Struggling to Find Love in the Shadow of a Failed Parental Union

A mountain of empirical evidence compels social scientists to acknowledge that children pay a high price when their parents fail in marriage—or when their parents never marry in the first place.  A study newly completed at the University of Denver now indicates that part of that price is the singular difficulty that children of divorced and never-married parents face as young adults trying to develop satisfactory relationships with their own romantic partners.

In investigating young adults’ success in developing satisfactory romantic relationships, the Denver scholars scrutinize data collected from 1,153 young men and women ages 18 to 35.  In these data, parental marital status emerges as a strong predictor of success or failure in developing such relationships.

When the researchers launched their study, they “predicted that those with married parents would report the highest relationship quality” in their own romantic couplings.  “This hypothesis,” they report, “was supported in that those with married parents reported higher relationship adjustment and less negative communication than those with divorced or never married parents.  In addition, those with married parents reported stronger commitment to their relationships and less physical aggression than those with never married parents.”

In contrast, the researchers conclude that study participants with divorced parents experienced “lower relationship adjustment and more negative communication [in their own romantic pairings] than those with married parents.”

Further analysis establishes that “those whose parents never married one another tended to report the lowest relationship quality (in terms of relationship adjustment, negative communication, commitment, and physical aggression) compared to those with divorced or married biological parents” (p values signal statistical significance at least at the .05 level for all indicated comparisons).

The starkest differences in relationship quality thus emerged in comparisons of study participants with married parents with participants with never-married parents.  The researchers, in fact, uncover “some evidence that those whose parents divorced were experiencing higher levels of relationship functioning than those whose parents never married, at least in terms of relationship adjustment and physical aggression.”

The problems consequent to parental divorce and non-marriage were gender-neutral: “none of the effects reported in this paper were significantly moderated by gender.”

The researchers plausibly interpret their findings in the context of previous studies concluding that “parental divorce is associated with a higher rate of divorce among offspring” and that even in “premarital or dating relationships . . . parental divorce is associated with lower relationship satisfaction, more conflict, and less commitment.”  “This intergenerational transmission of divorce,” the researchers remind their readers, “has been important to examine because of the widespread costs of divorce for the adults and children involved, and also for the society.”

But parental divorce is only part of the picture.  Given Census reports indicating that over 40% of children are now born to unmarried mothers, the researchers underscore the results of their own study on the difficulties these children face in developing healthy relationships.  Understandably, the researchers suggest that “this particular family type (i.e., having parents who never marry one another) needs greater attention.”

In concluding their study, the Denver scholars reason that in our age of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing, “it could be that our society has entered an age in which fewer and fewer children grow up with positive models of what romantic relationships can be.  Thus, psychoeducation about relationships may begin to play a more important role in forming and maintaining satisfying healthy relationships in early adulthood.”

Perhaps pscyhoeducators can play a small role in reducing the difficulties young people face in developing meaningful romantic relationships if their parents have failed in marriage—or never even tried.  But only the terminally naïve suppose that even the largest army of psychoeducators will make a good substitute for parents in an enduring marriage.

(Galena K. Rhoades et al., “Parents’ Marital Status, Conflict, and Role Modeling: Links with Adult Romantic Relationship Quality,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 53.5 [2012]: 348-67.)