Susanna Taylor was 18 when her parents divorced. She is now in her mid-50s, but the pain of that day is as acute as it was 35 years ago. "I remember my mother standing there saying she and Daddy just didn't get on any more and that it would be better if they divorced. It didn't make sense at all because I'd no idea anything was wrong. They bickered a bit but they still slept in the same room. We went out together as a family regularly. I wanted to understand what had gone wrong but my mother just said they had fallen out of love."
Taylor experienced what Professor Paul Amato of Pennsylvania State University refers to in his study of inter-generational divorce, The Transmission of Marital Instability Across Generations: Relationship Skills or Commitment to Marriage?, as a "low-conflict" divorce - the sort where there is little or no manifestation of trouble in the marriage. Earlier this month, at a London conference organised by the relationships research organisation One Plus One, he revealed the profound damage a "quiet" divorce can have on children's ability to trust, love and make lasting marriages themselves.
Professor Amato's study involved 20 years of research and interviews with 2,000 adults and almost 700 of their adult children. The most startling finding was that children of "low-conflict" divorces are four times more likely to divorce than children who have seen their parents separate after a hostile and very possibly abusive or violent relationship.
"Where there had been very little overt discord - no problems the children could identify, no hostility and often not even much tension - the children assumed all was well in their homes. Then one day their parents split up or dad has moved out when they get back from school. It is inexplicable. They realise the world they believed in was a facade. They feel betrayed and unable to trust anyone. Many of these children felt they had had their childhoods snatched away from them, and any happy memories of being a child ended at this time. They learn that love is here today, gone tomorrow and that commitment to marriage has no meaning."
Taylor believes that the relationship patterns she followed in later life were those established by her parents. She went into marriage wanting love, but with a deep-rooted belief that marriage and love were not to be trusted. "I wanted to re-create a proper family life so badly, but I remember very early on seeking out problems. I was more or less waiting for signs that the marriage was going wrong. That put a huge strain on the relationship. We divorced when our two children were fairly young. It was devastating. I relived the pain of my parents' break-up and I put my children through the very same experience that had so affected me."
The study also confirms that children living with high-conflict marriages are very unhappy while they are in the middle of it and during the divorce itself. However, in the aftermath, they can often see that divorce was for the best. Importantly, when these children become adults they seem able to accept that marriage can work. Just 4 per cent of their marriages ended in divorce, compared with 15 per cent of "low-conflict" children's marriages.
"Often they could see clearly what went wrong between their parents and decided to do things differently," says Professor Amato. "They believed it was possible to have a different sort of relationship and make it work."
The low-conflict marriages did not usually end because of entrenched discontent. More than half (60 per cent) of those interviewed said their happiness levels in the marriage were "average". …