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Effects On Children, Effects On Couples, Effects On Parents

EFFECTS ON CHILDREN David H. Demo, Andrew J. Supple

EFFECTS ON COUPLES Kari Henley, Kay Pasley


Divorce as a Process

One instructive means of thinking about divorce is to consider divorce not as a single event that influences people's lives, but rather as a process. This conceptualization of divorce suggests that the manner in which divorce ultimately affects children involves a confluence of factors and processes that occur early in the divorce, as well as processes occurring after the divorce. Moreover, this line of reasoning suggests that many negative effects for children in divorced families may be due to exposure to traumatic experiences and processes that have nothing to do with divorce per se. That is, children whose parents divorce witness negative family interaction prior to a divorce and also experience many life transitions and strained familial relationships after divorce. This view of divorce as a process has been corroborated in a review of studies conducted in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia (Rodgers and Pryor 1998).

Marriages that end in divorce typically begin a process of unraveling, estrangement, or emotional separation years before the actual legal divorce is obtained. During the course of the marriage, one or both of the marital partners begins to feel alienated from the other. Conflicts with each other and with the children intensify, become more frequent, and often go unresolved. Feelings of bitterness, helplessness, and anger escalate as the spouses weigh the costs and benefits of continuing the marriage versus separating. Gay C. Kitson's (1992) influential study of marital breakdown describes a distressing process characterized by emotional distance, dissatisfaction, and frequent thoughts and discussions about whether and how to separate. Many unhappy couples explore marital counseling, extramarital relationships, and trial separations, with marital happiness fluctuating upward and downward from day to day and year to year as the marital relationship and marital roles are renegotiated.

These predivorce changes in the family often negatively influence the psychological states of parents; parental stress, anxiety, and depression, in turn, inhibit effective parenting. Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth (1996) conducted a rare longitudinal study on a national sample and documented problems in parent-child relationships as early as eight to twelve years prior to parental divorce. Other studies observe that, before parental divorce, U.S. and U.K. children and adolescents suffer due to high levels of marital discord, ineffective and inconsistent parenting, diminished parental wellbeing, and reduced parent-child affection (Demo and Cox 2000; Rodgers and Pryor 1998). Taken together, these studies suggest that the alterations in family functioning that occur during a predivorce process lead to children witnessing their parents fighting, parents' emotional and psychological states deteriorating, and diminishing levels of parental warmth, affection, and supervision. It is important to note that these changing family dynamics contribute to children experiencing behavior problems prior to parental divorce, and that children's behavior problems, in turn, strain marital relationships, undermine parental well-being, and increase the chances of parental divorce (Acock and Demo 1994; Cherlin et al. 1991). Consequently, some researchers would argue that the negative effects of divorce on children begin well before an actual divorce occurs.

For both parents and children, the most difficult and stressful phase of the divorce process is usually the period leading up to and immediately following parental separation and divorce. The uncoupling process takes on several dimensions at this stage, as divorcing parents confront legal challenges and expenses, make their intentions public to family and friends, and redefine their roles as residential and nonresidential parents.

In addition, the process of unraveling and family dissolution continues, coupled with numerous potentially life-altering transitions for children. Following divorce, children live in many different family forms, but the most common pattern is they live with their mothers and have less contact with their fathers. In the United States, five of every six single-parent households are headed by a mother (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). As a result, a common alteration that children are forced to make is an adjustment to life without their father at home. Most children share time between the mother's household and the father's household, and families are creative in finding ways for children to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents. For example, children change residences to accommodate changes in their relationships with their parents, changes in parental employment, remarriage, and stepfamily formation (Maccoby and Mnookin 1992). Still, most children suffer from declining father involvement after divorce. National surveys indicate that more than one-fourth of children living in single-mother families never saw their fathers in the previous year, slightly more than one-fourth saw their fathers at least weekly, and among those children who maintain regular contact with their fathers, less than one-third had opportunities to spend significant amounts of time with them. There is evidence, however, that frequent father-child interaction and close relationships are more common in African-American families. Postdivorce father involvement is also higher among fathers who had very close relationships with their children prior to divorce, fathers who live near their children, and fathers who have joint custody (Arditti and Keith 1993; Mott 1990). These studies provide further evidence to suggest that characteristics of families prior to and after divorce ultimately influence the adjustment and well-being of children.

Individual Variation

Substantial research evidence shows that, on average, children who have experienced parental divorce score somewhat lower than children in first-marriage families on measures of social development, emotional well-being, self-concept, academic performance, educational attainment, and physical health (Amato 2000; Furstenberg and Kiernan 2001). This conclusion is based on group comparisons that consistently show small differences between the average adjustment level of children in first-marriage families and the average level for children whose parents have divorced. Equally important, but less well understood, is that children and adolescents in divorced families vary widely in their adjustment (Demo and Acock 1996). That is, many children exhibit delinquent behavior, difficulties with peers, and low self-esteem following their parents' divorce, while many others adjust readily, enjoy popularity with friends, and think highly of themselves. A useful way of thinking about this is that children's adjustment within any particular family structure (e.g., first-marriage families, divorced families, stepfamilies) varies along a continuum from very poor adjustment to very positive adjustment, with many children and adolescents faring better postdivorce than their counterparts living in first-marriage families. This latter point raises the possibility that in some cases, parental divorce may have positive effects on children. Children most likely to benefit from parental divorce include those who endured years of frequent and intense marital conflict (Amato and Booth 1997; Hanson 1999), and those who develop very close, mutually supportive, and satisfying relationships with single parents (Arditti 1999). These studies support the notion that preand postdivorce family environments (i.e., highly conflicted prior; supportive after) have great potential to assist in understanding how children will adjust to life after their parents' divorce.

The preponderance of scientific evidence thus suggests that popular impressions, media images, and stereotypes greatly exaggerate the effects of divorce on children. On average, there are small differences in emotional and social adjustment between children of divorce and children in intact families, and in some instances, parental divorce has a positive effect on children. Most children and adolescents experience short-term emotional, behavioral, and academic difficulties, which usually peak at the point in the divorce process when their parents physically separate and engage in legal battles related to divorce. These problems tend to subside with time, however. Children tend to be resilient, adapt well to most changes in their family roles and life situations, and exhibit normal adjustment (Emery and Forehand 1994). Still, a minority remains vulnerable. Following divorce, approximately 20 to 25 percent of children in divorced families experience long-term adjustment problems, compared to roughly 10 percent of children in first-marriage families (Hetherington and Stanley-Hagan 2000).

The children and adolescents who appear to be most vulnerable socially and emotionally are those who experience multiple transitions in parenting arrangements throughout their childhood. Research indicates that children who experience no changes in family structure (e.g., children who live continuously with both biological parents, or those who live their entire childhood with a single parent) have higher levels of adjustment (Demo and Acock 1996; Najman et al. 1997). As the number of parenting transitions increases, children's adjustment generally decreases, albeit modestly. Thus, children whose parents divorce (one transition) have somewhat lower adjustment; those who experience divorce and subsequent remarriage of their residential parent (two transitions) exhibit lower adjustment than those in the one transition group; and children who experience two or more parental divorces and/or remarriages have the lowest adjustment and most behavioral problems (Capaldi and Patterson 1991). Studies conducted in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia corroborate these findings (Rodgers and Pryor 1998). Again, there is wide variation among children who experience multiple family transitions, but the evidence suggests that each change in parenting arrangements represents a risk factor, thus increasing the likelihood that a child will react negatively to their postdivorce environment.

Interventions to Alleviate the Negative Effects of Divorce on Children

Overall, research suggests that family relationships and economic circumstances prior to and following divorce have considerable potential to influence child adjustment. Consequently, there are ample opportunities for intervention efforts that may offset some of these negative processes.

Given that a large proportion of U.S. children will experience divorce, an important research and public policy objective is the development of strategies to assist children during the divorce process. Although in some instances divorce may have positive effects for children (as in the case where exposure to intense and frequent fighting between parents is reduced), in many other situations, changing parent-child relationships, life transitions, and economic strains that accompany divorce present challenges to children's well-being. Social science research has successfully identified key factors accompanying divorce that negatively affect children, thus illuminating potential areas for intervention. That is, programs and policies can be developed to address the factors that ultimately compromise children's well-being during the divorce process.

Many states require divorcing parents to complete either a divorce mediation or parent education program (Emery 1995; Grych and Fincham 1992). These programs are designed to increase parents' understanding of the difficulties that their children may face during the divorce process. Parents are taught, for example, how to manage their conflict, avoid treating children like pawns in disputes, and to appreciate the importance of maintaining positive relationships with their children. Studies have shown that following a divorce, parents may find it difficult to maintain optimal parenting behaviors, such as monitoring their children's activities, providing warmth and support, and keeping consistent rules. Consequently, if programs for parents can intervene and educate divorced parents to the importance of maintaining positive parenting during stressful transitions, some negative effects on children may be mitigated.

Other possible areas for intervention include policies and programs that recognize the economic strain that divorcing parents, and especially the custodial mother, often face post-divorce. Studies have shown that custodial mothers often face dramatic economic losses following divorce, leading to feelings of stress that adversely affect parenting. Researchers have postulated that divorce is disruptive for children largely because the custodial parent faces a significant amount of economic stress in the time period immediately following the divorce (Furstenberg 1990). Economic loss may trigger multiple transitions for the child (e.g., moving, changing schools, taking in other household members), adversely affecting child well-being. Social policies should address the economic strain experienced by divorcing parents and recognize its potential to adversely affect family relationships.

Another important step toward reducing the negative effects of divorce on children involves the de-stigmatization of divorce. Given our cultural emphasis on the sanctimony of marriage and our cultural disapproval of divorce, many children suffer psychologically because they perceive that their family experiences are dysfunctional. Societal mores and cultural beliefs strongly devalue divorced families. Such families (in their many forms) are judged to be inferior to the traditional nuclear family headed by a male breadwinner and female mother and homemaker who live together from marriage until death, and who produce and rear children in an intact family environment. The popular North American culture, Hollywood movies, television sitcoms and talk shows, and best-selling books on how to survive divorce perpetuate these images and sensationalize the negative experiences of parents and children living in postdivorce families. In European countries, there is great concern about rising divorce rates, but divorce may be seen as more acceptable, at least in Sweden (Wadsby and Svedin 1996). Consequently, most U.S. children who experience parental divorce face the challenge of adjusting to new family arrangements and life situations in a society that has negative perceptions and stigmas associated with divorced families. Another way to allay negative feelings related to divorce, then, would be to counsel children regarding the normative process of divorce, to let them know that they are not alone as children of divorce, and to educate them regarding the healthy functioning of many divorced families. Finally, scholars in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia have suggested that social service personnel and officials of the courts could be trained to be supportive of divorcing parents and their children as a means to strengthen family relationships and reduce feelings of stigma.


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Explaining Adjustment to Divorce: Theoretical Perspectives

Numerous theoretical perspectives have been used to explain how adults adjust to divorce, including feminist theories, social exchange theory, family systems theory, social learning theory, and sociobiological theories. However, many researchers apply family stress theory to offer two general models of adult adjustment. The crisis model suggests that divorce poses a crisis for divorcing adults that results in temporary declines in well-being, but from which most individuals ultimately recover. The chronic strain model depicts divorce as setting a number of other stressful events into motion (e.g., moving to a new neighborhood, ongoing conflict between the former spouses, economic hardship) that send divorced individuals into a downward spiral from which they never fully recover. Research supports both models to some degree. In a review of research from the 1990s regarding the consequences of divorce, Paul Amato (2000) found that the crisis model best described the postdivorce experiences of some individuals, and the chronic strain model best described the experiences of others. He concluded that both models contained some truth, and that the determination of which model more accurately depicted postdivorce adjustment largely depended upon characteristics of the individuals studied (e.g., education, age, self-esteem), as well as the context in which the divorce occurred (e.g., social support networks, child custody status).

Adult Adjustment

Divorce affects the couple economically, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Divorce also influences the current and future relationships of the couple. Despite the predominant belief that only negative outcomes exist (deficit perspective), divorce also benefits some individuals. Best viewed as a process rather than a discrete event, divorce influences individuals before the divorce occurs, immediately following the divorce, and years later.

Economic outcomes. Because of the political and policy implications of the economic situation associated with divorce, much attention has focused on its economic impact. In the United States, Canada, and most other countries, women generally experience a decline in their economic situation following divorce, whereas men undergo lesser declines or slight increases in their economic status. It is important to note that differences in both the magnitude of these changes and the disparity between men and women's postdivorce economic outcomes have been debated (see Braver and O'Connell 1998, for a discussion of U.S. findings). However, research shows that German men fare better than U.S. men after divorce, and German women fare worse than U.S. women (Burkhauser et al. 1991). Similarly, Indian women generally fare worse economically than their U.S. counterparts, whereas Indian men experience little or no economic disruption following divorce (Amato 1994). Therefore, although magnitudes may differ, the same postdivorce economic pattern appears to occur cross-culturally.

Because divorce divides resources that originally went to one household, an immediate decline in the standard of living for both spouses results. How severe and how long the decline lasts affects couples' postdivorce adjustment due to the economic hardship imposed. It also is important to understand individuals' perceptions of the degree of economic hardship, as these perceptions affect adjustment more than objective measures of their economic situation. For example, Hongyu Wang and Paul Amato (2000) explained that an objective decline in standard of living may be viewed positively, if the more limited income also is accompanied by a gain in control over the income.

Mental and emotional outcomes. Studies demonstrate that divorced individuals exhibit higher levels of depression and anxiety than do individuals who are married, and those divorced also tend to have poorer self-concepts and exhibit more symptoms of psychological distress (compared with those who are married). Those with a history of two or more divorces report significantly more depression than either those with one divorce or those who are not divorced (Kurdek 1991), suggesting the cumulative nature of stress from divorce. Research findings are similar in other countries, as Amato (1994) found that two-thirds of divorced women in India suffer severe emotional problems. Further, Sheila Cotten (1999) noted that the common practice of categorizing divorced and widowed individuals into a single group underestimates the actual depression levels of divorced individuals, because widows often exhibit lower levels of depression and psychological distress. Consistent with the crisis model of divorce adjustment, depressive symptoms appear to peak shortly after the divorce and then gradually decline for most.

Physical outcomes. Divorced individuals also have more health problems and higher mortality rates than married or other nondivorced persons. Divorced adults exhibit more risk-taking behaviors (e.g., elevated rates of drugs and alcohol use/abuse). Particularly among those recently divorced, there is an increased risk for illness, likely due to poorer immune system functioning from the stress associated with divorce. (Kitson and Morgan 1990).

Relationship outcomes. Relationships and social networks are influenced in various ways by divorce. Divorced individuals generally experience more social isolation and have smaller social networks than do married individuals. This is explained in terms of them having less in common with married friends following divorce. Moreover, friendships can become divided between the couple like other the marital assets, as friends may choose sides.

In countries where divorce is still stigmatized, social isolation is more extreme. For example, in Japan divorced women experience discrimination in employment opportunities and future marital opportunities due to the impurity that divorce introduces into their family registry, and the effect of this impurity spills over to their children (Bryant 1992; Yuko 1998). Similarly, women in India are isolated following divorce, largely due to the principle of pativratya (i.e., that a woman should devote herself completely to her husband's needs, sacrificing her own if necessary). When a marriage ends, the assumption of fault resides with the wife. Also, family structure in India follows patriarchal lines, with many households consisting of a man, his wife, his sons, and the sons' wives and children. Following divorce, Indian men retain both their household and the support of their extended families, whereas Indian women leave the family household and become isolated from the entire family. Because re-marriage is not common in India, women are likely experience further social isolation (Amato 1994).

Coparental relationships also are affected by divorce, which has a significant impact on children. Although coparental interactions in marriage are generally cooperative and supportive (Jain, Belsky, and Crnic 1996), coparenting after divorce is likely to be less cooperative and more conflicted. Although the amount of conflict does not appear to be detrimental to adjustment, coparental relationships that are high in hostility are harmful to the parties and are detrimental to their postdivorce adjustment (Ahrons 1994; Buehler and Trotter 1990).

Most divorced individuals ultimately remarry and usually do so within four years (Coleman, Ganong, and Fine 2000). Remarriage rates (like divorce rates) are higher in the United States than anywhere else; however, the trends are similar cross-culturally. However, remarriages are less stable than first marriages, a finding that is generally attributed to the fact that those having experience with divorce are more likely to see divorce as a viable option in remarriage. Therefore, divorce appears to influence future marital relationships, making them less stable and more vulnerable to dissolution.

Positive outcomes. Most studies to date have looked for, and found, primarily negative outcomes from divorce. The few studies that have investigated the potential benefits of divorce show that, particularly for women, divorce can be a positive experience (Amato 2000). If the marriage was highly conflictual, ending the marriage can relieve stress in all family members. Also, an individual's sense of having successfully survived divorce is associated with increased self-confidence and efficacy, particularly for women.

Factors Influencing Adjustment

Numerous factors affect the ways in which couples adjust to divorce. These include both personal factors (those that reside within or are inherent to individuals) and contextual factors (those that reside outside individuals).

Personal factors. Several personal characteristics influence adjustment to divorce, such as demographic characteristics (i.e., age, education level, employment, and socioeconomic status). For example, some studies found that older individuals have more difficulty adjusting, due to their limited postdivorce options (e.g., employment, remarriage) (Kitson and Morgan 1990). Other studies found better adjustment among older divorced individuals, because they had fewer coparenting issues and conflicts due to children being older. Higher education, higher socioeconomic status, and being employed are consistently associated with better postdivorce adjustment among adults. It is likely that employment contributes positively to adjustment because more sources of social support are available and less economic hardship is experienced.

Individuals' levels of preseparation psychological functioning also affect divorce adjustment (Hetherington, Law, and O'Connor 1997; Tschann, Johnston, and Wallerstein 1989). Adults who have better coping skills and higher levels of emotional stability and psychological functioning before the divorce are generally more well-adjusted afterwards. Individuals who have a higher sense of self-mastery and self-esteem also experience higher levels of well-being following divorce.

Whether the individual initiated the divorce is another factor affecting adjustment. Spouses typically do not emotionally leave the marriage simultaneously and, therefore, may experience different trajectories in their adjustment. The person who initiates the divorce often mourns the loss of the marriage before the legal divorce takes place; however, noninitiators can experience surprise when the request for a divorce surfaces, and they then begin to consider the end of the marriage—when the initiator is already on the road to recovery.

Similarly, individuals' beliefs about divorce can affect their postdivorce adjustment. Those with more nontraditional views about marriage and who look at divorce more favorably exhibit better adjustment than do those who hold more traditional views about marriage and believe that divorce is unacceptable.

The degree of attachment to the former spouse also can affect adjustment. Research shows that cooperative postdivorce relationships are both possible and healthy for the couple, and particularly for parents (Ahrons 1994). However, when one or both spouses remain preoccupied with their former spouse (with feelings of either love or hate), postdivorce adjustment is hindered. It is interesting to note that Carol Masheter (1997) found that unhealthy (preoccupied) postdivorce attachment was more important to postdivorce wellbeing than was the amount of hostility in the post-divorce relationship.

Contextual factors. There are a number of contextual factors that affect postdivorce adjustment, such as the amount of social support both perceived and received by divorced individuals. Those who are less socially involved and more socially isolated following divorce generally have a more difficult time adjusting. Some research has proposed that the benefit of social involvement stems from the link between social involvement and attachment to the former spouse (Tschann, Johnston, and Wallerstein 1989). Higher levels of social involvement generally are associated with lessened attachment to the former spouse, and as noted, less attachment facilitates healthy postdivorce adjustment. However, Wang and Amato (2000) suggested that some social support comes with a price, including feelings of guilt, dependence on others, or criticism from the giver of the support, particularly if the support comes from kin. The differing influences of support are found in studies of other countries as well, as Frode Thuen and O. J. Eikeland (1998) found similar results among Norwegian divorced couples.

The most influential form of social support comes in the form of new relationships. Research consistently shows that new romantic relationships, both dating relationships and remarriages, are associated with better postdivorce adjustment for both men and women (Hetherington, Law, and O'Connor 1997).

Children, especially when older, also can serve as sources of social support for divorcing parents. This is particularly true of women, because they commonly retain custody of children. However, children also can be a source of postdivorce stress, as the added complications of maintaining the co-parental relationship can result in stress for the divorcing parents. Further, reduced contact and influence by noncustodial parents (usually fathers) can be a source of stress for custodial parents, as the latter parent believes that they must go it alone (Arendell 1995). For noncustodial fathers, reduced contact is associated with higher levels of depression and poorer postdivorce adjustment. Cultural factors. Adjustment is affected by the amount of stigma associated with divorce, the opportunities available (socially and economically) for divorced individuals, and differing legal contexts. As noted, divorce is associated with more social stigma in certain countries (e.g., India, Japan) and social opportunities in such countries generally are more limited. Divorced women in India have difficulty finding other single mothers with whom to develop a support network. They generally are reluctant to seek friendships with Indian men out of a concern that their efforts at friendship might be misinterpreted; employment and remarriage rates for Indian women are lower than those of U.S. women. Divorced individuals (particularly women) who reside in countries where divorce is less common and more stigmatized generally fare worse than individuals residing in countries where divorce is more common and less stigmatized (e.g., the United States).

The differing legal contexts of divorce can be influential to adult adjustment. Mark Fine and David Fine (1994) noted that most countries in Western Europe (with the exception of Ireland, which did not allow divorce until 2000) have moved from fault-based, punitive divorce laws to no-fault divorce laws, making divorces less painful to obtain. Such changes have had ramifications for divorce outcomes, most notably financial settlements. Since the 1960s, property settlements have become more egalitarian and awards of alimony have dramatically decreased, with the goal being to promote self-sufficiency for both divorcing spouses. For example, France has a system in which spousal support is rarely ordered; however, in the few rare cases that support is granted, a lump-sum payment is made at the time of the divorce, so continuing contact (and presumably, continuing conflict) between former spouses is minimized. Sweden has adopted an even more extreme view of postdivorce self-sufficiency, virtually eliminating spousal support altogether and declaring pensions to be individual property and therefore not divisible in the divorce settlement.

Although cross-culturally property settlements have become more egalitarian, in Australia these property settlements are largely determined by the future needs of the children. The future needs of spouses typically are not considered, and settlements also ignore any nonfinancial contributions of either party (e.g., stay-at-home mothers) when dividing marital assets (Sheehan and Hughes 2000). Similar neglect of nonfinancial investments during marriage occurs in Tanzania, where legal decisions through the 1980s predominantly have held that domestic contributions should not be considered in the division of marital property (Mtengeti-Migiro 1990). Thus, legal practices often ignore the contributions of women to marriage, reducing their post-divorce awards. Yet, the prevailing mood has been one of promoting self-sufficiency following divorce. This contradiction between behavior and mood, in turn, can result in a more difficult adjustment process, particularly for women.

Methodological Issues in Divorce Research

To date, most research regarding divorce and its impact on adults has assumed a deficit perspective— divorce is bad and has a negative effect on families. This perspective is reflected in the questions asked, the outcomes investigated, results showing negative outcomes, and the interpretation of these results. As noted, cross-cultural studies that investigate the potentially positive effects of divorce find that divorce can increase self-confidence, self-efficacy, well-being, and relief from a bad marriage for some. Therefore, future research should aim to further explore the range of influences of divorce on adults.

Because there is wide variation among divorced individuals in their postdivorce adjustment, simple comparisons between divorced and nondivorced individuals should be undertaken with caution. Just as divorce is best conceptualized as a process, adjustment to divorce also is a process, and studies show that the amount of time since divorce affects adjustment. However, many studies fail to examine time, ignoring the heterogeneity of the adjustment of divorced couples. Future research should investigate the multiple factors that aid or hinder adjustment, and should consider variations in the trajectory of the adjustment process among divorcing couples.

Despite variations in the structure and function of families in different countries, divorce is experienced by an increasing number of families. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that the annual number of divorces in the United States alone has climbed from 158,000 in 1921 to 1,163,000 in 1997, an increase of more than 700 percent (Norton and Miller 1992; Monthly Vital Statistics 1999). In addition, it should be noted that the latter figure underestimated of the actual number of divorces in the United States, as it failed to include divorce figures from all fifty states. Given the magnitude of its occurrence, divorce and its impact on divorcing couples continues to be an area worthy of investigation. Because of the policy and political implications, greater care is warranted in examining the complexity inherent in this process.


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Research Perspectives

The effects of divorce on parents are most frequently studied from a resource perspective by focusing on the exchanges taking place between parents and their divorcing children (Spitze et al. 1994). The studies are based upon the assumption that as children's marriages dissolve, they will turn to their parents for help (Johnson 1988a). An alternate situation may occur, however, particularly for older parents who are in need of help. A child going through a divorce may not be readily available to offer support to them because of the demands and stressors of the divorce process.

Other researchers maintain that conceptions of continuity provide an alternative but less common perspective on the adult children and their parents (Rossi and Rossi 1990). This focus assumes that divorce has no discernable effects on the relationship between the adult child and his or her parents. Advocates of this perspective propose that there may be some changes in the level of contacts and supports, but there is no evidence of changes in the level of closeness and contact (Umberson 1992).

When minor children are present, the continuity perspective is difficult to sustain as marriages dissolve. One spouse, usually the husband, leaves the household, and in the process, the quality of parenting changes as one parent is performing the role previously performed by two people. This situation can have major repercussions not only on the former nuclear family but also on grandparents and the wider kinship group. The custodial parent's extended family becomes the primary sphere of activity, as members of the ex-spouse's kinship group become more distant.

The Post-Divorce Parent-Child Relationship

Researchers on the relationship between parent and adult child have diverse views. On one hand, those in human development tend to take a positive view of intergenerational relationships by emphasizing the strong bonds of affection and solidarity between generations. In such an environment, when a child is going through the divorce process, a parent is a potential source of help and one who can ease the strains inherent during this major change in family life. On the other hand, other researchers (Hess and Waring 1978) speak of the inherent tensions and constraints between parent and adult child in normal times which may become magnified during the divorce process. The contradictory research findings between love and attachment versus tensions and conflict may reflect the major changes occurring during the divorce process and the reorganization of a child's family.

The divorce of a child can be a major event (in terms of stress) not only for divorcing partners, but also their parents, particularly if grandchildren are present. These major changes occur during the divorce process in a social limbo in which there are few guidelines on how to behave: even whether one should act pleased or relieved. The cultural context adds to the relatively normless environment of the divorce process. Mainstream Western values endorse the rights of the individual to be independent and self-reliant. Although a child's independence is extolled, some form of dependence may develop as a divorcing child turns to parents for help. In keeping with the adult child's right to independence, parents usually adhere to the norm of noninterference in their child's life, a value stance that must be discarded as parents take a more active helping role in their child's household.

As the child's household becomes more public and subject to parental scrutiny, the greater the parents' involvement, the more they observe what is going on in what was once a private household (Johnson 1988a, 1988b). Thus, both parents and divorcing children are placed in an ambivalent situation. If minor children are involved, grandparents are expected to help. Although such demands are more often placed upon the maternal grandparents, most maternal and paternal grandparents resist assuming a parental role, yet they recognize their responsibility to help. A common theme often expressed is: "If I do some things for them, I may have to do it all. If I don't help, I may lose them." This parental reluctance has rarely been discussed in the literature. One exception is Karl Pillemer and Jill Suitor's (1991) article "Will I Ever Escape My Child's Problem?," one of the few reports on the underside of the parent-adult child relationship.

Parents' Responses to Children's Needs

Because of custody relationships, sons and daughters face markedly different situations that have repercussions on their relationship with parents. The parent-son relationship and the parent-daughter have markedly different functions. Because custody is generally granted to the mother, her parents are usually a major source of support. In the process, they have no problem gaining access to the grandchildren. These parents may have to extend not only financial assistance but also emotional support to compensate for the loss of one parent in the household (Johnson 1988b; Hamon 1995).

In contrast, men's parents usually must gain access to the grandchildren through a former daughter-in-law, to whom they are no longer legally related after a divorce (Johnson 1988b). Some paternal grandparents explicitly retain a strong relationship with a former daughter-in-law sometimes at the expense of their relationship with their son. If needed, paternal grandparents can also compensate for a son's deficiencies as a parent, or they may strengthen their son's attentiveness to his children.

Divorce is a dynamic series of events as households dissolve, affinal kin (relatives by marriage) are no longer related, and new kin are added with remarriage. The individuals involved must construct new roles, redefine relationships, and restructure their lives. The relationship between parents and children is particularly interesting, because children assume a new life style that may be at odds with their parents' values. Because most parents try to maintain a noninterfering stance, their child usually must take the initiative in seeking help. Most parents may be responsive to the needs of their child and grandchildren, but they resist having to act as a parent in terms of disciplining and fulfilling day-to-day instrumental care.

Intergenerational Exchanges

Age and gender are factors that influence the relationship between parent and adult child. In later life, those with adult children found that divorce had a sizable effect on the parent-child relationship in terms of relationship qualities and contact (Johnson 1988b). The negative effects were stronger between father and child than between mother and child. If divorced fathers shared a residence with their child, they were less likely to be depressed than the non-resident fathers (Shapiro and Lambert 1999; Schone and Pezzin 1999). The age of the ever-divorced father had negative effects on care-giving and economic ties between parent and child. Likewise, Teresa Cooney and Peter Uhlenberg's (1990) study showed that divorced men experienced long-term negative effects on the frequency of contact between older men and their children, and children were less likely to be considered as potential caregivers. The gender of the divorcing child has also been studied: for example, daughters received more help from their parents than sons (Johnson 1988a).

Divorce can affect kinship networks positively as both divorcing men and women rely on kin for practical aid. Males turn to kin in the early stages of the divorce process, whereas women seek long-term assistance. Leigh Leslie and Katherine Grady (1985) found that one year after a divorce, social networks of divorcing individuals become more homogeneous with increased numbers of supportive kin.

A qualitative study of fifty divorces in middle-class suburbs (Johnson 1988a, 1988b) found that the relationship between parent and child varied by the organizational emphasis during the structural reorganization of the post-divorce family networks. First, those divorcing parents, who placed an emphasis upon the privacy of an abbreviated nuclear family, were relatively remote from parents, and they were likely to remarry over a three-year period. Second, others emphasized the generational bond and the solidarity with their parents. They usually received support from parents. Third, those who remarried tended to form loose-knit networks that incorporated former relatives of divorce and remarriage. These respondents tended to maintain distant but cordial relationships with their parents.

Surrogate Parenting

Major strains on the parent-child relationship after divorce comes in those situations when these adult children are no longer able to perform the parent role. There has been heightened interest in a recent phenomenon of grandparents assuming the role of surrogate parents. Such arrangements are vulnerable, because of economic problems and difficulty accessing entitlements. A North Carolina survey of 25,000 households found that of the grandparents who were sole surrogate parents of grandchildren, 42 percent lived in poverty and another 15 percent were "near poor" (Shone and Pizzin 1999). Despite the interest in this family arrangement, demographers find that surrogate parenting is rare in the United States. For example, in ongoing research on 160 African-American families, no one was currently a surrogate parent at the time of the interview, and only a few had been in the past.


The research literature on divorce's effects on aging parents is not large, and most reports focus on supports between generations rather than relationship qualities and how they change over time. Nevertheless, the existing literature indicates that divorce is a stressful process that affects divorcing individuals and their children as well as their parents. The divorce process has a stressful beginning, but over a year's time, the situation—for most— stabilized: most parents provided assistance to children when needed; the stressors on the older people had diminished.


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Umberson, D. (1992). "Relationships between Adult Children and Their Parents: Psychological Consequences for Both Generations." Journal of Marriage and the Family 54:664–685.


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