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 

Union Instability—All in the Family


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


Much research has already demonstrated that divorce seems to “run in the family.” That is, children of parents who split are more likely to do the same in their own relationships upon reaching adulthood. Continuing this discussion, Paul Amato and Sarah Patterson of Pennsylvania State University seek to extend this work further—by including the children of cohabiting couples, by examining the role of a number of other variables in mediating the effect of parents’ union dissolution on their offspring, and by examining how stable but highly contentious unions may also effect offspring’s later union stability. 

“Although the ITD [Intergenerational Transmission of Divorce] has been replicated frequently,” the authors begin, “it is less clear why union instability is correlated across generations.” They highlight a number of factors that may help explain this transmission: “poor relationship skills, nontraditional attitudes, risky life course choices, restricted educational attainment, emotional insecurity, and cumulative stress,” all of which can be learned or inherited from parents. Each of these, they say, is one possible “mechanism” through which parental union instability may work to increase the likelihood of offspring union instability. The authors emphasize that, “Today . . . marriage is declining, cohabitation has become the first union choice for the majority of young adults, and an increasing number of children are being born and raised within cohabiting unions.” Given that cohabiting relationships tend to be more unstable than marriages, the children of such relationships may be at a greater risk of union instability as well. 

To conduct their study, the researchers rely on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, assessing both parents’ reports of their union instability (from Wave I) and their children’s later reports of union instability (from Wave IV). After a number of data restrictions, the final sample size was 7,765 offspring. The researchers also measured a number of mediators, which included “emotional closeness to mothers and fathers, symptoms of depression, delinquency, school grades, being suspended or expelled from school, years of education, and the number of sexual partners.” Because their focus is on union instability, which includes entry into and exit from cohabitating relationships and marriages alike, the researchers lump together these family forms. On one hand, this makes sense, given the aim of the study; on the other, by treating marriages and cohabitations alike, the researchers may have obscured the differences between these two institutions in their effect upon offspring.

The results, nonetheless, are striking. The researchers report, “Less than half (43%) of offspring who grew up in stable families had experienced a union disruption. This figure increased to 49%, 58%, and 63% among offspring who had experienced 1, 2, or 3+ parent union disruptions, respectively.” In other words, “each increase in the number of parent disruptions was associated with a 19% increase in the count of offspring disruptions.” Their analysis also revealed that all of their mediating factors were, in fact, associated with increased likelihood of union disruptions, and thus appear “to be good candidates for explaining the link in instability across generations.” 

Interestingly, both the religiosity of parents and the number of siblings in the household “were negatively associated with instability”—that is, these factors had a protective effect. Religiosity, the researchers believe, makes sense, as many who regularly attend religious services also hold serious convictions concerning the sacredness of marriage. The finding that increased number of siblings is associated with decreased likelihood of union disruption, however, has the researchers a little flummoxed. “Although this finding does not have a precedent in the literature,” they remark, “it may be that family size is a proxy for parents having a strong family orientation or more traditional views about family life.” One might also wonder if more siblings means more emotional and social support for young adults, both preventing them from seeking that support in poor quality relationships and also providing counsel against poor relationship decisions.

Interestingly, the researchers also find that the quality of parental union matters for young adults. Specifically, “living with parents in stable, high-discord unions appeared to increase offspring union disruptions by 22%, relative to living with parents in stable, low-discord unions.”

The researchers summarize, “Our multinomial analysis demonstrated that youth from unstable families tended to form unstable unions, whereas youth from stable families tended to form either stable unions or no unions at all in early adulthood.” And although they lump together the children of marriages and cohabiting unions alike in most of their numbers, without differentiation, the researchers do include in their closing one interesting difference: “Of all respondents [offspring] who had ever married, 20% already had divorced. And of all respondents who had cohabited but not married, 52% had split up.” Research has long demonstrated that cohabitation is a much less stable family form than marriage, and it would have been interesting to see if the 52% who split up had married parents who divorced, or cohabiting parents who split.

(Paul R. Amato and Sarah Patterson, “The Intergenerational Transmission of Union Instability in Early Adulthood,” Journal of Marriage and Family 79.3 [2017]: 723-38.)