Do children of divorce grow up to have happier marriages than their parents? That’s the argument the Wall Street Journal is making this week. In an article on kids and divorce, they say that new research suggests kids whose parents split up may have happier marriages as adults.
They give two reasons for this. First, kids who’ve lived through a divorce learn from their parents’ mistakes and are determined not to repeat them. Second, for kids who have a parent remarry, the new stepfamily is often happier and teaches them how to build loving relationships.
That sounds great. It fits with anecdotal reports from my peers who swear they’ll never darken the doors of a divorce court after watching their own parents break up.
There’s just one problem: statistics say it doesn’t really work this way.
In reality, children of divorce are more likely to split up their own marriages than those whose parents’ lived happily ever after. According to Tara Parker-Pope’s book For Better, she writes that those whose parents are divorced are 59 percent more likely to divorce. If both partners have divorced parents, the divorce risk for their marriage jumps 189 percent. If either partner has a stepparent, their own risk for divorce is even higher.
The Wall Street Journal article is based on new research that surveys how people feel about their marriages. They write:
In support of the second viewpoint, a recent Pew Research Center study suggests that if divorced parents remarry, the kids’ own marriages may benefit from the example of a parent’s second, happier union. Indeed, some 60% of children who grow up in stepfamilies say their marriages are closer than those of their own biological parents, says the Pew survey of 2,691 adults, conducted last October. Also, some 70% of people with step-relatives say they are very satisfied with their family lives, the Pew study shows. The study indicates that stepkids may be benefiting from a parent’s positive bond with a stepparent.
This is great news for stepfamilies, but it pushes against all the existing statistics on marriage. In addition to kids of divorce being more likely to divorce, second marriages are more likely than first marriages to end in divorce. Blended families fall apart more often than they work out.
So if the statistics say divorce is contagious, why do people in stepfamilies and adults whose own parents divorced say they’re having better marriages?
I have two theories on this. The optimistic one is that marriages are changing and becoming more stable. That the kids who were hurt by their parents’ messy divorces a generation ago really are enjoying closer, more stable marriages now. That the new Pew research is showing the leading edge of something that will become clearer when we look at divorce statistics in ten years.
The pessimistic theory is that this new research is just wrong. That people are poor reporters about the health of their own marriages. They’re telling researchers that they’re happy and close, but they’re heading for trouble down the road. It’s possible that children of divorce believe they’re more committed to staying married, but are really more likely to get divorced themselves.
What do you think? Did your parents divorce? How has it affected your own marriage?
Building a strong relationship starts with you: How to Be a Happy Stepmom