Multiple Divorces Strain Kids

Parents who marry and divorce more than once can cause problems for their children because the more divorces and remarriages a child lives through, the more likely he or she is to divorce as an adult.

“Children who go through multiple divorces are not as well adjusted as children who endure only one divorce,” says sociologist Stephanie Coontz. According to Coontz, Children who experience divorce as they grow up are more likely as adults to get a divorce, but multiple divorces can be particularly difficult for the children.

Children learn by their parents’ example. “Parents who divorce repeatedly tend to be impulsive, choose bad partners and lack the ability to sustain relationships. So the children of these parents tend to grow up with a built-in role-model disadvantage in addition to multiple divorce handicap,” Coontz says. After the first failed marriage, divorced parents remarry or form new intimate relationships – which statistically have an even higher failure rate and which force the children to deal with the challenges of multiple divorces or separations. They must come terms with not only the breakdown and breakup of their parents’ first marriage, but also the loss of newly acquired stepparents and stepsiblings with whom they may have developed emotional attachments. Relocation so often compounds the pain and suffering of the children.

Coontz, author, historian, and faculty member at Evergreen State College, teaches history and family studies and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council. She is the author of “Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage” has testified about her research before the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families in Washington, D.C.

One impact study asserts that the more divorces and remarriages a child lives through, the more likely he is to divorce and the more failed marriages he’ll experience as an adult. “Cumulative stress as new parents move in and out of a child’s life seems to be affecting his marital history as an adult,” says sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger, who presented his findings from a national survey of 8,590 adults at the American Sociological Association meeting.

Wolfinger looked at how multiple divorces, which became increasingly common in the 1970s, affect a child’s marital future, Only 1 percent of current adults surveyed experienced at least two failed marriages while growing up, but about 20 percent of children born in the late ’70s have been through two or more divorces, Wolfinger says.

Wolfinger’s findings are that:

  • Among adults whose parents had two or more failed marriages, 67 percent had divorced and 26 percent had divorced at least twice.
  • Among adults whose parents divorced and remarried only once, 58 percent had divorced and 19 percent had divorced at least twice.
  • Among adults raised in intact homes, 41 percent had divorced and 9 percent had divorced at least twice.

Adults who take after their parents’ divorce histories “may have learned the best way to deal with problems in a relationship is to cut and run,” Wolfinger says. If remarriage occurs, “step and adoptive parenting seems only to exacerbate the negative effects of parental divorce,” he said.

But psychologist James Bray of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston argues that’s too sweeping a generalization. Only about one in five children has a bad relationship with a stepparent, Bray said.

Multiple family transitions do stress kids, Bray agrees, “but good stepfamily relationships can heal some of that trauma. My research and other studies show a lot of people flourish and do better because they’ve had good stepparents.”

Other sociologists find other difficulties for the children of multiple divorces.

“Multiple divorces can make the practicality of a child’s relationships – with adults and with peers – more challenging because there are more settings that the child is identifying with, more settings that she considers ‘home,’” says Virginia Rutter, a professor of sociology at Framingham State College and a board member of the Council on Contemporary Families and co-author of The Gender of Sexuality, and “he Love Test: Romance and Relationship Self-Quizzes.

Shifting financial security also has an impact on the children. “What really complicates this is …where there are limited economic resources… this makes addressing a child’s need for continuity and security a lot harder. As children grow up under these circumstances, they are more likely to lose the opportunity to develop secure social networks and skills that kids from more financially secure families – and less disrupted families – find easier to gain,” she says.

Rutter also notes that some kids can be highly adaptable. “These children also develop some special skills…they learn how to get along in diverse situations…how to problem solve, they learn independence. For many children of divorce – including multiple divorces – their resilience means that they will move forward like other kids.”

She feels, however, that “kids gain this competence at a cost because it takes a lot of strength and focus to handle these situations. Given that children of multiple divorces are especially likely to come from poorer families, their challenges continue as they move into adulthood, and they need support for getting a solid college education in order to help them reach secure positions in life.”

Children of multiple divorced families often find it difficult to maintain lasting intimate relationships. People whose parents cycled through multiple divorces are more likely to marry young, divorce, remarry and experience long-term difficulty with relationships. Some experts believe this marriage-divorce patchwork may interfere during a child’s critical developmental years, which can lead to a delay in their social maturation.

Dr. Robert E. Emery, divorce mediation expert and author of The Truth about Children and Divorce, approaches the problem from a different perspective. “What children experience more than repeat divorces is the repeated loss of new adult figures in their lives, sometimes significant ones,” says Dr. Emery. “As their parents date and perhaps live with romantic partners after their first divorce, young children can quickly form attachments to these new figures in their lives. The loss can be wrenching when the romance breaks up. My … advice to single parents is: Go slow for your children, and probably for yourself, too.”

“Children from divorced families are more likely to get divorced themselves, but no one really knows why or whether this finding from past generations will apply to the children of the ‘divorce boom,’” says Sr. Emery.

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