The children of a broken home are far more likely to become divorced themselves than the children of an intact marriage, according to a researcher who spend a decade studying broken marriages. The child of divorced parents is at least 40 percent more likely to become divorced than if the parents had not parted, and if the parents married after divorcing, the children face a 91 percent chance of marital breakdown in their own marriages.
“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 Nicholas H. Wolfinger, assistant professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies. Wolfinger is the author of Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages, which is the result of a 10-year study of the children of marital failures.
The children of failed marriages are more likely to marry as teens, cohabitate and marry someone who is also a child of divorced parents. They are also one-third less likely to marry if they are over age 20. 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.
“Divorce is an important topic because it has so many consequences for well-being,” writes Wolfinger, who is 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.”
He supports 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, [but] the older you are when you marry, the less likely you are to get divorced. It’s good advice for everyone.”
“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.
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. Divorce is ambiguous. Children wonder whether the divorce was their fault or who is to blame. And they wonder ‘Is he coming back?’”
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. The Bireley Foundation helped fund Wolfinger’s book.