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