Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? - Divorce in Your Past

From Po:

Today I'm going to discuss the odds of divorce when there's already been a divorce in your family history - whether it was your parents that divorced, or whether you've been divorced and are remarried. I'll even bring up the factor of whether your grandparents divorced.

What these three categories have in common is this notion that somehow divorce begets divorce. That once you see it as an option, however painful, it becomes a more likely option later. That there might be something broken in you deep inside, such that sustaining a marriage is harder to pull off. It's a pop-theory that seems to fit the data.

You might have heard the broad strokes: If you were raised in a divorced home, you are more likely to divorce when you grow up. And if your marriage is a second marriage, post-divorce, your second marriage is likelier to end in divorce. It's even true that if your grandparents divorced, your are more likely to get divorced (regardless of whether your parents divorced).

Thus, the theory, that there's something inexplicably dangerous about divorce. I've talked to parents in very unhappy marriages who are afraid that if they divorce, they'll scar their children twice - the divorce will cause them turmoil, and then, when they grow up, their own marriages are then likely to end in divorce.

But when we look closer at the data, the pop theory doesn't fit. There's other explanations going on. Divorce is not contagious.

For example, the bewilderingly curious fact about the impact of a grandparents' divorce. How could that infect the grandkids? Especially if the intervening generation didn't divorce? Well, the sociologists have studied this, and it turns out that the grandparents of today's married couples were born a long, long time ago. Back then, divorce had a far greater financial impact than our era, when mothers have been protected by laws entitling them to equal assets or at least a livable income. When our grandparents divorced, a woman was very likely to end up without any financial support. So she, and her children, were much likelier to be raised in poverty. And poverty perpetuates, so the grandchildren today have higher odds of divorce. It's the lack of money, not the divorce, that trickles down generations.

In the same way, reasonable explanations fit the other data better than this pop theory.

For instance, second marriages are more likely to end in divorce than first marriages. But this is often overstated. For a middle-class family, a second marriage has only 3% increase in the odds of divorce. That's fairly small. And sociologists who've looked at the data a lot longer than I have believe the reason for that 3% higher rate has nothing to do with divorce being "wired" into a person. It's that people on their second marriage have shopped for a spouse in a smaller pond. They've had less choices from which to find a good fit. Second marriages tend to be less homogamous - the couple are not as similar to each other as an average first marriage. This factor alone easily explains the tiny 3% increase in risk.

Now for when your parents have divorced. This is not a small factor. If your parents divorced before you were 17, you have a 14% increase in the chances of divorce.

Let's look within that number, in several ways.

First, this impact is larger on daughters than on sons.

Second, consider the style of communication around that divorce. This really matters.

Before the parents divorced, was their conflict loud and visible to the children? Or was their conflict kept hushed behind closed doors? Of those two styles – called High Conflict and Low Conflict – the Low Conflict dissolution is worse for the children, in terms of their odds of successful future marriage. Those are the kids who, when they grow up, tend to have the divorces.

Kids who grew up in a house filled with yelling before their parents divorce, aren't really divorcing more than those who grew up with two married parents. But those whose parents acted like everything was all right until one night at the dinner table, when they suddenly announced their divorce -- those kids don't trust their relationships. Constantly believing that their worlds may turn upside down at any moment, they're the ones who divorce at a higher rate.

Divorce in a child's life should not be taken out of context. Divorce is just one of many possible stressors on a child. Sociologists have done studies on children who have significant stress events in their childhood, and they all tend to get divorced more often when they grow up. Divorce is not more or less important than these other stressors. We shouldn't treat divorce as significantly more relevant, or as our only focus.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm finding this whole discussion incredibly fascinating. It all makes sense, in strange ways. I've been married for 18 years, with no divorce on the hirozon, and kind of wondering how we got so lucky.

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a friend. He grew up in a mixed-race family of artist parents who argued often (mainly creative differences) but have stayed together for 25 years. His girlfriend grew up in a single-race family where following a fight, one parent walked out for 6m and did this often. Now when these youngsters fight, the girl thinks he will leave her whereas he knows a fight isn't the end of the world. Fascinating I think.. But in the long run, would be worth watching.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting article!!!! thanks. I've been married for 12 yrs. In fact today is my wedding anniversary. And i'm not celebrating....just like the years before. we don't have children and for many years, i've been neglected emotionally and financially. He comes home every night...weven though at times i don't even know what time. End of last year, i decided to move out. i stayed out for a month. i'm back with him now for 6 months but god!!! i'm miserable. My grandparents were married till they death did them apart. My parents were the same. But in my mind now....that's all i'm craving for. I don't love him anymore. Do you think it's because of my surroundingS? i have many friends who have gone through divorce. need your opinion.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

I'm averse to give advice in this setting, and not knowing much about you, but a few things generally apply:

1. all couples should try mediation and counseling and get professional help, even if it doesnt save a marriage it clarifies issues and sometimes, in the event of a divorce, helps both sides aprt more amicably.

2. you don't have kids together, so there are fewer people being hurt here if you do divorce.

3. often divorce does lead to a better life, but one always has to watch out that these patterns and choices aren't repeated in subsequent relationships and marriages.

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just discovered this site and find it intriguing that many men said they had no idea what went wrong or why the divorce even occured. My experience as a fifty year old woman is that it is the women who are most often saying this. There is not much mention of The Mid-life Crisis as a reason for divorce. I have been trying with no success to find stats as to the number of men who leave wives for younger women vs. the number of women who leave marraige for ouside affairs. I am guessing the former is way more common?

4:00 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

We don't have that number either. And without having seen any numbers, I'm just not sure I personally would speculate. In my own personal research, which was not statistical in any way, (where we interviewed hundreds of families about their challenges), we did interview about 30 couples who were dealing with one spouses's infidelity. Many times that was the husband; many times it was the wife. It had no numerical relevance, but it did convince me that either gender can get into an affair, and it would be wrong to focus on just one gender. So in WDILTP, my book, there are three couples dealing with infidelity. In 2 of those cases, it was the husband who cheated - but in very different ways. One fell in love, and thought he'd met his soulmate outside marriage. The other guy did it just for fun, for the release, to know he still had his mojo. In the third story, the wife has the affair, and she tries to argue her needs were mostly sexual, those of course she recognizes there's far more to it than that.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My boyfriend and I are seriously contemplating marriage - we've been together for many years and know each other well. We are very much in love and supportive of one another.

I was raised in a low-conflict environment. I thought everything with my parents was just great, and then, one day (I was 19), I got the call. My world collapsed, and I was a basketcase for several years - went on a wild streak with the wildest guy I could find (before I met my boyfriend).

My boyfriend, on the other hand, grew up in a household in which his parents stayed together, but fought like cats and dogs, poisoned the home, and remain together. They have been emotionally divorced for years, but they still live together, making each other miserable - obvious infidelity, biting sarcasm, open hostility and competition. My boyfriend's brother doesn't even like to take his kids there for fear of exposing them to it.

I identify with this article - I definitely have fears of abandonment - I know how things can change , seemingly overnight. My boyfriend and I never had a clear example of a healthy relationship, so we've had to create this on our own (why we've waited so long to consider marriage).

Now we're ready - this article makes me think more about why we've waited so long. We both evolved from our "broken homes" in different ways. I knew right away that I wanted to marry him but harbored fear of being abandoned. He took more time to come to this conclusion, but is incredibly steadfast now that he's here. We both have to work hard to deal with conflict - we're both prone to low conflict and realize that we have to make time to talk about what is difficult or feels taboo.

7:15 AM  
Blogger kksmom said...

I am 25 years old and a mother of two girls, 8 years and 22 months. I have been married to my current husband for 2 1/2 years. My 8 yr old is from a previous marriage. My firstr husband has no contact with her because he promised my current husband he would leave us alone. For about 6 months his attitude towards me has completely changed. He is mean and it is his way or the highway. I am supposed to just shut up and listen to him. I cry alot! And have been on antidepressants and sleeping meds for anxiety now. I feel as if I am trying to make the relationship work on my own. He doesn't listen to me and then tries to force me to talk. I am on the verge of leaving but I keep hoping it will get better. Any advice please?!?

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a different take on this topic... the contributers on this blog seem very thoughtful, and I could use some feedback about my situation.

I have been living with my boyfriend for over 8 years. We met about 20 months after I broke up with my ex of eight years (infidelity...his). I was really over the old relationship when I met my current partner, and felt that I had spent enough time alone to be ready for my next great love when I met "R". He told me he was ready as well. Although his divorce was not final (infidelity...hers), his ex-wife had moved 1500 miles away (with his 2 kids). We fell for each other, he asked me to move in, and after waiting six more more months to be REALLY sure) I did.

Then his ex got dumped by her boyfriend, came running back to the East Coast, and moved 10 minutes away from us. She was a constant fixture in our lives, to the point of showing up at the house unannounced, even opening the door with her old key, etc.

This never bothered "R", who continually insisted it was over, and wanted us to be "one big, happy family". Some people can do this easily, but I am not one of them. I adore the kids, but his ex drives me crazy. Part of this is that we are very different women, and yes, part is jealousy, as "R" says he does not want to get remarried. The ex has been less intrusive as the years have gone by, but is still his best friend, next to me. She has not remarried, and I recently found out that 18 months ago she told "R" that she regretted leaving the marriage. He says he does not want a reconciliatioon with her, but wants to continue the close friendship they have. He also states that he feels we will be together for the rest of outr lives, but refuses to talk about or consider marriage.

I have wanted to marry him for some time... he knows this is my preference, but I never pressured him, and have accepted his position, knowing that I cannot change it. I don't want to be the kind of partner who sets ultimatims, but see my true happiness as being in a JOYFUL committed marriage, not in a live-in partnership with memories of the previous relationship in the background. He is so sour on the institution of marriage, perhaps with good reason. I, on the other hand, having never been married, feel like I really need it. My quesion, after this lengthy context, is this.... in this world of many unhappy marriages, should someone leave a relationship that has more positives than negatives, based on the concept of their "ideal relationship"? Ours is not my ideal, but I really love this man, and know he loves me too. Are my expectations too high for him after his difficult divorce, or am I compromising too much of myself here? My friends and family absolutely adore this guy, with good reason. They would like to see us stay together, say the piece of paper doesn't matter that much, but they have all been married before.

I feel worn out by this situation, and would appreciate thoughts, feedback and/or suggestions.Thanks so much, and my best to all of you.

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's me again... I forgot something in my post. neither "R" or I have any divorces in our families for at least 4 generations. His divorce in 2000 is the only one we know of, except his younger brother, who divorced in 2005. This divorce was contentious at first, and is now amicable.

10:42 AM  

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