Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parental Divorce and Premarital Couples: Commitment and Other Relationship Characteristics

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parental Divorce and Premarital Couples: Commitment and Other Relationship Characteristics

Article excerpt

Parental divorce is thought to affect the romantic relationships of young adults, especially with respect to their certainly about the relationship and perceptions of problems in it. We examined these connections with a random sample of 464 coupled partners. Compared with women from intact families, women from divorced families reported less trust and satisfaction, but more ambivalence and conflict. For men, perceptions of relationships were contingent on the marital status of their partners' parents, although men from intact and divorced families did differ on structural constraints that offect commitment. Young adults who were casually dating showed the strongest effects of parental divorce, suggesting that the repercussions of parental divorce may be in place before the young adults form their own romantic relationships.

Key Words: divorced families, intact families, intergener ational transmission of divorce, young adults.

The experience of parental divorce ricochets through multiple domains of children's lives, including economic, psychological, academic, and personal arenas (see Seltzer, 1994). In this study, we concentrated on whether the experience of parental divorce relates to the heterosexual premarital relationships of young adults. Studies indicating an intergenerational transmission of divorce (Greenberg & Nay, 1982; McLanahan & Bumpass, 1988; Mueller & Pope, 1977) underscore the gravity of this topic. If continuity exists between premarital and marital relationships as has been suggested (e. g., Markman, 1981), then by studying the romantic relationships of children of divorce, we may identify the early roots of relationship breakdown.

Various factors may contribute to the link between divorce from one generation to the next. Compared with children from intact families, children of divorce marry earlier (McLanahan & Bumpass, 1988), cohabit more often (Thornton, 1991), are less educated (Mueller & Pope, 1977), hold more lenient attitudes toward divorce (Amato, 1988; Amato & Booth, 1991; Greenberg & Nay, 1982), and report more problematic interpersonal behaviors (Amato, 1996). Amato (1996) studied all of these variables and found that interpersonal behavior problems (e.g., anger, jealousy, or infidelity) were the most significant predictors of the intergenerational transmission of divorce. He suggested that interpersonal problems might develop in children if divorcing parents model poor interpersonal styles. Such problems may extend to children's own dating relationships. In this study, we compared young adults from divorced and intact families on a set of qualities that are central to the health of relationships.


In this section, we describe the relationship characteristics most apt to be affected by parental divorce, namely, trust, love, conflict, ambivalence about involvement, commitment, and satisfaction, and how these characteristics may vary by gender and depth of the relationship.


Trust is the perception that one's partner is benevolent and honest (Larzelere & Huston, 1980). As intimacy with the partner increases, trust enables one to feel comfortable with the risks of closeness (Holmes, 1991). Young adults who perceive parental divorce as a breach of trust may be cautious about trusting their dating partners. Uncertainty about the permanence of relationships, coupled with fears of abandonment (Lauer & Lauer, 1991; Wallerstein, 1985; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989), could erode trust as a relationship deepens. Previous studies have found that unmarried college students from divorced and intact families did not differ in their trust of their current romantic partners, but those from divorced families were less optimistic about their ability to trust a future spouse (Franklin, Janoff-Bulman, & Roberts, 1990). We hypothesize, therefore, that young adults from divorced families, particularly those at advanced stages of involvement in dating relationships, will have less trust in their partners than young adults from intact families. …

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