How do parents influence their children’s marriages?
It is said that a good teacher helps his students to surpass him. Is the rule also valid for parents? We know that their influence encompasses all aspects of life. In a way, we share with them the responsibility for the decisions that define our existence. And marriage success seems to be one of the experiences that depends most on the experience of our parents. Anecdotal proof shows that young people from well-rounded families tend to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, just as those with divorced parents tend to end up separating themselves.
Intergenerational transmission of divorce
Research in the field supports what can be seen with the naked eye: in many cases, not only the temperament or colour of the hair is inherited, but divorce is also hereditary. An American study shows that the separation of parents increases the risk of their descendants repeating history by 70%.
Although the last 40 years have seen a decline in the number of separations among partners coming from dissolved marriages, those who did not grow up in such families continue to have a higher chance of success. Couples in which both spouses have experienced the dissolution of the family of origin prefer to go to court or a notary. Psychologists note the tendency of people to be attracted to life partners with a similar, if not identical past, from this point of view. Another observation can be made about existing gender differences: unlike men, women with separated parents find it harder to make commitments and have moderate expectations from a possible marriage. In such cases, the absence of a father weakens self-confidence, leading to uninspired partner choices and, subsequently, to an increased risk of divorce.
As studies on marital instability have shown over generations, children of divorced parents tend not to make long-term commitments. Adults marked by this burden become rather disinterested in marriage or formally accepting it, leaving room for withdrawal, if necessary.
The disintegration of the whole destroys trust in the sustainability of a relationship to the point that partners coming from divorced families are twice as suspicious of the security of their own marriage than people without a family history.
Another theory emphasizes the importance of genetic factors. Analysing a huge amount of data on adopted children, a group of researchers in Sweden correlated their risk of divorce with the history of their biological parents, not that of the adoptive family, and found that the correlation was valid even in the case of siblings that were raised in separate homes. It is not divorce as such that is transmitted “genetically”, but certain personality traits that favour risky behaviours, including emotional instability and lack of self-control.
The research strengthens the conclusion that those most exposed to the danger of marital failure remain children raised in the biological family that experienced divorce. Both genes and the environment exert an influence on the marriage.
Decline in marital satisfaction
Except in cases of infidelity or abuse, the decline in marital satisfaction is what generally leads to divorce. Separation of parents has its place among the factors that influence an individual’s degree of marital satisfaction, seen as the emotional state of satisfaction of the individual to the interactions, experiences and demands of the couple. Such a legacy makes its mark on the skills needed to survive marriage: the manifestation of empathy and resistance to stress.
In a 2010 experiment, several couples were asked to jot down their thoughts about their disagreements with their partners and then detail them. Those who not only understood the relativity of their own points of view, but also the value of compromise in the process of solving problems, indicated a higher degree of marital satisfaction. On the other hand, participants who focused on a subjective, rigid interpretation of negative events expressed dissatisfaction with family life.
Similar experiments revealed that stressful situations experienced outside the couple (at work, in the circle of friends, etc.) consume the energy needed to manage intra-relational conflicts. As a result, people who are not resistant to daily stress tend to explode in the family, hence the risk of low marital satisfaction.
Initial satisfaction decreases over time, even with long-term marriages. The key to maintaining it at an optimal level involves three major aspects:
1. Adjustment: As a marriage evolves, it undergoes changes (in terms of the ordering of priorities, routines, future projects, etc.). Adjusting to these changes brings spouses closer in the long run. Maladjustment, on the other hand, produces complexes, fears, and frustrations.
2. Anchoring in reality: In the early stages of marriage, people tend to ignore their partners’ flaws, focusing on their good qualities. Over time, the defects of the other become to more easily noticed, while the good qualities fade (sometimes to extinction). The couple’s happiness increases when they remain anchored in the reality of their admiration for each other, even after two, three, five or 50 years of living together.
3. Constancy: People who judge their spouse based on occasional mistakes accumulate more dissatisfaction than those who find mitigating circumstances (a bad day, the mood of the moment) persisting in the evaluations they make.
Faith and marriages “for better or for worse”
The list of strengths does not end here. There is a fourth relevant aspect that captures the positive relationship between religion and marital satisfaction: partners who have common aspirations and interests, especially of a spiritual nature, overcome obstacles more easily and are happier.
Practicing Christians have a lower divorce rate than formal believers, as suggested by data gathered between 1972-2018 from Americans between the ages of 25 and 54. Based on research conducted at the University of Virginia, sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox also found that Protestants who attend church are 35% less likely to divorce than those who are not religiously affiliated.
Adopting Christian values is reflected in the daily life of the family, so that everything bears the imprint of similar visions, based on a common belief (household organization, budget management, sexual expression, leisure, children’s education, cultivating social relationships). The similarities, as well as the gentle approach of the other, increase cohesion in the marriages of Christian couples.
However, no one lives in a perfect bubble. Christians facing parental divorce also become vulnerable in this regard.
The testimonies of many people confirm that the changes caused by the breakup of the family are reflected in adult life. The overall impact of losing a home—stress, feelings of insecurity, declining incomes, changing schools, housing and other successive transitions—diminishes the skills that children will later manifest on all levels, including in their relationships.
Steps to healing
No one can save us if we do not save ourselves first. Psychologists talk about overcoming the dysfunctional model inherited from the family, through self-knowledge, and by exercising the will to alter destructive relational patterns.
Their recommendations include some essential steps to achieve balance in married life when one or both partners have faced the disintegration of the core family:
1. Be aware of the past and the emotional distancing from the shadows that make up that past.
In what way, to what extent and with what right does the past influence me?
2. Accept the injuries suffered and replace the vindictive attitude towards those considered guilty (whether your family or yourself), with an attitude based on understanding and forgiveness.
How can I help myself?
3. Accept responsibility for every action that is taken.
Why do I behave the way that I do?
4. Set clear goals for improving one’s behaviour.
What can I do to be happy?
5. Set realistic expectations from your partner.
How reasonable are my expectations?
6. Focus on things under personal control.
What choices do I have for a better tomorrow?
7. Trust in divine guidance.
What are my limitations in the healing process?
Having had a divorce-centred experience is not a closed-ended scenario. If parents strive to treat gently their distancing from the partner, to secure the relationship with the child by offering their attention and love, they can mitigate the negative effects of the situation; they can improve the end of the story. Otherwise, they would only increase the child’s chances of repeating in his adulthood the scenario he learned from the family he grew up. Or he may fall into the trap of extremes, choosing either to be left alone (for fear of possible abandonment) or to experience transient, superficial, (apparently) risk-free connections.
Beyond the grim predictions of statistics, the reality is that statistics can be challenged. The Bible teaches that love has no expiry date (1 Corinthians 13:8). It is true that, for some of us, marriage involves more obstacles than for others. But no man is condemned to repeat the history of others, not even that of his parents.
Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.