If you think that your divorce can influence the marital stability of your children, it is understandable since, after all, the relationships that parents establish are great models for their children. However, not everything is black and white.
Psychological studies that have looked at what is known as “transgenerational transmission” – the influence of the representational world of people from one generation on the perceptions, values and behaviors of subsequent generations – do not fully support such a direct link. In other words, the relationship between parental divorce and the probability of divorce in their children is complex.
Divorced parents, divorced children?
In 1996, a study conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that divorce between parents increases the risk of divorce in children by up to 70% during the first five years of marriage. That risk is even higher if both partners come from divorced parents.
Undoubtedly, children who grow up in a family where the parents have divorced, or are in the process of separating, are often exposed to conflicts, stressful situations – both psychological and economic – as well as the emotional instability of the parents themselves.
Those children are watching everything that happens. They are like a sponge, so they can learn unhealthy relationship dynamics or inappropriate communication strategies, especially when exposed to toxic relationship models.
In many cases, children of divorced parents learn to mistrust others and relationships, so they may have trouble developing a strong bond with their partner in the future. If they feel abandoned by a parent, they may develop an insecure attachment that will later sabotage their love relationships.
In fact, it is known that parenting styles, as well as the level of conflict before and after separation, influence the transgenerational transmission of divorce. Children who have grown up with the idea that relationships are temporary, may have a greater tendency to replicate that pattern when they grow up and it is easier for them to throw in the towel at the first problem.
However, the divorce of the parents, however terrible it may have been, does not condemn the children to divorce.
The other side of the coin: children with very solid relationships
In many cases, children of divorced parents may end up learning from their parents’ struggles and experiences. The pain and suffering experienced can become a life teacher that encourages them to make better decisions and contribute to having successful marriages.
In fact, children of divorced parents may also be more aware of the challenges of marriage, so it may take longer for them to take that step to carefully choose the person they want to spend the rest of their lives with.
As a result, they can seek healthier relationships so as not to repeat the patterns they already know, and implement more assertive conflict resolution strategies that consolidate the relationship.
Regardless of the consequences of parental divorce on children, personal characteristics, such as temperament or personality, also determine the success of relationships, as well as the social, cultural and religious influences to which we are subjected. That means we can all ultimately follow a different emotional path than our parents.
Is it possible to reduce the risk of transgenerational divorce?
Maintaining a couple relationship that is failing and is a source of dissatisfaction only because of the children is not a good idea, but it is essential to be aware that children and adolescents also need models of positive relationships to follow.
The way parents deal with separation can make a difference. It is important that they handle the divorce in the most mature way possible, keeping communication channels open and supporting their children at all times.
Of course, parenting is often complicated after divorce as one parent often bears the brunt of caring for them. However, this difficult stage is also an opportunity for children to learn resilience skills, adaptive coping with stress and emotional management.
Children need to understand divorce, so it’s important to talk about its challenges and consequences, without turning them against the other parent. Instead, emphasize the importance of commitment, mutual support, and shared values in relationships.
Just because a relationship has ended doesn’t mean that will all end the same. Later, when the children grow up, parents can even talk to them about their mistakes so they don’t make them and manage to maintain full and satisfying relationships.
Premarital counseling has been shown to reduce the likelihood of divorce. Talking to your children about relationships, will help them have more realistic expectations and develop more assertive conflict management strategies, that allow them to more successfully navigate the ups and downs of married life.
Di Nallo, A. & Oesch, D. (2023) The Intergenerational Transmission of Family Dissolution: How it Varies by Social Class Origin and Birth Cohort. Eur J Popul; 39(1): 3.
Allen, J. & Wu, L. (2008) No Trend in the Intergenerational Transmission of Divorce. Demography; 45(4): 875–883.