Spouse School: Finding Marriage Role Models

--Excerpted from The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce

Adults raised in intact families have been to "marriage school" alongside their academic learning. By the time they reach adulthood, they figure they're as prepared as they will ever be to build their own family. They have watched their parents carefully, observing them in many moods, in different settings at different times, in sickness and in health. They have seen them use humor in tense situations to tide them over and watched them read each other's moods and body language to distinguish a minor upset from an incoming storm. One colleague, Paul Amato from Pennsylvania State University, has proposed that the main difference between adults raised in intact families and those in divorce is that the latter lack social skills. But it's more than social skills. Those raised in an intact family understand the marriage's context. They know that to make a marriage work amid today's pressures, you have to keep it front and center in your mind at all times. Nobody wanted a marriage just like their parents. There are big generational differences. All of the men and women in the comparison group wanted a freer, more equal relationship than their parents had, even if it meant more arguments. They all expected that the wives would work, which made a huge difference in their roles and especially in their parenting. But the children raised in intact marriages used their parents' marriages as a model that they could shape to their liking. They did not doubt the very existence of a happy marriage, even if their parents failed to attain it. The lack of observations and memories of a working marriage is a serious handicap for children of divorce in learning to live closely with another person and striking the balance that both need. It's like becoming a dancer without ever having seen a dance.

Adults from intact families have two other advantages over those raised in divorced families. They had a sense of continuity with their families. They felt that they were part of an important tradition with a history that they had a responsibility to their parents and children to maintain this continuity. This sense of being part of a family tradition gave them a perspective that helped to stabilize their relationship and influenced their desire to have children.

They also had a realistic sense that marriages change over time. They did not expect their twenty-five-year-old brides to look and act the same at age thirty-five. They knew that having children would alter their lives. They were aware that the road ahead would be sometimes rocky and sometimes smooth. They didn't expect or even want serenity or perfection. They did expect that their relationship with each other would influence them as individuals. Finally, they were open to change from the day they embarked on marriage.

Gary surprised me when he explained that one of the many things that attracted him to Sara is that she's from a very close-knit family. I didn't expect that people would give a hoot about the marital status of the parents of the person they fall in love with. I was wrong. A number of people from intact families said that they took a good look at prospective in-laws before getting too involved. Some claimed that they could always tell on a date if their partner came from a divorced family-the women were edgy and too eager to please, the men confided their history too quickly. I doubt that this perception affects the numbers of people willing to marry children of divorce, and I don't know of any engagements broken because of it. Nevertheless, many young people admitted that the pedigree of coming from a happy intact family is reassuring. They boasted, "My husband comes from a large family with no divorce. He's got no demons." Their attitudes reflect the general anxiety in our society about the fragility of marriage and the fear that children of divorce may have less of a commitment to marriage.

I was impressed with the self-confidence of so many of those raised in harmonious intact families. Despite the high incidence of divorce among their friends and schoolmates, they said that they never doubted they'd marry a good person and have a stable life with children. This was not true of the adults like Gary who were raised in troubled marriages that stayed together. They came to marriage with serious concerns that they would repeat their parents' behavior along with a firm resolve to keep that from happening. Despite their passionate hope for a good marriage, children of divorce came with a much higher expectation of failure and only a sketchy sense of how one goes about protecting the relationship.

In contrast, like the other adults who did not want to emulate their parents' marriage, Gary had a clear agenda. One of the lessons he drew from watching his parents was that he wanted to have better communication in his own marriage. "That wasn't hard," he quipped, "because my parents hardly talked except about us kids. Communication isn't talking baseball or even children. It's solving problems. I had this notion that admitting to problems meant that you'd end up in a big, screaming fight feeling misunderstood and angry for days. But I've really learned from Sara that it doesn't have to be that way, that you can discuss your differences and actually have the tension get less, not bigger. That's been a huge relief to me."

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