It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves, but the impact of that separation on how children see relationships is somewhat staggering. As Nicholas H. Wolfinger writes for the Institute for Family Studies, recent research from Penn State sociologists Paul Amato and Sarah E. Patterson shows that “each parental breakup experienced while growing up increases the odds of dissolving a relationship by sixteen percent.” Essentially, children of a single divorce are sixteen percent more likely than children who grew up without seeing their parents split to either get a divorce or leave the person their living with, and that percentage increases by the same amount for each subsequent divorce witnessed. Wolfinger notes that it’s important to include not only divorces but also separations by couples living together outside of marriage because “cohabitation is especially common among people from divorced families, and adults who’ve already been married themselves.”
The same research shows, moreover, that growing up with unhappy parents who stuck it out no long has the same impact that it used to. Whereas such children were essentially on par with those kids that grew up in happy homes as of 2001, they are now twenty-two percent more likely to experience a divorce or separation themselves. It would seem that those who have seen a marriage fail, whether the parents separated or not, are less likely to want to try and make it work for themselves. Again, that’s not exactly a surprise, but that it’s been proven to be the case—and increasingly so—is telling.
The Bible speaks to this principle when the Lord warns in Exodus that he is a God who forgives “the iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). That truth is balanced, however, by his statement in Ezekiel that “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).
Essentially, what God describes in these passages is that he will not punish children for the sins of their fathers, but the consequences of that sin are often passed down to future generations. Each individual is responsible for allowing it to continue in their own lives, but the parent can make their child’s life a lot easier by passing down as little baggage as possible.
In the context of our present discussion, even if a parental divorce increases the likelihood of a child getting a divorce, the decision to do so remains with each person. The parents may share some of the blame, but the responsibility lies solely with the individual for perpetuating that cycle.
Fortunately, as Rick Warren artfully quipped, we serve a God who “specializes in giving people a fresh start.” By his grace, there will never be a sin we are doomed to commit or a cycle we cannot break. The history we receive from our parents can make that process more difficult, but nothing is too hard for the Lord.
So whether you are the product of a divorced home or have been divorced yourself, know that it’s never too late for God to redeem the sins we commit in order to bring about some measure of good. That he can, however, does not guarantee that he will in your life. He wants to, but if you want to experience that blessing, both for yourself and your family, then it must start with repentance and a genuine willingness to obey when he tells you what needs to happen next in order for you to play your part. Rest assured, though, that just as the curse of a previous generation’s sin is often passed down, so too can the blessings when that cycle of sin is finally broken. Which will you be responsible for sending on? The blessing or the curse?