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The Upside of Divorce

Some children of divorce learn from their parents' mistakes.

No doubt about it—divorce can be devastating for kids, setting a distorted example of a healthy partnership. But many children of divorce not only adjust well to family breakups, they develop thriving relationships in their wake.

I interviewed 28 college students to see how their parents' divorces influenced their romantic lives, and found they were equally split into three groups: "Modelers" tended to copy the dysfunctional behaviors they witnessed in their parents' marriage, causing conflict in their own relationships. "Strugglers" were cautious about trusting others and unsure of what to expect from a partner. But another class of students, the "reconcilers," actively strove to learn from their parents' problems and thus had more successful subsequent relationships.

The group students fell into depended on the type of connection they had with their parents, post-divorce. Modelers related fairly well to their parents, but had limited insight into the problems their parents endured. Strugglers grew distant from their parents after the split, receiving little emotional support and ambiguous messages from them; consequently, they became unsure of what behaviors to emulate in their own love lives. Reconcilers, however, remained close to their parents, who were also more likely to go on to happy remarriages. This positive example made reconcilers optimistic about their love lives and helped them learn to relate to romantic partners.

Divorce can strengthen kids' ability to sustain successful relationships, but only if their parents stay supportive throughout the ordeal—and afterward. Parents should explain their marital dilemmas to their children to alert them to problems they might otherwise duplicate. In the end, good communication can prevent romantic history from repeating itself.