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Beating a Legacy of Marital Failure

Reaping What Was Sown

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

April 2, 2001 -- More than a million divorces occur each year in the United States, and handling a split-up is devastating and demanding for the couples involved. But those with young children have an extra burden: worrying about the effects on their offspring.

First, there's the short-term angst about the effects of divorce. How will your children do in school, with their friends, with adjusting to one parent in the house, with going back and forth between two households? And then there's the "big-picture" anxiety. Will your kids repeat your marital mistakes, since common wisdom holds that we learn by observing? Are you passing on divorce as your children's romantic legacy?

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No, your children aren't doomed for divorce court, according to recent studies conducted by two different teams of researchers. In fact, they may do very well -- perhaps even celebrate a silver or golden wedding anniversary. What matters most, according to one research team, is not so much the marital example you give your kids, but the one-to-one relationship you have as a parent with your child. That's the relationship that will teach them the skills they need to form good romantic relationships later, the team says.

The second team found that the psychological well-being of a child actually improves after a divorce if the household was chaotic because of warring parents.

Parent role vs. partner role

How we learn to form and maintain romantic, intimate relationships has been a focus of researchers for years. The common belief has been that children learn to relate later in life to romantic partners by observing their own parents.

But that's not entirely true, according to Rand Conger, PhD, a sociology professor at Iowa State University and a researcher with ISU's Institute for Social and Behavioral Research in Ames, Iowa. The romantic choices and behaviors of young adults are influenced more by the one-to-one relationships they had as children with their parents than with the observations they made of their parents' marriages, he has found.

Conger and his team came to that conclusion after observing 193 young adults (85 men and 108 women) and their partners in ongoing romantic relationships in 1997. These young adults were the same subjects that Conger and his team began observing in family situations in 1989, when they were just 12 years old, to see what kind of relationships they had with their parents.

All the subjects had parents who were married at the time of the study (although some parents split up later), so that marital relationships could be observed, as well as parent-child relationships.

"The proposition is that young adults emulate the behaviors they see their parents demonstrate in their romantic relationships," Conger writes in a report of his research, published in the August 2000 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "In research on divorce, there has been no direct evidence of this observational learning process."

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