Beating a Legacy of Marital Failure

Reaping What Was Sown

Medically Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD
6 min read

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 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.

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."

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."

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 problems.

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 says.

Despite the research, Robert Maurer, PhD, a psychologist at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, who often counsels divorcing couples with children, isn't convinced that parents' marital behavior can be ruled out as a blueprint for their offspring.

"When your partner walks in," Maurer often asks married couples he counsels, "does your face light up, or does your look say the warden has just come onto the cellblock?" He tells them their children can't help but notice these interactions and form some opinions about their own goals for a romantic relationship when they become adults.

Still, Maurer says, the research done by Conger does send an optimistic message to some parents that all is not lost if a divorce is inevitable. Divorcing parents might consider continuing counseling sessions together even after the divorce is final, Maurer tells WebMD, to work on their parenting skills. He sees some divorced couples who continue seeking his advice so they can be effective parents together, even though they are no longer romantic partners.

Maurer does see some limitations to the Conger study: "It's a huge inference to say these subjects would remain together for years."

The average age of the subjects during the 1997 interviews by Conger's group was 20. Conger is working to overcome that limitation. In his next study, he says he will continue tracking those young adults, to see how they fare with their partners.

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based health journalist and regular contributor to WebMD. Her work also appears in the Los Angeles Times, Shape, Modern Maturity, and other publications.