Intergenerational Transmission of Marital Quality and Marital Instability

Article excerpt

We used longitudinal data involving parents and children to investigate the intergenerational transmission of marital quality and instability and the effects of parental divorce on children's marital quality. Results indicated that parental divorce increased daughters' likelihood of divorce, that some life course factors mediate the intergenerational transmission of divorce, that parental divorce had little impact on children's marital quality, and that the transmission of marital quality is moderated by parent and child gender. We discussed possible mechanisms for the intergenerational transmissions of marital instability and marital quality.

Key Words: divorce, intergenerational transmission, marital quality, marital satisfaction.

Literature consistently shows that parental divorce increases the likelihood of adult children's divorce (Amato, 1996; Bumpass, Martin, & Sweet, 1991; Glenn & Kramer, 1987; Greenburg & Nay, 1982; Keith & Finlay, 1988; McLanahan & Bumpass, 1988; Mueller & Pope, 1977). This intergenerational transmission of divorce appears to be more pronounced for women than for men. Further, adult children from divorced families have been found to be more likely than adult children from nondivorced families to perceive that their marriage is unstable, independent of their marital happiness (Webster, Orbuch, & House, 1995).

The underlying mechanisms of the intergenerational transmission of divorce are far from clear, although family history has been linked to a variety of determinants of divorce. Several factors have been proposed as explanatory (or mediating) variables for the transmission of divorce. These factors can be divided into four broad categories: (a) demographic and life course factors (e.g., education, income, and age at first marriage), (b) factors exogenous to the marriage (e.g., family and social support systems, alternatives to marriage, and barriers to divorce), (c) factors endogenous to the marriage (e.g., marital happiness and satisfaction, marital interaction, and marital conflicts and problems), and (d) individual values and attitudes (e.g., attitudes toward divorce and expectations of marriage). Some argue that children from divorced families and children from nondivorced families differ in these factors and that differences associated with parental divorce lead to a greater likelihood that children of divorced parents will experience the dissolution of their own marriages. These categories of explanations are not mutually exclusive. For instance, socioeconomic status, which is passed from one generation to the next, has been linked to marital satisfaction and marital conflict (Conger et al., 1990; McAllister, 1986). We discuss the theoretical basis and empirical evidence for the first three explanations. The forth explanation (individual values and attitudes) for the intergenerational transmission of divorce was not tested in this study due to lack of data on participants' attitudes toward divorce.

Assessment of the mediating roles of the proposed factors requires longitudinal studies that yield direct measures of the potential explanatory mechanisms. However, most previous research is cross-sectional and provides only retrospective data on marital history. Cross-sectional data limit the researcher's ability to investigate questions such as whether the intergenerational transmission of divorce is accompanied by a transmission of marital quality across generations. In this study, we examined the long-term effects of parental divorce on children's marital quality and marital instability, and we tested several of the explanations proposed for the intergenerational transmission of divorce. Furthermore, we directly investigated the question of the intergenerational transmission of marital quality by using longitudinal data involving both generations-parent and child.


One explanation of the intergenerational transmission of divorce focuses on demographic and life course factors associated with or resulting from parental divorce. …