-Written by Katie Little ‘18
There are many studies that suggest that children who have had their parents divorce are more likely to divorce their future spouses as adults than children whose parents do not divorce (Bumpass, Martin, & Sweet, 1991; Kulka & Weingarten, 1979; Pope & Mueller, 1976). However, it is less clear how this mechanism might work. Amato (1996) sought to explore what specifically about the experience of parental divorce might lead the children of divorcees to have an increased risk of divorcing later in life.
For his study, Amato surveyed approximately 1,500 married individuals in 1980 and asked them to report whether their parents had divorced or not and if their spouses’ parents had divorced. They also completed a survey about their attitudes towards divorce and used a checklist of 10 qualities to provide information about how they and their spouses behaved in their relationship. Demographic information such as education, income, race, and hours worked per week was also provided. He conducted follow up interviews in 1983, 1988, and 1992. In the follow up interviews, he received updates on whether the couple was still married.
At the end of his twelve-year study, Amato looked at his results to find out what factors mediated the effect of parental divorce on offspring marital success. As he expected from previous studies, he found that children of divorce had more liberal ideas about divorce, were more likely to marry young, and more likely to live with a partner outside of a marital relationship. All of these factors were moderately linked to an increased divorce rate. However, the biggest mediating factor found was changes in interpersonal behavior.
Children of divorced couples were more likely to exhibit problematic behavior like anger, jealousy, poor communication skills, and infidelity as shown by their checklist responses. The prevalence of problematic behaviors in children of divorce suggests that these individuals were not exposed to positive role models for dyadic behavior, or how to behave with a partner, and therefore did not learn the skills and attitudes necessary to function well in a couple and reduce relationship tension.
While these results may be somewhat perturbing, they actually suggest that if children of divorce are able to learn how to have positive interpersonal behavior, perhaps by finding a role model other than their parents, then the differences between the children of divorced and intact families might not be so pronounced.
Amato, P.R. (1996). Explaining the intergenerational transmission of divorce. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 628-640.
Bumpass, L.L., Martin, T.C., & Sweet, J. A. (1991). The impact of family background and early marital factors on marital disruption. Journal of Family Issues, 12, 22-42.
Kulka, R.A., & Weingarten, H. (1979). The long-term effects of parental divorce in childhood on adult adjustment. Journal of Social Issues, 35, 50-78.
Pope, H., & Mueller, C.W. (1976). The intergenerational transmission of marital instability: Comparisons by race and sex. Journal of Social Issues, 32, 49-66.
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