THE BLOG
12/25/2010 03:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are Children of Divorce Doomed to Repeat their Parents' Mistakes?

One of the most troubling research findings is that children of divorce are more likely to divorce themselves. This seems unfair. However, it is important to put this in perspective. For children whose parents are divorced, this is similar to having a parent with high blood pressure or who has had cancer. These are risk factors. It means that you know that your risk of these diseases is elevated compared to others so, you have to take some extra precautions to reduce your own risk of getting these diseases. The same is true for children of divorce. They are at elevated risk of having difficult relationships and marriages.

So why are children of divorce more likely to divorce themselves? In order to prevent divorce or troubled relationships we have to understand how parental divorce affects young people's relationships. Ming Cui and Frank Fincham at Florida State University recently provided new insight into how parental divorce affects children's romantic relationships. They found that there are two common mechanisms--how conflict is managed and through commitment to marriage.

Learning relationship skills from parents. One of the important ways that children learn about relationships is by watching their parents interact. If children see their parents communicate positively, then they are more likely to communicate this way themselves. We see this in childhood through children's ways of dealing with their siblings or peers. They often copy their parents' ways of communicating. How conflict is managed and how quick parents' get angry seems to have an especially powerful influence on children's own skills in dealing with others. Cui and Fincham found that children who grow up in households in which their parents do not manage conflict or disagreement well are more likely to have similar problems in their own relationships.

Learning attitudes about commitment in marriage from parents. Another way that parental divorce affects children's future relationships is through their feelings of commitment to their relationships. Cui and Fincham found that this pattern begins in their early romantic relationships. Children with divorced parents have less positive attitude towards marriage and a lower commitment to maintaining romantic ties. In short, when these young people encounter difficulties or are somewhat unhappy with the relationship, they are more likely to end the relationship when compared with young people whose parents were continuously married. This finding extends into marriage. Paul Amato and Danielle DeBoer found that married persons whose parents were divorced were much more likely to have thought about divorce than persons whose parents were continuously married. They were more likely to think that marital problems could not be fixed and were more pessimistic about the chances of improving their relationships.

Finally, it is important to remember that not every child whose parents' divorced will get divorced themselves. Just like every child whose parent has a disease will not get the disease. There are real strategies for improving relationships and developing committed long-lasting and happy marriages, but it doesn't just happen. Both attitudes about marriage and relationships skills can be changed and improved. There are a number of self-help books and courses on relationships skills. Two particularly good books based on the best scientific evidence are The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by John Gottman (Gottman Institute) and Fighting for Your Marriage by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg (PREP) . Many professionals teach and counsel couples about marriage and relationships based on the principles in these books.