theory and commitment and confidence theory are two dominant theories to explain this increased divorce risk.
- Couples can develop their own set of relationship skills and tools and learn how to express their underlying anxieties.
Research shows that children of divorce are more likely to experience a divorce themselves. The statistics vary, but one study by researchers Paul Amato and Danelle Deboer indicated that if a woman’s parents divorced, her odds of divorce increased 69%, while if both a husband and wife’s parents divorced, the risk of divorce increased by 189%. They cite 10 other longitudinal studies over 20 years that reached similar results. Put plainly, they explain that, “parental divorce is one of the best documented risk factors for marriage dissolution” (Amato & Deboer, 2001, p. 1038).
The statistics can feel disheartening and leave children of divorce feeling helpless. But before you throw up your hands, let’s examine this phenomenon more closely to understand the why behind the statistics. It is not enough to say that divorce begets divorce; statistics alone fail to address the mechanisms of transition and ultimately tell couples how they can insulate themselves against this risk. Research points to two dominant theories to explain the increased divorce risk of children of divorce: personal skills theory and commitment and confidence theory.
Theory #1: Transmission of Relationship Skills and Interpersonal Behavior
This theory states that children of divorce are more likely to divorce because they did not get to watch their parents model healthy relationship skills—things like open communication, negotiation skills, and compromise. This lack of skills, the theory states, leads directly to divorce in children of divorce.
It is true that failing to instill children with relationship skills can increase the children’s odds of divorce, because failing to learn those skills eventually leads to more arguments in their own marriages, which in turn increases their odds of divorce. But watching parents argue is insufficient to explain divorce trends. In their 2001 study, Amato and Deboer found that children whose parents fought a lot but never divorced were not at increased risk of divorce themselves. Amato stated that “parents’ marital discord, in the absence of parental divorce, was not linked with marital dissolution among offspring.” He goes on to say that children who grew up in acrimonious households were more likely to contemplate divorce in their own relationships, but without a model of divorce to emulate, they typically did not follow through and divorce their spouses (Amato & Deboer, 2001, p. 1049).
To be clear, this finding does not negate the importance of relationship skills. Divorcing couples tend to listen less attentively, communicate less clearly, speak critically of their partner, and avoid and withdraw from arguments. These are patterns that can be picked up in childhood and increase the likelihood of divorce. But it is the divorce itself, not the fighting, which accounts for the increased risk in their children’s divorce.
Theory #2: Confidence and Commitment Theory
This brings us to theory No. 2. The confidence and commitment theory states that children observing and experiencing their parents’ divorce leads to a reduced commitment to the institution of marriage and lower confidence in the ability of marriages to remain intact long-term. Considerable research supports this finding. Divorce researcher Judith Wallerstein explains the phenomenon this way: “...at young adulthood when love, sexual intimacy, commitment and marriage take center stage, children of divorce are haunted by the ghosts of their parents’ divorce and terrified that the same fate awaits them” (Wallerstein, 2005, p. 409). Interestingly, the finding breaks down by sex. One study found that while engaged women whose parents divorced reported lowered relationship commitment and reduced confidence in their own upcoming marriages, the same was not true for men. Researchers note that “experiencing a parental divorce appears to have a stronger impact on women’s than men’s desires and beliefs about the future of their own marriages” (Whitton, 2009, p.4). Women’s lack of confidence in marriage leads to higher divorce rates.
What to do with this information?
Children of divorce are at risk of responding to their fear of divorce in one of two ways. Some dive headlong into inappropriate, unformed relationships as a counter-phobic response to their fears. Others avoid relationships altogether, and when in relationships, maintain a mindset akin to waiting for the other shoe to drop. They struggle to believe in the strength of relationships to weather difficult stretches, and many arrive ill-equipped to address a relationship’s most potent challenges (Wallerstein, 2005).
But children of divorce have choices. They can begin to come to terms with their upbringing. In a therapeutic setting, they can work through the impact of their parents’ divorce and how it shaped their perceptions of relationships. They can begin to conceptually separate their own relationships from that of their parents and look to other relationships, perhaps grandparents, aunts, uncles, or friends, for new models of the lasting power of marriage. Couples can develop their own set of relationship skills and tools and learn how to express those underlying anxieties and garner support from each other. In short, they can change the story.
Amato, P. R., & Deboer, D. D. (2001). The Transmission of Marital Instability Across Generations: Relationship Skills or Commitment to Marriage? Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(4), 1038-1051. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.01038.x
Wallerstein, J. S. (2005). Growing up in the Divorced Family. Clinical Social Work Journal, 33(4), 401-418. doi:10.1007/s10615-005-7034-y
Whitton, S. W., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2008). Effects of parental divorce on marital commitment and confidence. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(5), 789-793. doi:10.1037/a0012800