CHILDREN OF DIVORCE - NATURE, NURTURE OR NEITHER
This five part series of posts has been devoted to an examination of the root causes of divorce. We are familiar with most of the usual suspects - infidelity, lack of commitment, money problems, addictions, lack of intimacy, domestic violence, etc.. Another significant one, explored in a prior post, is a remarriage following a prior or series of prior unsuccessful relationships. Here, the chances of divorce go up proportionally with each previously failed relationship.
However, other divorce correlations are not as well known. They remain hidden, like giant icebergs lying silently, just below the surface of the water, until they cause the marriage to break apart. In this vein we have looked at certain less well known divorce factors such as the length of the engagement and the amount of money spent on the wedding and the engagement ring.
The one thing that all these divorce factors have in common is that are within the control of the parties to the marriage. You decide how long to remain engaged. You choose to have an affair. You choose to remarry. You choose to spend $20,000 on an engagement ring or $100,000 on your wedding. But not every divorce factor is within the control of the marital partners.
In the context of many of life's circumstances, social scientist have explored the link between the shared traits and characteristics of parents and their children - e.g. intellect, personality, disease, criminal behavior, alcoholism, domestic violence, etc. But what about divorce? Is there a correlation between your parent's divorce and the likelihood that you will be following them down this same unhappy path? Are the "sins of the father (or mother) visited on the son (or daughter)?” Is divorce "generational" - passed down from grandparent to parent to child? And, if so, is it a matter of nature or nurture? In other words is divorce a matter of "genetics" or “learned behavior"?
The short answer is that researchers have been aware of the connection between a parent’s divorce and a child’s divorce for nearly a century. Social scientists such as Paul Amato and Danelle Deboer have concluded that, “parental divorce is one of the best documented risk factors for marriage dissolution.” Significantly and ironically, people with divorced parents are disproportionately more likely to marry other people with divorced parents.
So what kind of impact does parental divorce have on their children? Going back to Amato and Deboer, they indicated that if a woman’s parents divorced, her odds of divorce increased 69 percent, while if both a husband and wife’s parents divorced, the risk of divorce increased by 189 percent. Said differently, where both children have divorced parents they are twice as likely to get divorced themselves as compared to the children of parents who have remained married.
Given this established link, is this another reason for parents to stay married - for the sake of their children's future marriages? Is this link a matter of nature or nurture? What is the reason for this connection?
For many years experts concluded that divorce was a learned behavior - we modeled what we saw and experienced as children. The accepted explanation was based upon two things.
First, children of divorce did not observe their parents engage in positive relationship skills such as open communication, negotiation and compromise. The proponents of this theory opined that this lack of parental skills led directly to the lack of such skills in their children, thereby fostering divorce.
Second, the devotees of this theory also concluded that children who watched their parents’ divorce experienced a reduced commitment to the institution of marriage and lower confidence in the ability of marriages to remain intact long-term. Plainly put, "children of divorce are haunted by the ghosts of their parents’ divorce and are terrified that the same fate awaits them." Notwithstanding these fears, they jump into marriage anyway, often with disastrous partners, since they are convinced that it won't last anyway. In such cases divorce is a matter of when, not if.
However, a more recent study has concluded divorce is not a matter of fate but rather genetics. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and Lund University in Sweden tackled the question why does divorce run in families?” What they found was that the prior studies overlooked an important fact - not all children are the same. The Swedish study focused on adopted children versus biological children. When this variable was added they found that people who were adopted resembled their biological — but not adoptive — parents and siblings in their histories of divorce. Understanding this new dynamic should help people and their therapists to focus on individual personality traits rather than fate alone.
So where are we? Yes indeed the marital bliss or the dysfunction of your parents has a discernible impact on the your likelihood of divorce. However, once you are aware of this link you can mitigate its effects by introspection, therapy or by adding a new parameter to your marital search - marrying someone whose parents are happily married.
Stay tuned for the fifth and final part of this series