Students Picking Up Where Their Parents Left Off

A Personal Look at Whether Our Parents’ Failed Relationships Pre-determine the Future of Our Own


Published: November 17, 2010

Almost three years into the economic recession, experts have recently found that American marriages have stayed strong in spite of the financial conflict that has plagued thousands of families. Statistics tell us that instead of breaking down from financial tensions, couples have remained together in solidarity because of it.I found these findings hard to believe, I’ve experience the opposite in my family.The word “divorce” has always had a special taboo in my household. My parents have only recently declared that they are getting one, and my whole family—my mother, father, younger sister and I—has lived and continues to live together in the same house. But the prospects of my parents getting a divorce are deeply rooted in my family history, as I’ve watched their relationship erode for the last 12 years. The recession was just the final straw.

It is no secret that the US has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. Experts dispute over the specific figure, but divorce remains a major phenomenon in American families. Being raised in a broken family is a reality for a large population of young people, including myself.

Surprisingly, even though we as young adults often see divorce around us, it does not necessarily discourage us from getting married in the future. The institution of marriage remains an integral part of society, continuously molding with the needs and interests of each generation. But as we frequently see couples in the public eye, our communities and (for some of us) our own households going through divorce, I believe that watching these failed marriages influence the way we as young adults engage in casual relationships.

When people used to date, it was generally with the intent to marry, but our generation dates out of lust. Less concerned with building homes and starting families, we’ve extended the dating world to hook-up culture and friends-with-benefits. Keeping things casual means keeping things sexy, and now sex is no longer restricted to something committed, but temporary. Marriage is now something to put off until we’ve fully relished in our youth with travels around the world, late-night partying and one-night stands.  It’s understandable how we’ve gotten here: why should we invest time and effort into relationships when we see that they often don’t work out?

But with our parents’ divorces effecting how our generation pursues casual relationships, how do we avoid divorce ourselves? How are we supposed have successful, loving relationships when so many of us have never seen examples of it in their own homes growing up? Will the failed relationships many of our parents had shape us to the same fate?

I say that these failed relationships will only shape us in the way we let them. For children of divorce, we cannot be afraid to recognize that it has in some ways negatively affected us. But that doesn’t mean that we have to let our parent’s mistakes ruin our lives. There is something to be learned from those mistakes. It is unfortunate that many of us have watched our parents struggle and fail in their marriages as children, but at least it has made us more capable of identifying our parents’ errors.

In my case, I’ve mostly learned from my parents’ imbalance in financial responsibility. From the start of the marriage, one parent struggled with finances, relaying credit problems and debt to the other. After years of one partner expecting the other to assume all of their financial problems and responsibilities, their partner cracked under the pressure, and money ruined their relationship. The obvious lesson is that having our own financial dependence and security is important when settling down. But the more general lesson is that balance is key to a relationship. It wasn’t just a low credit score that ruined my parents’ relationship. It was the failure for both of them to work together as a couple to solve their problems. In all relationships, there has to be a shared exchange in order to be successful.

My answer to the problem is by no means fool-proof. After all, we are all imperfect people and we, like our parents, also make mistakes. We cannot completely avoid the problems that arise in relationships. But we can at least avoid entering a problematic relationship. For me, that has meant asking, “Is it mutual?” in pursuing something casual.

Now as a child of divorce, I admit that I have started my own love life picking up from the issues that my parents left behind. But I have hope for myself and for peers in my predicament, because I know we have the ability to use what we have learned from our parents’ mistakes to steer us in the right direction.