Are marriages like dominoes? National demographic studies have shown for years that as young adults, children of divorce marry less and divorce more than their counterparts raised in intact families. But what if they are already married when the older parents' marriage fails? Does that threaten the young people's marriage? Or does it perhaps strengthen their resolve not to divorce and encourage them to work harder on differences? In the wake of last week's announcement that Chris Martin's parents have split after three decades of marriage, what's in the cards for he and Gwyneth Paltrow? Will their marriage come apart as well? Let's take a look at what we know.
While there are no national statistics on the effect of divorce on grown kids' own marriages, we do know that, in the early years of their own marriage, young adults are especially aware of their parents' marriages, which they look to as models to be followed or avoided. Young couples are reassured and encouraged when their parents are in a stable, contented relationship. As one young married woman expressed to me, "Whenever John and I run into a bad patch in our marriage, I tell him, " Look, if my folks can do it, so can we".
When older parents divorce, the younger couple is often shocked, and worried about one or both parents and about the future of their own relationship. Sometimes, of course, a young adult who grew up in a wretched marriage welcomes the divorce that she had long hoped would happen. But typically, the parents' unexpected divorce rocks the young adults' sense of a reasonably stable world. It's as if their parents' experience is a frightening omen of their own future. It is also startling and painful for the adult son or daughter to witness the profound upset of an older parent and to hear about a history of unhappiness in a relationship that had seemed, on the surface, satisfactory and enduring.
Additionally, adult children are the obvious confidantes for their parents. Often one or both of the older parents turn to the adult child to support their divorce decision, for solace, to sustain them during the crisis, for a temporary home or for financial help. Often, despite misgivings, the son or daughter feels compelled to become an advocate for one parent versus the other, and becomes emotionally involved in the rights and wrongs of the quarrel.
Disputes about the family home often become the central symbol of the disrupting marriage. For the young person, the possible loss of the family home, which held precious childhood memories, can trigger deep sorrow. Tensions can run high and can surely spill into the kids' marriages, with the result being short tempers, withdrawal and even drinking.
So how does all this turmoil affect the young couple's marriage? It depends. It may rock it for a brief spell as feelings run high and as the son or daughter of the divorcing parents turns to his or her partner for tolerance and understanding. If the partner is able to provide generous support, the crisis will resolve more quickly and the marriage will be enhanced by the greater closeness that results. But unless the child's marriage is on it the rocks already, the older parents' divorce is unlikely to break it. Witnessing the sorrow of the dissolution of the parents long marriage and coming through the family crisis together may, in fact, strengthen their own union and their confidence in their ability to weather any future storms. Let's hope this is the happy outcome for Chris and Gwyneth, and that they emerge from this undoubtedly rocky period unscathed.
For a fuller picture of marriage consult Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee's The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts.
For recent demographics on marriage and divorce, consult Andrew J. Cherlin's The Marriage- Go- Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today.