How Successful Are the Marriages of People With Divorced Parents?

Marital instability can be inherited—but less often than it used to be.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Justin Lange did not grow up with many good examples of a stable, long-lasting partnership. After his parents’ divorce, his mom remarried twice more; his dad, three more times.

One lesson Lange took away from his upbringing, he told me, is that “actions speak louder than words—people were willing to [make] a lifetime commitment but not willing to back it up.” Until he joined the Navy and met the fellow sailor who would become his wife, he was reasonably sure he’d never get married or have kids.

But now, Lange is 37, married, and living in Nashville with his wife and their two children. He attributes his present happiness in part to going against the example his parents set. “I had already seen their shortcomings,” he said. “I realized earlier on in life that their mistakes don’t have to be mine.”

Lange seems to have avoided repeating his parents’ relationship history. But divorce, as a thorough body of research has demonstrated, often perpetuates itself across generations—“children of divorce,” as they’re called, are more likely to get divorced themselves than are people from “intact families.” A parental split, it turns out, can shape the next generation from childhood on.

Researchers have been aware of the connection between a parent’s divorce and a child’s divorce for nearly a century, says Nicholas Wolfinger, a sociologist at the University of Utah. Further, as Wolfinger found after he started studying the subject in the 1990s, people with divorced parents are disproportionately likely to marry other people with divorced parents—and couples in which both partners are children of divorce are more likely to get divorced than couples in which just one person is.

Wolfinger says that researchers have some ideas about why divorce would be heritable. One theory is that many children of divorce don’t learn important lessons about commitment. “All couples fight,” Wolfinger explains. “If your parents stay together, they fight and then you realize these things aren’t fatal to a marriage. If you’re from a divorced family, you don’t learn that message, and [after fights] it seems like things are untenable. And so you bounce.”

One other (albeit minor) factor is genetics. By way of explanation, Wolfinger talked through a hypothetical generation-spanning chain of assholery: “Some people are jerks, and there is some component of being a jerk that appears to be purely genetic. So: You’re a jerk, you get married, you have a kid, you don't stay married—because you’re a dick—your kid inherits some of the genetic propensity to be a jerk. And so they get divorced.”

Though most studies have focused on divorce, some research has suggested that unmarried co-parents are more likely to break up if their parents also did. After a failed marriage or cohabiting relationship, fathers are likely to be less present in their kids’ lives than mothers are—according to census data, legal custody is granted to women in 83 percent of cases.

Linda Nielsen, a professor at Wake Forest University who studies father-daughter relationships, has found that the reduced presence of a father tends to harm girls’ educational prospects and physical health—as well as their marriages, which are more likely to end in divorce.

Nielsen says that fathers can help daughters build confidence in themselves, and that this confidence serves them well when selecting their partners. Girls who grow up “hungry for a better and deeper relationship with their fathers,” she says, often try to satiate that hunger “very quickly, with the first guys that come along.”

Very little research has been done on these issues as they pertain to lesbian daughters or same-sex parents, but other studies have found that sons are prone to conflict-heavy relationships in their teens when raised by a single mother (and children, of course, can have a hard time without a present mother as well).

Despite these challenges, the likelihood that children of divorce will go on to get a divorce themselves has diminished greatly over time. According to Wolfinger, in the early 1970s, married people with divorced parents were about twice as likely as married people from intact families to get a divorce; now, the former group is only about 1.2 times as likely to get a divorce as the latter group.

In a 1999 paper, Wolfinger theorized about why this might be happening. One possibility is that as divorce became more common, the stigma attached to it started to fall away. This would matter in the sense that the shame children of divorce were made to feel in earlier eras might have inhibited their peer and family relationships. This in turn could have deprived them of social skills in a way that might have increased their likelihood of getting divorced later in life. These days, children of divorce generally aren’t outcasts, and so they might be better equipped socially to break the cycle.

A second possibility is that the reasons people get divorced have evolved over time. As the idea of ending a marriage became less socially scandalous, the threshold for splitting up gradually became lower and lower—that is, many couples today are probably choosing to get divorced over issues that couples in previous generations might have just chosen to live with. So it’s likely that in the past, children of divorce had, as a group, been more consistently exposed to the sort of extreme dysfunction that could curse their future romantic endeavors; by comparison, later generations on average came from less troubled homes, which would work in their marriages’ favor.

Of course, many children of divorce aren’t interested in getting married at all. Justin Lange, for instance, felt that way as late as young adulthood. Interestingly, though, his siblings emerged from childhood with different marital ambitions. “I have three brothers,” he told me, “and [they have] three different outlooks.” One is currently married to his high-school sweetheart. Another married and then divorced. And the third has never married and, Lange thinks, probably never will.

The Lange brothers illustrate a central and sometimes confounding feature of research on family relationships: The way a given household’s dynamics will affect different family members is usually difficult to predict. “People respond in surprisingly diverse ways to a wide variety of life events and acute stressors,” explains a 2013 report called “The Trouble With Averages” from the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonpartisan research consortium.

The effects of parents’ divorces on their children’s beliefs about marriage are no different. Some of those children, later in life, don’t want anything to do with marriage. Others still pursue it eagerly, on the assumption that they can be wiser than their parents. And plenty of people fall somewhere in between.

Still, there are some patterns. Some studies have found children of divorce to be less enthusiastic about the idea of marriage as well as less hesitant to end one; others indicate that they can have more honest appraisals of what might go wrong in a romantic relationship, and thus can be especially attuned to the importance of selecting a partner.

Class might play a role, according to Sharon Sassler, a professor at Cornell University who studies people’s attitudes toward marriage. “In less advantaged communities, there may not be that many role models of successful marriages—which may lead to jaundiced views of relationships,” Sassler wrote to me in an email. “Middle-class respondents I’ve interviewed also suggest that … they have more role models out there of what successful marriages look like—if not their parents, then others in their social circle (friends, teachers, coworkers or bosses) who have stable families.”

Sassler also pointed out that parents’ post-divorce romantic lives send messages to kids as well. “What I’ve found in [my] research is that it’s not just whether parents get divorced—it’s whether or not they repartner, and how that works out.”

She added that people whose parents are still together don’t generally need firsthand experience with divorce in order to fear it, given how widely known it is that so many marriages today end in divorce. “In my perception,” she wrote, “the specter of divorce looms for all.”

Nicholas Wolfinger senses this too. He told me that when he goes to weddings, attendees often ask for his assessment of the newlyweds. “People figure out what I study. They’ll say, ‘What are their chances?,’” Wolfinger said. “In that case, I always cherry-pick all the research that supports a happy outcome.”

When I asked him whether there is anything children of divorce can do to improve their odds of having a successful marriage, he said his advice wouldn’t be different than it would be for any couple. He spoke highly of the conflict-resolution techniques recommended by relationship experts such as those at the Gottman Institute, which according to its website helps couples, among other things, “learn to replace negative conflict patterns with positive interactions and to repair past hurts.” “Start doing some of that,” Wolfinger suggested, referring to the Gottman method.

Brian Doss, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami who studies romantic relationships, says that couples therapy would probably help as well. Again, this remedy isn’t unique to children of divorce—research indicates that it’s “just as effective for people who had divorced parents as for those whose parents didn’t divorce,” Doss told me.

Justin Lange has his own take on how to sustain a marriage. “You may be upset about whatever mundane thing it is today, but is it going to matter later on? Just let it roll and focus on the important things,” he said. Also: “Write nice notes to each other with a dry-erase marker on the bathroom mirror. It costs literally nothing and it makes a huge difference.”