Children of divorced parents are more likely to end their own marriages

June 27, 2005

Children of divorced parents often bitterly vow not to repeat the same mistakes. They want to avoid putting themselves and their own children through the pain that comes from the dissolution of a marriage. But, according to University of Utah researcher Nicholas H. Wolfinger, these children's aspirations face unfavorable odds.

"Growing up in a divorced family greatly increases the chances of ending one's own marriage, a phenomenon called the divorce cycle or the intergenerational transmission of divorce," says Wolfinger, assistant professor in the University of Utah's Department of Family and Consumer Studies.

Wolfinger has spent a decade studying the marriages of children from divorced homes in America. These children are more likely to marry as teens, cohabitate and marry someone who is also a child of divorced parents. And they are also one-third less likely to marry if they are over age 20.

Wolfinger's new book is devoted entirely to the divorce cycle. "Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages," published by Cambridge University Press, contains important information for those interested in divorce and its repercussions and for policy makers who determine family and divorce law.

"Divorce is an important topic because it has so many consequences for well-being," writes Wolfinger, also an adjunct assistant professor in the university's Department of Sociology. "Its transmission between generations adds a whole new dimension by perpetuating the cycle of divorce. ... The divorce cycle, in short, can be thought of as a cascade. Ending a marriage starts a cycle that threatens to affect increasing numbers of people over time, a sobering thought in an era when half of all new marriages fail."

Wolfinger's research also suggests that if one spouse comes from divorced parents, the couple may be up to twice as likely to divorce. Spouses who are both children of divorced parents are three times more likely to divorce as couples who both hail from intact families.

Besides observing the marital stability of the offspring of divorced couples, Wolfinger's 180-page book provides perspective on how parental divorce affects offspring marriage timing, mate selection, cohabitating relationships as well as historical trends in the divorce cycle. Wolfinger also explores the divorce reform movement in America and argues in favor of no-fault divorce laws, arguing that a return to an age of tough divorce laws would recreate the social conditions that used to make divorce harder on children.

"One reason children from divorced families get divorced more often is because they have a tendency to marry as teenagers," Wolfinger reports, adding "the older you are when you marry, the less likely you are to get divorced. It's good advice for everyone."

On the other hand, the more transitions children experience while growing up, the more they will experience as adults, Wolfinger notes. "What is the hardest for kids is how many disruptions they experience -- the up-and-down cycles. Many will have stepparents, and some will see their new families dissolve. A disruption occurs any time they lose a parent -- except from death. That's different, and doesn't have the same negative effects on children. Whereas divorce is ambiguous. Children wonder whether the divorce was their fault or who is to blame. And they wonder 'Is he coming back?'"

Wolfinger writes, "It is certainly good news that people are less likely to stay in high conflict marriages than they used to." However, "ending a low-conflict marriage may hurt children as much as staying in a high-conflict family," and the odds of divorce transmission are actually highest if parents dissolve a marriage after little or no conflict.

"The most interesting finding," Wolfinger says, is that "some of the negative consequences of growing up in a divorced family, including stigmatization, are less severe because divorce has become more common."

Ultimately, Wolfinger shows that the divorce cycle can primarily be attributed to the lessons children learn about relationship skills and marital commitment, and secondarily to the effects of parental divorce on offspring marriage formation behavior and educational attainment.

Wolfinger's research is based on the National Survey of Families and Households, which included detailed information on family background for 13,000 people, and the General Social Survey, which surveyed 20,000 people over a 30-year period.
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University of Utah

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