America’s divorce rate did a surprising thing over the last decade: it fell. More surprising was that the fall was led by millennials, a generation that should, according to a preponderance of social science data, be extra prone to divorce.
For years, many prominent researchers contended that divorce was passed from generation to generation as though it was a family heirloom or freckles. Until her 2012 death, psychologist Judith Wallerstein, aka “the godmother of the backlash against divorce,” contended that divorce exacts a psychological toll on children, including “sleeper effects” that doom adult relationships.
Respected sociologists, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Paul Amato, devoted papers to what they termed the “intergenerational transmission of divorce” and “the divorce cycle.” Data backed up the idea that parents who split had kids who split as well. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that children of divorce were about twice as likely to experience divorce themselves. Further research found that children of divorce lacked relationship coping skills which, coupled with a deep-seated belief that relationships are inherently impermanent, makes their marriages critically vulnerable to divorce.
With the divorce rate transmitting across generations, it’d be reasonable to expect Gen Xers and millennials to maintain the baby boomers’ rate of divorce. That isn’t the case. Millennials, by all accounts, seem to view marriage as a bastion of stability in an increasingly unstable world. They don’t disapprove of divorce but they’re hedging their bets to create marriages that will last by marrying later and being more discerning about the worthiness of those they’re marrying.
It’s hard to deny that parents’ divorce impacts their children’s views on and behavior in their marriages. But if millennials have, as a generation, built their marriages with safeguards against divorce, the way kids process parental divorces is perhaps more complex than previously understood.
After helping men cope with divorce for 40 years, author and therapist Jed Diamond broadly categorizes how children react to divorce in two ways: it’s something that wounds them or something they learn from. “And,” he says, “they’re not mutually exclusive, so they can be both.”
Divorce can cause profound emotional distress for kids. Left unattended, that distress could carry into adulthood and harm adult relationships. If reflected upon and learned from, however, it can motivate and teach them to foster healthy relationships with their spouses and their kids.
“You can come out of a loss either passing on your suffering to the next generation or create a world where fathers were more engaged with their children,” Diamond said.
Diamond’s broad categories of divorce reactions contain almost infinite variations. As he said, they’re not mutually exclusive. People may simultaneously hurt and learn from their parents’ breakup — humans are all works in progress, after all.
That complexity was present in the accounts of the millennial and Gen X children of divorce interviewed for this story. Each said their parents’ split affected their own relationships and marriages. How it did varied widely. For some, their parents’ divorce made them wary of commitment and doubtful that relationships could last — at least for a time. Others viewed their parents’ split as a cautionary tale to be mined for lessons about intimacy and communication.
1. The “Cold-Hearted Bastard” Who Learned to Back Down
When Patrick, a father of one from Alabama, was about to become a high school junior, his parents divorced after a couple of real bad years of marriage. His father was plagued by mental health issues and Patrick took on a protector role for his younger siblings. With his home free of that threat once the divorce was through, he was relieved to be able to do what he called “normal teenager stuff.”
Normal teenager stuff included dating. After seeing his parents protracted split, Patrick found himself reaching for the ripcord whenever relationship troubles appeared.
“I was a cold-hearted bastard when I decided to break up with a girl,” he said. “And it was almost me that did the breaking up. Basically, I promised myself that if I ever started thinking about breaking up, I just did it instead of thinking about it too much. I surprised more than one girl with that tactic. But I figured there was no good to be had by wasting anyone’s time.”
Only one of his relationships survived their first fight. “My wife is the only girlfriend that I ever fought with and didn’t break up with,” he said.
After years of ghosting from relationship conflicts, Patrick now follows self-prescribed guidelines to resolve them.
“We don’t leave the house or go to bed angry if I can help it,” he said. “Even if it means I must concede more than I think I should. It’s usually stupid shit anyway, so we should be able to get over it as quick as we got angry about it too.”
After watching his parents’ divorce, Patrick is also sensitive to how much conflict his daughter witnesses.
“My wife and I try not to let our daughter see us fight,” he said. “We’re horrible at keeping it hidden, but we would really like this to be something we could do. Both of our parents fought a lot, but her parents are still together. I guess there were times though where that wasn’t such a sure thing though. And kids can feel the fragility in a relationship, even if they couldn’t tell what it is they’re feeling. So, we try to just make sure that if she sees us fight, she also sees us make up.”
2. The Woman Who Wanted to Know Where Her Shoes Are
When Jen’s parents divorced when she was seven, the present day mom of two processed the practical implications of the split first. “I think mostly I experienced it as a kind of a change in my routine,” she said. “Like, now mommy and daddy don’t live together though. Now you’re going to commute between apartments.”
At first, she felt like the only kid in New York City with divorced parents. That changed, however, as she got older.
““There weren’t a lot of us who had divorced parents and then between ‘83 and the beginning of high school, It felt like everybody’s parents had gotten divorced.”
Jen found it easy to bond with fellow children of divorce. Like her, they had sprawling networks of step-relatives and had to split their holidays between families. It all came without the need to talk about it out loud. They understood each other, she says, on a “cellular level.”
“And so the impact of my romantic life as a high school student was negligible because it felt like everybody I went out with has divorced parents or were very familiar with what it meant to have divorced parents,” she said.
That wasn’t true of the man she’d marry, however. His parents never split. But after they’d dated for some time, both Jen and her now-husband were both sure they had a future together. When it came time to move in together, Jen framed the cohabitation conversation with a joking reference to her childhood of shuttling between parents
“I’m a child of divorce,” she said. “I grew up like seemingly living out of a bag, going back and forth. I said, ‘I can’t live my adult life out of the bag. I want to know where my shoes are when I wake up in the morning.’”
3. The Man Who’s Learning How to Argue
Eric, a father of one living in Brooklyn, wasn’t surprised when his parents divorced while he was in college. “They’d always been always pretty argumentative and stuff like that,” he said. “For the last, like, five, six years before [they split], they were always arguing all the time.” Eric and his brother were relieved to hear their parents were splitting up. After their years of fighting, they understood their parents weren’t good for each other anymore.
And while he was acutely aware that his parents didn’t have a healthy marriage, he found himself communicating with his wife the way he saw his parents communicate with each other.
“It’s funny because it’s only much later that you realize how much the way your parents interact with you forms your relationship,” he said. “Like, I’m only really starting to come to terms with that being married now.”
Looking back on previous relationships, he realized he and his exes fed off of pushing each other’s buttons, something he’d seen his parents do countless time. Like his mother, he found himself often quick to find fault. Now that he’s married and a father, he’s aware of his behavior. And while he’s driven by life-long conditioning and habit to snipe, he’s learned to head off the impulse to argue.
“It’s good to catch that before it happens,” he said. “And I didn’t think my parents ever had that ability to catch it earlier.”
4. The Adult Daughter Shocked By Her Parents Late-Life Divorce
Mary’s parents ended their 36-year marriage shortly after her own marriage began. The grey divorce shocked her. She thought her parents had a happy marriage. In light of her parents’ divorce she found herself very conscious about her new marriage ending with similar abruptness.
“I remember having a conversation with my husband, shortly after my parents separated and being like, so I guess we’ve got 36 years before he decides to leave me,” she said. “I’m sort of kidding. But I was also sort of like, oh my God. Like it just never occurred to me that a marriage, could dissolve after after 36 years.”
Her behavior didn’t change but her thoughts on marriage became very different. Her marriage was very new and she was hoping it’d last. With her parents’ late in the game surprise split, longevity didn’t seem like something she could take for granted. Moreover, she realized that a relationship’s longevity doesn’t equal permanence. It seemed like any marriage could end at any time.
“I made my husband promise over and over again that he wasn’t going to leave me when we were in our 60s,” she said, laughing. “I think that it was one of those things where you’re sort of, you’re kind joking, but only half joking.”
5. The Woman Who Studied Her Parents’ Divorce For What Not to Do
Sydney, a mom of two from Arkansas, was 17 when her parents divorced — old enough to understand why her parents’ marriage fell apart and who to blame.
“I was very angry with my dad,” she said. “He cheated for over half of my parents’ 20-year marriage. It felt like a betrayal to our entire family.”
Her anger at her father’s infidelity pushed her to be more serious about her own relationships. “I never dated casually,” she said. “It was almost always long-term relationships.”
After the hurt she felt when her parents split, Sydney studied her parents marriage. She wanted to understand why her mother and father’s failed in hopes that she wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes. Over the years, she came to realize their divorce stemmed from a lack of communication. Once she was married herself, she erred on the side of over-communicating.
Her parents’ divorce also hammered home the need for intimacy between spouses. After realizing her parents were never affectionate with each other, she set up personal benchmarks for intimacy in her marriage. “I also keep track of how frequently we have sex,” she said. “I have loose parameters for how often we should be having sex and make extra effort if we fall below my arbitrary guidelines.”