The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Blame Mom for Union Instability

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

“Stable romantic unions, including marriage and cohabitation,” open a team of American researchers, “are linked to better mental and physical health for both adults and children.” But today more than ever before, maintaining such stable unions seems near-impossible: Half of first cohabiting unions break up within three years, and half of first marriages within twenty years. Given the negative impact of such union dissolution, the researchers seek to better understand why such break-ups occur. Specifically, they ask, is union instability intergenerational? Do kids “pick it up” from parents?

Given the well-established fact that children of divorce tend to divorce at greater rates themselves, the researchers suspect that children of union instability tend to experience a greater number of partners over the life course than do children of stable unions. This transmission may occur through a number of mechanisms, and the team of researchers highlight three “perspectives” that may shed light on the question. First is the “economic hardship perspective,” which “argues that the family financial difficulties experienced by young adults who experienced their mothers’ repartnering is primarily responsible for the negative outcomes that these young adults experience, namely their own proclivity to partner multiple times.” A second perspective is the “intergenerational transmission of marriageable characteristics and relationship skills”—some people are better suited for the task of union stability than others, and may pass those characteristics down to their children. Third is the “intergenerational transmission of commitment,” which posits that children who see their parents break up learn that breaking a commitment and repartnering is an acceptable decision.

The researchers glean their data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 Child and Young Adult (NLSY79 CYA), both longitudinal and broad in scope. Maternal total partners and offspring total partners were both measured, with a number of controls (maternal race/ethnicity, employment, education, etc.). 

The researchers found that, without a doubt, “mothers who had more partners had offspring with significantly more partners. . . . After controlling for socioeconomic factors, each additional maternal partner predicted a 5% incident rate increase in offspring partners.” Regarding the mechanism through which this occurred, the researchers note that the “economic hardship perspective” did bear some weight, as “[o]ffspring who had more exposure to poverty reported significantly more partners whereas offspring who had mothers with more education reported fewer.”  “Interestingly,” the researchers note, “offspring whose mothers worked full-time actually reported more partners than those whose mothers did not work.” (They speculate that this is due to a “lack of policy supports” for working mothers in the U.S., thus potentially increasing the likelihood of marital conflict and union break-up.) 

The strongest support, however, went to the “intergenerational transmission of marriageable characteristics and relationships skills perspective” as a mechanism for explaining the intergenerational nature of union instability. “This perspective suggests that mothers have certain characteristics that make them more or less desirable on the marriage market and better or worse at relationships, and children inherit and learn these skills and behaviors which they then take with them into their own intimate relationships.”

In closing, the researchers list a number of limitations, perhaps most interesting of which is that their data set, by way of its structure, actually undercounts union transitions. So the effect of union instability may be even greater than this study understands. The researchers suggest that in a period wherein intimate relationships are held to an ever-higher standard as a means of obtaining lasting happiness, “strategies to improve relationship skills may be of greater importance now than ever before because relationship expectations are so hard to meet.” 

Perhaps the high standards placed upon intimate relationships might be part of the problem. In the age of companionate marriage, when individuals marry primarily because they expect lifelong romantic bliss from a person (instead of economic, religious, or other reasons, such as a desire to raise a family together), they perhaps find that no relationship can live up to their unrealistic standards. 

(Claire M. Kemp Dush, Rachel Arocho, Sara Mernitz, and Kyle Bartholomew, “The intergenerational transmission of partnering,” PLoS ONE 13.11 [November 2018]: e0205732, Web.)