What to Teach Kids About Marriage

We can prepare people to do marriage well.
By Julie Baumgardner
September 11, 2017

In a Wall Street Journal article called The Divorce Generation, Susan Gregory Thomas tells the story of her marriage. She met a guy, and they fell in love. Then, they moved in together. His parents warned them that being roommates and pals was totally different than being husband and wife, but they paid no attention. Instead, she and her boyfriend opposed their parents’ advice. They thought it was old-fashioned and sexist.

“Like many of my cohort, the circumstances of my upbringing led me to believe that I had made exactly the right choices by doing everything differently from my parents,” says Thomas.

Thomas thought her marriage would last forever. But nine years later, she found herself in the midst of an unwanted divorce.

A Generation of Divorce

“Gen X children witnessed the beginning of a divorce epidemic. This led to a divorce culture, which led to the conclusion that marriage can be a source of pain and loss,” says Dr. John Van Epp, clinical counselor and author. “These failed relationships convinced people to believe that relationships are good, but relationship definition is risky.”

According to a 2004 study by Generational Differences, Gen Xers were one of the least-parented and least-nurtured generations in U.S. history. Census data shows that almost half of them come from broken homes and that 40 percent were latchkey kids.

In the Journal of Sociology, Kate Hughes states, “Adult children of divorced parents’ failed marriages and broken families brought a fragility that led to risk-diminishing strategies.”

“Many parents sent messages to their children like, ‘Don’t marry young. Establish yourself first. Be sure. Be REALLY sure. The goal is to minimize your risks,’” Van Epp says. “Consequently, Gen Xers took the messages of apprehension a step further to avoidance. Can we form relationships without defining what they really are?”

Family Structure Matters

Van Epp believes it’s a myth that a lack of structure in a relationship is safe. Compared to children living with their own married parents, children 12-17 living with cohabitors are:

  • Six times more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral problems,
  • 122 percent more likely to be expelled from school, and
  • 90 percent more likely to have a lower GPA.

Additionally, the rates of serious abuse are:

  • Lowest in intact families,
  • Six times higher in stepfamilies,
  • 14 times higher in always single-mother families,
  • 20 times higher in a biological cohabiting family, and
  • 33 times higher when the mother is cohabiting with a boyfriend who is not the biological father.

“Structure gives a framework to the relationship and defines the roles,” Van Epp says.

“People don’t understand that relationship dynamics without relationship structure increases their risk for experiencing exactly what they want to avoid in relationships. Whether married, single or divorced, you can teach your children about dating, partner selection and how to build healthy relationships that don’t create risks.”

The answer is not to avoid marriage but to teach kids about how to do it well. This begins when parents build their child’s confidence (not apprehension and avoidance) about how to successfully navigate romantic relationships and establish a secure and lasting marriage.

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