Legacy of Childhood Exposure to Divorce: Marital Commitment & Confidence

Does experiencing divorce affect orientation to marriage?

Posted Oct 28, 2008

It is reasonably well established that divorce is intergenerationally transmitted; that is, that individuals whose parents divorced while they were growing up are at increased risk of experiencing divorce when they themselves get married. Before saying anything more, it is critically important to appreciate that "increased risk" does not mean "inevitable". Both individuals whose parents did and did not get divorced while they were growing up get divorced; "increased risk" simply means that this is more likely--but by no means inevitable--in the case of those who experienced divorce in their own childhoods. Consider as an example of the fact that decreased risk does not mean "never" the fact that I got divorced--yet my now 90-year old parents, married for six decades, never did (though there is still time, mom, if you fancy a younger--80 year old?--guy).

A basic question that family scientists have continued to address over the years is "what accounts for the intergenerational transmission process?" That is, why is there this increased risk of divorce in the case of children of divorce. There is undoubtedly no single answer to this question. To begin with, there is actually evidence that divorce is heritable, thus implicating genetics in some still unspecified manner in the process. One could imagine, for instance, that individuals genetically disposed to be disagreeable are more likely to get divorced than those who are not and that the reason divorce occurs across generations is because both parents and children inherit the same genes that contribute--in some unspecified way--to being disagreeable and, thereby, being prone to relationship difficulties, including divorce.

But even if genetics plays a role and disagreeableness is part of the process through which such heritable influence is exerted, this does not mean at there are not other factors and processes that might contribute to the intergenerational transmission of divorce. One proposition that has long been entertained by family scholars is that by observing their parents separate and divorce, children learn that that marriage is impermanent. As a result, these children of divorce end up being less committed to marriage and feeling less confident that their marriage will last when they get married than adults whose parents did not divorce when they were growing up. A recent study provides some support for this hypothesis.

Sarah Whitton of Boston University and her colleagues from the University of Denver queried 265 engaged couples on the matters at hand just before they took a relationship education class. Participants in the research were 17-46 years of age and had been dating, on average, for 3 years, with almost two thirds cohabiting at the time of the study. This was the first marriage for all involved.
(see http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/fam/22/5/789/)

As it turned out, a history of divorce in one's own childhood did prove predictive of relationship commitment and confidence, though, intriguingly, only in the case of women: Those whose parents had divorced while they were growing up scored lower on commitment to their partner and had less confidence that their impending marriage would last. "Daughters of divorced parents appear to be more ambivalent about committing to a particular partner, not merely to the notion that marriage, in general, should be forever...and perceived less confidence in being able to make their own upcoming marriage last", the authors concluded.

Of importance was that the legacy of divorce detected in this study was small to moderate, by no means large. Clearly, then, the findings should not be generalized to all daughters of divorce; nor should it be inferred that all individuals whose parents did not divorce are fully committed to their impending partners or are completely confident that their relationships will endure.

The fact that the findings summarized apply only to women turns out to be consistent with other evidence indicating that the intergenerational transmission of divorce applies more to daughters than to sons. Why should this be the case? Whitton and her colleagues speculate that "because women are socialized to be more relationship oriented than men, they may be more attuned to their parents' marital dissolution and its lessons regarding the (im)permanence of marriage." As this is just after-the-fact speculation, it is clear that these new findings raise new questions about why and how exposure to marital dissolution in childhood increases the risk of divorce in one's own adulthood, at least in the case of women.