- Research suggests that children of divorced parents have a slightly elevated risk of divorce.
- Many children of divorced parents go on to have healthy, stable marriages.
- Teaching children relationship skills, coping skills, and resilience sets them up for success.
If you believe that your divorce will cause your children to divorce, this would be an understandable belief.
After all, you modeled divorce as the solution to an unhappy marriage. Fortunately, the research doesn’t fully support that idea. Research has looked at the relationship between parental divorce and the likelihood of divorce in subsequent generations, referred to as “intergenerational transmission.”
The results show a slightly elevated risk of divorce. However, the studies caution that the likelihood of divorce is complex and influenced by various factors, such as socioeconomic status, marital quality, parental conflict, age at marriage, education, and income.
Therefore, because so many other factors influence marital relationships, we cannot say that your divorce is a determining factor, or will cause your children’s divorces. After all, correlation does not imply causation.
Remember, many children of divorced parents have healthy, stable marriages, and many people from intact families also experience divorce.
What about that “slightly elevated risk”?
Children growing up in a divorcing or divorced family are often exposed to parental conflict, stress (financial, emotional, and psychological), and instability. They observe and may learn unhealthy relationship dynamics, or poor communication skills. These children may also have a lower level of education due to economic hardships and may lack positive and healthy role models of relationships. They may distrust relationships or find it difficult to form strong attachments.
Some studies suggest that genetic and environmental factors (parenting styles, level of conflict before and after the divorce, etc.) affect the “intergenerational transmission” of divorce. There are also individual personal characteristics (temperament, personality, etc.), as well as the social, cultural, and religious influences of their childhood. It is important not to make broad generalizations.
In fact, children of divorce may determine to learn from their family’s struggle and consciously make choices that contribute to their own successful marriages. They are probably more aware of the challenges of marriage, and may intentionally choose a different path. These children learn from their parents’ experiences and mistakes. They seek out healthy relationships, learn good communication skills, and use healthy conflict-resolution skills.
How can you reduce the likelihood of intergenerational divorce?
While studies show a slightly elevated risk, there are tools to minimize that risk. Parenting after divorce gets harder, but if you and your ex can work together with a common goal for your children, it is an excellent start.
Your children need strong relationship skills: Effective communication, empathy, emotional intelligence, problem-solving, and conflict-resolution skills.
Your children need positive relationship role models: Help them observe and learn from family and friends, mentors, or community programs.
Your children need to learn resilience and positive, healthy coping: Teach and model mental health awareness, and how to manage stress and strong emotions.
Your children need to understand divorce: Provide ways to talk about the challenges and consequences of divorce without turning them against their other parent. Talk about the importance of commitment, mutual support, and shared values in relationships. Help them develop a personal narrative of their family's “restructuring” without shame or stigma.
Your children need cooperative co-parents: Consider parenting or co-parenting classes if you and your ex can work together for the sake of your children.
Your children need stability: The best education you can access, stable financial resources, affordable housing, and anything else that will alleviate stressors that may strain relationships.
As their parents, you can do a lot to strengthen your children’s support systems, including therapy or counseling if you see your child struggling or regressing.
If you have teens, talk to them about the importance of relationship education, and provide pre-marital counseling services when they begin to think about marriage. According to John Gottman, pre-marital counseling has been shown to reduce the likelihood of divorce. This type of counseling helps young couples have realistic expectations, develop new ways of managing relationship challenges and skills to navigate the predictable ups and downs of married life.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2023.
Facebook image: Dikushin Dmitry/Shutterstock
Amato, P. R. (1996). Explaining the intergenerational transmission of divorce. Journal of Marriage and Family, 58(3), 628-640.
Teachman, J. D. (2002). Stability across cohorts in divorce risk factors. Demography, 39(2), 331-351.
Wolfinger, N. H. (2005). Understanding the divorce cycle: The children of divorce in their own marriages. Cambridge University Press.