When I was a newlywed, my grandparents’ marriage ended. It ended not with divorce papers, but with my grandfather’s funeral. My grandparents’ marriage was fairly typical of their generation. They married young, stayed together for 60-plus years, and were parted by death. Their marriage had distinct stages: newlyweds, children, job changes, new cities, empty nests, retirement, and grandchildren. Each stage brought unique joys and challenges to their relationship. Despite their difficulties, they were a model of how to be dedicated to each other for better or worse, in sickness and health, and in poverty and plenty. As the silent generation passes away, we lose more than loved ones: we lose models of lifelong marriage.
Marriages like my grandparents’ are increasingly rare. Between 1990 and 2010, the divorce rate doubled for people over the age of 50—and it’s expected to increase further, since remarriages have a high chance of ending in divorce as well.
Should we really worry if couples are divorcing in old age? After all, it has long been postulated that divorcing after one’s children are grown would be less disruptive to them. Indeed, the English political philosopher John Locke argued more than three centuries ago that divorce is permissible once parents have completed the task of childrearing. By this reasoning, the breakup would not harm children, because they are already out of the home.
The theory may sound plausible, but parental divorce can feel just as devastating to adults as to kids, according to adults’ first-hand accounts. Researchers have found that parental divorce during young adulthood “exacerbate[s] the normal stresses” of that period, such as heading to college and moving out of one’s childhood home, and damages the quality of relationships between parents and kids. Rather than shielding their children from the details of the divorce, as they would if their kids were young, parents rely on their grown children as confidants and caretakers and attempt to make them choose sides in the dispute. For the sons and daughters, the divorce prompts a kind of identity crisis. They question their childhood, their previous perceptions of their parents, and even the happy memories captured in family photos. In some cases, parents’ divorce is more disruptive to adult children than a parent’s death.
Parental divorce can feel just as devastating to adults as to kids.
Parental divorce burdens children’s own future marriages. For good or for ill, kids learn relationship skills and form ideas about commitment from observing their parents’ relationship. One study revealed a link between parents’ marital discord and their offspring’s marital discord: when parents reported marital conflict and instability, years later their children also experienced conflict and instability in their own marriages. Some scholars describe divorce as “contagious” within familial and social networks. In fact, one study found that the divorce of a close friend or relative dramatically increased the likelihood of a person’s own marriage ending: study participants “were 75% more likely to become divorced if a friend [or family member] is divorced and 33% more likely to end their marriage if a friend of a friend is divorced.”
To be sure, some divorces are necessary. Nicholas Wolfinger, author of Understanding the Divorce Cycle, considers it “good news that people are less likely to stay in high-conflict marriages than they used to.” Yet not all divorces are the result of high-conflict marriages. Divorce in “a low-conflict marriage may hurt children as much as staying in a high-conflict family,” Wolfinger explains. In fact, “the odds of divorce transmission are actually highest if parents dissolve a marriage after little or no conflict.”
The generations who grew up after the divorce revolution have taken to heart the conventional (albeit inaccurate) wisdom that half of marriages end in divorce. My generation—the millennials—has reshaped our romantic patterns in part to avoid divorce. We seek to establish our independence before entering marriage. We wait longer to tie the knot. Financial stability is a prerequisite for marriage, not an outcome of it. Cohabitation serves as a trial marriage. Finally, marriage no longer signals one’s entrance into adulthood, but is the last benchmark to confirm one’s adulthood. These efforts have a mixed record of success in reducing likelihood of divorce.
While we should learn from negative examples of divorced couples, we also should remember the positive models of lasting marriages. When my grandfather passed away, I saw my grandmother and their marriage from a new perspective. My newlywed fervor for my husband was nothing compared to her decades of devotion. In the six-year interim between my grandfather’s passing and her passing, my grandmother was lost—incomplete—without him. Their marriage was a model of lifelong commitment—a model that I would not have had if they had gotten divorced.
Julia Shaw is a writer and graduate student in political theory.