Beating a Legacy of Marital Failure
Reaping What Was Sown
Parent role vs. partner role continued...
Conger's team conducted in-house interviews annually for four
years, beginning when the children were in seventh grade. They gleaned
information on the interactions between the subjects and their parents,
subjects and the siblings, and the parents as spouses. Then, when the subjects
were about age 20, they videotaped them with their romantic partners. The
subjects also gave their own evaluations of the relationships with their
parents and with their romantic partners.
What they found: Teens who grew up with parents
who were supportive and warm tended to develop similar relationships with their
romantic partners when they got older. But those who grew up in families who
were not supportive and warm tended to have unhappy romantic relationships as
adults. "Contrary to our expectations, observing their parents' marital
relationship was not that important," Conger says.
This suggests to Conger that children who grow up in
supportive, warm, single-parent families may do just as well as those from
warm, supportive two-parent families when they seek out romantic relationships
as young adults.
Of course, if you are an unhappy spouse, it might affect your
parenting, he points out. "If
parents are angry and fight with each other, that may spill over into their
parenting. As long as you can maintain an effective role as a parent, you can
mitigate the effects of a bad marriage on your child."
Low-conflict vs. high-conflict homes
Other researchers have been studying types of divorce and their
effects on children's well-being, as well as the children's ability to form
satisfying relationships later in life.
Divorces that occur in "low-conflict" marriages tend to
have negative effects on children, while divorces that occur in "high
conflict" marriages often have beneficial effects on children, according to
Alan J. Booth, PhD, a distinguished professor of sociology at the Pennsylvania
State University in University Park, Pa., who reports the conclusion in the
February 2001 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family after
reviewing his own and others' studies on the topic.
It sounds backward until Booth explains it. If kids grow up in
a home with a high-conflict marriage -- much disagreement, perhaps constant
shouting and arguing -- the dysfunctional home environment puts them at risk
for emotional and developmental problems. When the split occurs, the calmer,
single-parent household may be a relief, and symptoms abate.
But if children grew up in a home where the marriage had little
outward conflict, the decision to divorce can blindside them, and the stressful
fallout can put them at risk for symptoms such as emotional and behavioral
Like Conger, Booth says the role model of a good marriage
"doesn't seem to be too crucial" in the ability of children to form
lasting romantic relationships later. What is vital? "Growing up with
loving parents is important to forming your own adult relationships," he