It's a simple question, but an important one.
When parents divorce, are their children more likely to divorce too?
I find myself wondering if I've damned my sons to an unstable family future by virtue of divorce, despite how "good" a mother I may be.
I also wonder if anything can be done now, even so many years after the divorce.
I think about this in part because my children haven't had long-term relationships, at least not to my knowledge. Then again, neither did I until I was 21. Still, though they're still young (college-age), I nonetheless worry that this is somehow my fault.
More accurately, I should say I worry that it's somehow our fault - the fault of two parents, though their father has remarried.
The Child's View of Divorce?
When we consider divorce, whatever our reasons, shouldn't we be concerned not only for our children's immediate future but the long-term impacts on their committed relationships?
Naturally, we don't all get to "choose" divorce. The majority of divorces are unilateral - one party wants out and eventually gets it. Divorce is an emotional and tumultuous time. It's hard enough to get through our own turmoil, much less project eight or ten years into the future. We could also argue the pros and cons of staying in the marriage for the children versus leaving, but every marriage is different and our children's responses to divorce will differ as well.
So what data and recommendations can we rely on - other than a serving of wishful thinking?
Legacy of Divorce
Is there data? Is it relevant? In fact, there was a study conducted from 1973 to 1999. Data from the study put the increased risk of divorce at 49% (in 1999) for an adult who was raised by a divorced mother.
This Huffington Post column puts it plainly:
"One of the important ways that children learn about relationships is by watching their parents interact... Children with divorced parents have ... a lower commitment to maintaining romantic ties... when these young people encounter difficulties or are somewhat unhappy with the relationship, they are more likely to end the relationship..."
And in a case of low-conflict marriage, if the child is unaware of the parents' problems, won't they blame themselves for divorce? Won't they be less likely to trust?
Divorce, Disruptions, and Adjustments for Kids
Another source is the work of researcher Nicholas Wolfinger. In this 2005 article, "Children of Divorced Parents Are More Likely to End Their Own Marriages," he is cited as saying:
"Growing up in a divorced family greatly increases the chances of ending one's own marriage, a phenomenon called the divorce cycle or the intergenerational transmission of divorce..."
Wolfinger references disruption and transitions. For example, we may subject our children to a revolving door of partners, a possible move and change of schools, remarriage and new house rules, more relocations, blended families, and possibly subsequent divorces and "adjustments." (And let's not forget the remarriage divorce rate is over 60%.)
Low Conflict Marriage Followed by Divorce
My own marriage was low conflict. I can only imagine that the separation and divorce came as a shock to my children. I am struck by this, which appears in the same referenced article:
... "It is certainly good news that people are less likely to stay in high conflict marriages than they used to." However, ending a low-conflict marriage may hurt children as much as staying in a high-conflict family," and the odds of divorce transmission are actually highest if parents dissolve a marriage after little or no conflict."*
That last statement concerns me. Are my own kids doomed to divorce after all?
Note: If domestic abuse or addiction are involved, leaving a toxic or dangerous environment is clearly another matter.
If I Divorce, Does Remarriage Help or Hurt?
I used to tell myself that I would remarry. After all, it's the conventional wisdom, and with remarriage, stability would be restored and my boys would have a model for a good adult relationship.
It's a nice fiction. But remarriage doesn't always happen and it certainly isn't without complications. However, considering the research I've just cited, maybe I did a few things right. While I don't kid myself about the effects of the ongoing animosity between their father and I, at the very least, I kept disruptions to a minimum.
- I was able to keep my children in their same schools.
- Though we had to sell our family home, we moved to a nearby location.
- I was not a revolving door when it came to my social life.
- I remained the constant in their life, as I had been before.
The Divorce Cycle
We teach our children through words and actions. We also teach them through silence and inaction. Ideally, we offer healthy models for communication, conflict resolution, and of course - love.
But that isn't always possible. We have reasons we don't want to remarry. And we shouldn't dwell on placing blame.
It's worth mentioning that I'm an adult child of divorce. My parents were married for 30 years, but I knew my mother was miserable - she complained all the time. Still, I'll never know if I was better off in that roller-coaster household than if my parents had divorced when I was a still a child.
As for my own children, the data would say they're more likely to divorce, though certainly their ages at marriage, their gender, and all the factors that go into what makes a good marriage will come into play.
What Do We Owe Ourselves and Our Children?
We may also manage to keep disruptions to a minimum, and even where they exist, help our children through.
As for long-term impacts on our children, our sons and daughters may delay marriage, they may never marry, they may happily wed and stay committed as a result of learning from our mistakes.
There's no question in my mind that there are times when divorce is the best (and only) answer, times when divorce is a wholly selfish act, and times when nothing is clear - and we do the best we can for ourselves and our children.
There isn't an easy answer or even a "right" one. But I would urge those in low-conflict unions to seriously consider working on their marriages until they're absolutely certain there is no hope. And if that's the case, then tread gently in telling the children, and do so in age-appropriate ways, and in light of how they will perceive the situation.