(January 2001) People who experience parental divorce while growing up face an elevated risk, in adulthood, of seeing their own marriages end in divorce. Although social scientists have known about the intergenerational transmission of divorce for some time, the explanation for this phenomenon has remained elusive.

One explanation holds that children learn poor relationship skills by observing conflict between parents. Longitudinal studies show that married couples who later divorce tend to have problems communicating, are often critical of their partners, tend to respond to criticism defensively, avoid or withdraw from problem-solving discussions, and have difficulty resolving conflict. For this reason, children whose parents divorce, compared with children whose parents remain married, have fewer opportunities to learn positive social skills that facilitate close relationships and strengthen later marital stability.

Marital Outcomes for Adult Children of Divorce or Discordant Marriages

Source: Paul R. Amato and Danelle DeBoer, “The Transmission of Divorce Across Generations: Relationship Skills or Commitment to Marriage?” Journal of Marriage and the Family (forthcoming).

This explanation has never been tested directly because no prior study has had data on parents’ marriages prior to divorce, as well as data on children’s marital instability years later. The study of Marital Instability Over the Life Course, a project initiated in 1980 by Alan Booth, provides the needed data. In 1980, project researchers conducted telephone interviews with a national sample of 2,034 married individuals and did follow-up interviews in 1983, 1988, 1992, and 1997. After I joined the research team in 1988, we decided to conduct interviews (in 1992 and 1997) with 691 adult children ages 19 and over from these marriages.

The current analysis was based on 335 adult children who married for the first time after the initial parent interview in 1980. Sixty-eight of these children experienced a parental divorce. We distinguished another 75 adult children who were exposed to high levels of marital discord while growing up but who did not experience a parental divorce. These individuals were compared with 192 adult children who experienced neither a parental divorce nor high levels of discord when their parents were married. Of the 335 adult children who had ever been married, 66 had divorced prior to 1997. An additional one-fourth of adult children who were still married had thought seriously about divorce during the previous three years.

The figure above provides an overview of the results. The percentage of married adult children who thought about divorce and the percentage of ever-married adult children who divorced is shown for three groups: those with continuously married parents who reported little discord, those with continuously married parents who reported a high level of discord, and those with divorced parents. The figure indicates that thoughts of divorce among adult children were elevated when parents had either a discordant marriage or a marriage that ended in divorce. Divorce among adult children, however, was elevated only when parents had divorced.

If learning poor relationship skills accounts for the intergenerational transmission of marital instability, then divorce among children should be elevated not only when their parents divorced, but also when their parents had a discordant but continuously intact marriage. Consequently, these results do not support an explanation based on relationship skills. Parental discord (in the absence of parental divorce) appeared to elevate children’s thoughts of divorce, but children with discordant parents did not necessarily translate these thoughts into behavior.

Seeing that marital discord isn’t the explanation, we tested an alternative theory, which assumes that children learn about marital commitment (or permanence) by observing parental models. The important mechanism, according to this perspective, is not parents’ problematic interpersonal behavior, but parents’ demonstration that the marital contract can be broken and that divorce can provide opportunities to seek greater happiness with new partners. These observations are likely to undermine children’s commitment to lifelong marriage.

Additional analyses suggested that parental divorce was especially likely to increase divorce among adult children when parents had a mildly (rather than a highly) discordant marriage prior to divorce. This result supports a key assumption of the commitment perspective: Divorces that are preceded by relatively little marital discord should be especially likely to undermine children’s commitment to lifelong marriage. In a final analysis, we found that lower levels of marital unhappiness were necessary to trigger thoughts of divorce among adult children with divorced parents than among those with happily married parents. Parental discord, in the absence of divorce, had no comparable effect. These results support a commitment perspective.

Our research suggests that it is the actual termination of the marriage, rather than the disturbed family relations that precede marital dissolution, that affects children’s later marital stability, and that this transmission occurs mainly by undermining children’s commitment to marital permanence. In the next wave of data, the sample of adult children who have married and divorced will have increased, making it possible to explore this phenomenon in more detail.

Paul R. Amato is a professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University. The research on which this article is based was conducted with Danelle DeBoer, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This research was supported by Grant 5 R01 AG04146 from the National Institute of Aging. A full account of this study will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family. Results are reported with permission of the National Council on Family Relations.