Strained relationships between parents and daughters can bring couples to a breaking point, research suggests. The good news is that it only lasts through the teenage years.
A new study of more than two million marriages in the Netherlands over 10 years shows that divorce risks increase with children’s ages until they reach adulthood—with parents of teenage daughters at slightly greater risk. However, the risk disappears if the father grew up with a sister.
Previous research examined the link between marital strains and children’s gender, but it’s always been a challenging area. Several studies in the United States have found that parents with first-born girls are slightly more likely to divorce than parents with first-born boys.
However, other US studies have challenged this finding, and until now, there was no evidence from other developed countries showing the effect daughters have on parents’ marriages.
David Ribar and Jan Kabatek, researchers at the University of Melbourne, examined registry data from the Netherlands that include exact dates of weddings, births, and divorces, gender of couples’ children, and how long after their birth couples separated.
Their working paper shows that until the age of 12, there are no differences between the divorce risks facing the parents of boys and girls. Between the ages 13 and 18, parents of first-born girls divorce more than parents of first-born boys.
The odds of divorce within this period are 10.7 percent for parents of boys, and 11.3 percent for parents of girls. In relative terms, this means that parents with teenage daughters face 5 percent higher risks of divorce than parents with teenage sons.
The effect peaks at age 15, when the risk facing parents with daughters is almost 10 percent higher than the risk facing parents with sons. In the following years, the differences narrow again, and they disappear once the child turns 19. A similar pattern also appears among second-born and subsequent children.
The increased odds of divorce from teenage daughters aren’t unique to Dutch married couples—the researchers found the same association for Dutch couples in de facto relationships, and for married couples in the US. Both of these groups face considerably higher increases of divorce odds from teenage daughters.
Although no causal link arises from the Dutch data, strained relationship between young women and their parents might explain the higher divorce rates.
Previous studies suggest several reasons why daughters might raise divorce risks. For example, some parents have cultural or social preferences for sons or boys are more vulnerable and their need of a male role model makes fathers more committed to the marriage. There is also a sex-selection theory which suggests that mothers whose marriages are more stressful may be more likely to give birth to a baby girl.
But the researchers found no empirical evidence to support of any of those theories.
Fathers who grew up with sisters didn’t face any increase in divorce risks from teenage daughters.
Instead, the findings of the current study suggest the higher divorce rates are explained by strains in the relationships between some parents and their teenage daughters, possibly stemming from differences in attitudes toward gender roles.
This explanation has backing from the separate analysis of a large survey of Dutch households, which asked families about their relationships and opinions regarding marriage, gender, and parenting.
Parents of teenage daughters disagreed more about the way they should raise their children and expressed more positive attitudes towards divorce. They were also less satisfied with the quality of their family relationships.
Teenage daughters, in turn, reported worse relationships with their fathers, though not with their mothers.
Does dad have sisters?
Ribar and Kabatek then took the research a step further—looking at the father’s family history in order to investigate the link between fathers and their daughters. Specifically, they compared the divorce risks faced by fathers who grew up with sisters and fathers who didn’t.
They found that the fathers who grew up with sisters didn’t face any increase in divorce risks from teenage daughters—the pattern only appeared among fathers who grew up without sisters.
They also looked at other family characteristics that could indicate differences between gender-role attitudes held by parents and daughters, including the ages or immigration background of the couple. Parents who are likely to hold more traditional attitudes towards gender-roles experienced higher increases of divorce odds from teenage daughters.
Despite their relative significance during the teenage years, the difference in the divorce risks faced by families with boys and girls remains modest over the child’s lifetime.
By the time their first-born children reached age 25; 311 out of every 1,000 Dutch couples with daughters had divorced compared to 307 of every 1,000 with sons—a difference of only 4 divorces per 1,000 couples.
Further, the finding of a null effect among fathers who grew up with sisters also shows that that the association between a child’s gender and divorce risk isn’t universal.
However, researchers say the results do point to serious strains between some parents and their teenage daughters—and also suggest the risks can be reduced if parents of teenage daughters adopt more egalitarian attitudes towards gender-roles and a greater understanding of how conflicts can come up.
Source: University of Melbourne