Divorce and a childs existing and future relationships

The divorce rate in the United States appears to have reached sky-high peaks, with as many as half of all first marriages ending in divorce (Popenoe & Whitehead, 2007). The state of the traditional “nuclear family” is in shambles. Today, no longer is the father expected to be the sole provider or is the mother obligated to be the sole caretaker. In fact a role reversal can be seen in homes all over the country-with stay-at-home dads and career-focused moms. Regardless, divorce has become a frequent occurrence in today’s modern societies (Latten, 2004). Still, it is well documented that children of divorce are at an increased risk of various adjustment problems (Harland, Reijneveld, Brugman, Verloove-Vanhorick, & Verhulst, 2002). Additionally, offspring of parental divorce are generally exposed to more discord and distress than children from intact homes. An important question here is, how do these negative effects of divorce influence existing and current relationships when children are often exposed too much harsher realities than many of their peers?

Research on divorce has taken a multifaceted approach in analyzing the potential effects on children. Gender, parent-child relationships, and attitudes are three, of many, factors discussed in this paper that have been identified as influencing development after divorce (Wallerstein, 1991). Gender plays a key role in how children will processes of divorce. While, parent-child relationships have been proven to heavily affect multiple aspects of adolescent development, especially beliefs about future relationships. Finally, divorce can affect a child’s attitudes about the potential of future happiness and stability. The particular effects of divorce on existing and future relationships will now be discussed further, based on these three features.

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Effects on Existing Relationships: Mother and Father

Parent-child relationships are an important part of adolescent social development. The relationship that a child has with his or her parents can have a profound effect on many aspects of their adult lives. These effects can range from the positive or negative development of social skills to stronger or weaker bonds with parents.

Anxiety and depression due to divorce.

In a Norwegian study of 413 adolescents that had experienced parental divorce or separation were compared to a group of 1,758 adolescents without such experience over a four year period. The study related an increase in anxiety and depression, problems with self esteem, and problems in school to parental divorce. Researchers looked at boys and girls separately and concluded that on average girls’ sufferer more from increased anxiety and depression than male cohorts, but both equally experienced problems in school performance. Differences in severity of changes in this study were attributed to the internalization of parental distress and discord during divorce. Girls appear to incorporate parental anger, frustration, or grief experienced during divorce into their own personal beliefs about themselves which negatively affects self esteem and increases anxiety and depression (Stroksen, Roysamb, Moum, & Tambs, 2005). It has been clearly documented that decreases in self esteem, increases in anxiety, and even problems in school can be disadvantageous in forming and maintaining relationships even in adolescence (Liu et al., 2000). Researchers concluded that children with negative experiences with divorce, especially those whose parent displayed open hostility towards each other, were significantly less socially developed and held weaker relationship with their parents.

Importance of father-son relationships.

It was also noted by Stroksen, Roysamb, Moum, & Tambs (2005) that the absence of a parent can affect the severity of these changes. While, studies have shown that nonresident mothers are in general more likely to maintain stable contact with their children, results found that the absence of the father was detrimental in the development of male adolescence. This effect was discussed in a study in which the presence of, at the least, a father figure decreased male adolescents fears of divorcee in their own future and gave them confidence that they could have a stable marriages in the future. Male adolescents with stable contact with their father also demonstrated better social skills over all when compared to children with an absence of a father figure. Another progressive study comparing 300 European and African American adolescents’ attitudes of divorce in relation to existing father-child relationships after a divorce also found that a father’s presence had a positive effect on boys feeling about their chance of divorce Therefore, regardless of whether or not the parents are still together male adolescents benefit from having a father figure (Risch, Jodl, & Eccles, 2004).

In the long-term, both boys and girls from divorce families perceive their relationships with their fathers less positively when compared to children from intact families. Researchers offer several explanations for this difference. One possible reason may be due to the fact that the mother is more likely to maintain sole physical custody of children (Kurdeck et al., 1981). The conflict and friction often created between parents by divorce proceeding may make the father less thrilled at the prospect of visiting child because of possible interaction with their ex-wife. Inability to interact with children on a daily basis also causes a loss of contact which can contribute to missing important events. Unfortunately, this normally increases over time, deepening the divide between father and child. This effect can be negated, however, if the father-child relationship was perceived to be strong before the divorce (Fine, Moreland, & Schwebel, 1983).

Another sample of 207 young adults from divorced and intact families was taken in a study analyzing the long term effects of divorce on parent-child relationships. This study emphasized the negative effects of marital discord and conflict on both mother-child and father-child relationships, but still found and increased incidence of deterioration of father-child relationships and more positive mother-child relationships (Frank, 2007). While, studies have found males suffered the most from the absence of a father figure (Stroksen, Roysamb, Moum, & Tambs, 2005), this study indicates that the father-daughter relationships are actually the most vulnerably after divorce due to post divorce conflict. Hostility before and after a divorce are much more likely to drive father away from his daughter, although this correlation disappears if the divorce was more harmonious (Frank, 2007).

Woman, on the other hand, generally have no significant effect on changes in male or female development (Stroksen, Roysamb, Moum, & Tambs, 2005). This finding is likely to be due to the overall low instance of complete maternal absence, discussed further in the following studies.

Mothers-child relationships and the sleeper effect.

Research indicates that mother’s enhanced relationship building skills as a women aid in her ability to maintain a stronger relationship with her children even when she is the nonresidential parent (Stroksen, Roysamb, Moum, & Tambs, 2005). Relationships can become even stronger after a father’s remarriage, but found that the reverse did not occur. This is predicted to be due to many factors, including: a fathers attempt to build a new family tends to entail distancing himself from former family, a mothers tendency to maintatin physical custody regardless of remarriage, and a mothers tendency to embrace rather than push chiildren away in times of distressed or change (Frank, 2007).

While the results of the previous study were generalized, a longitudinal study conducted by Zill, Morrison and Coiro (1993) boasted empirical data relating divorce to poor parent-child relationships. Research indicated that among 18- to 22-year olds from divorce families, 65% had weak relationships with their fathers, though only 30% indicated the same with their mothers. This study did however note that there was the possibility for a significant decrease in mother-child relationships after many years had passed. This finding is consistent with the “sleeper effect” identified by Wallerstein (1991).

Mother-child relationships are initially perceived to be stronger and more well adjusted then father-child relationships. However, a study found that after 10 yrs participants viewed their relationships less positively (Fine, Moreland, & Schwebel, 1983). This change was indicted to be caused by the new roles the mother must take on as sole nurturer and provider; the ability to nurture is often trumped by the need to provide a stable income and often causes stress, straining the relationships (Wallerstein, 1991).

While in some research, no sex difference was indicated in father-child relationships, in general females did have a more positive view of their relationship with their mother then males. This often leads them to be more socially competent then males from divorced families living in single mother homes (Fine, Moreland, & Schwebel, 1983). This finding was supported by a study that found a closer bond between mother and daughter maybe attributed to the increased sensitivity of daughters to their mother’s needs and stresses (Oldhinkel, Ormel, Veenstra, De Winter, & Verhulst, 2008).

Parental divorce versus death, which is worse?

Another study compared the effects of parental divorce and death on parent-child relationships of 4,341 adults. Despite the expectation of researchers, it was found that divorce had longer lasting effects on parent-child relationships then the death of a parent. It is proposed in this article that the above difference is due to the prolonged separation of divorce as opposed to the permanent separation of death. The prolonged exposure to parent discord leads to feelings of anger likely to be directed outward to parents. This is opposed to the grief felt by the loss of a parent which is more likely to be internalized and lead to lead to (Mack, 2001 low self esteem).

In sum, while divorce is not gareenteed to create negative parent-child the potential been showed increase substainally. However, research has also concluded that although children with divorced parents generally perceived their relationships with their parents less positively than students from intact families, findings did not indicate that these parent-child relationships were necessarily unhealthy, simply that in comparison intact families shared above average relationship quality (Fine, Moreland, & Schwebel 1983).

Effects on Future Relationships and Views on Marriage

When parents divorce it may serve to undermine the ability to believe marriage can be a happy, stable, long-lasting commitment. Before their first marriage, 265 engaged couples with divorced and nondivorced parents were evaluated on topics including relationship commitment and confidence. These results indicated that females with divorced parents were more likely than male to have reported less commitment to and confidence in the future of their relationship. This lack of commitment and confidence is, unfortunately, a predictor of future divorce (Whiton, Rhoades, Stanley, & Markmen, 2008). Increase in divorce rates for those who express less commitment to their relationships can be explained by finding the lower relationship commitment predicts later relationship dissatisfaction (Impett, Beals, & Peplau, 2001). Whereas, relationship confidence can positively affect partners ability to resolve conflicts constructively and over all marriage stability (Nock, Sanchez, & Wright, 2008). These findings emphasize the pervious evidence that female behaviors are more strongly affected by divorce (Stroksen, Roysamb, Moum, & Tambs, 2005). It is proposed that because women are socialized to be more attentive to emotional distress, females are more attuned to a negative impact of divorce-marriage is not necessarily permanent (Whiton, Rhoades, Stanley, & Markmen, 2008). A long term study of Finnish children also supported these finds. Comparing female from nondivorced and divorced families, it was found that females with divorced parents were more likely to experience potentially traumatic experiences such as divorce, separation and even abortion. This study went on to indentify increased conflict in intimate relationships with lovers, mothers, and other family members (Aro & Palosaari, 1999). As mentioned previously male beliefs and feelings about marriage and divorce appear to be highly dependent on reletionships with father figures (Risch, Jodl, & Eccles, 2004).

Conflicting Perspectives

Intergenerational Transmission of Divorce

Research on what is called the “intergenerational transmission of divorce” has found that compared to intact families, children with divorced parent are more likely to hold negative attitude about marriage and are less positive about the future prospects of their own marriage. Using national longitudinal data from two generations researchers further assesses the prevalence of intergenerational transmission of marital divorce. A study measuring marital instability found that children of divorced parents had a higher risk of divorce because comparatively they possessed lower commitment to lifelong marriage. A National Survey of Families and Hold holds in 1996 found that daughters of parental divorce were 70% more likely to divorce or separate compared to daughters from intact families. The risk of divorce for a married couple when wife and husband come from divorced homes soared to an astounding 189%, based on a study of Marital Instability Over the Life Course (Amato, 1996).

The transmission of marital commitment perspective stresses that the problem with divorce is that it demonstrates that a marital contract can be broken; not the transmission of poor relationship skills (Amato & DeBoer, 2001). Studies that support this perspective show that children of divorced parents are less optimistic about the likelihood of lifetime marriage (Franklin, Janoff-Bulman, & Roberts, 1990) and therefore reported few negative beliefs about their own possible divorce in the future (Amato & Booth, 1991). Discord in one generation also appeared to increase the number of marital relationship problems in the next (Amato & DeBoer, 2001). However, some researchers disagree. A study by Cartwright (2006) showed no support of the intergenerational transmission of divorce perspective. Respondents did not indicate any passive nonchalance to the possibility of divorce and were instead fearful of such an outcome. Thus, deemphasizing the importance of attitudes toward divorce and suggesting increased importance on the problems within a relationship (Cartwright, 2006). Although this was a small study in comparison, its results are in line with other research on this topic.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory suggests that children learn many of their behaviors by modeling their parents. In terms of divorce, this theory suggests that children learn and develop marital skills by watching their parents interact. Therefore, researchers have hypothesized that social learning theory plays a part in the development of poor relationship skills in children from divorced homes. Children of divorce are less likely to witness constructive behavior, such as compromise, support, and communications, which make lifelong marriage possible (Amato & DeBoer, 2001). Comparatively, divorced parents display difficultly communicating clearly and listening attentively. Divorced parents also share less with each other, express more negative than positive emotion, are more critical, have difficulty resolving conflict and several other qualities that are detrimental to relationships. Based on the social learning theory, children in these relationships learn these negative habits and in turn demonstrate then in their own relationships, with unfortunate results like divorce. This was demonstrated in a study by Sanders, Halford & Behrens (1995) which found that couples that experienced parental divorce also displayed more communication problems and an increased risk for divorce than couple with intact families. Moreover, even if a child’s parents stayed together, if the parents were unhappily married and exhibit poor communication skills the child has an increased risk of displaying those same poor skill in their future relationships. However, not all researchers have found such negative effect in children of divorce.


A study conducted by the University of Alabama found similar results. Adults whose parents had divorced appeared to have a less optimistic view of their own future relationships. Participants also indicated that they felt less trust for a future spouse and held a less positive view of marriage overall. Furthermore, many reported fear of intimacy and anxiety over being betrayed by a future spouse, as well as a fear of never finding a life partner to being with. However, adult children of parental divorce did not over generalize these beliefs and fears to other aspects of their life, but kept them narrowly confined in the realm of marriage (Franklin, Janoff-Bulman, & Roberts, 1990).

Contrary to previous studies motioned, when 273 single college students from intact, single-divorce, and multiple-divorce families were compared findings revealed that all were equally optimistic about their likelihood of getting married. Most interesting of all is the finding that multiple-divorce participant’s self-estimation of risk for divorce was equal to that of children from intact families. It appears divorces do not add up, single- and multiple-divorce homes have almost the same expectations for marriage. Furthermore, multiple-divorce children hold stronger beliefs in their ability to control the outcomes of their relationship. They appear to perceive the multiple failed attempts by parents at matrimony as a ‘How (not) to Guide’ in marriage. This result what not seen in single-divorce respondents who rated themselves as more likely to divorce then intact family offspring (Boyer-Pennington, Pennington, & Spink, 2001). However, the study did find result consistent to previous studied indicating the participants from divorced homes held less positive attitude and expectations for their future marriage than participants from intact homes (Franklin, Janoff-Bulman, & Roberts, 1990).

Another important factor that may contribute to positive marriage outcomes is the possibility of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Positive expectations may lead those with such expectations to behave in have that will elicit positive outcomes. Unfortunately, the opposite can be said for negative expectations (Boyer-Pennington, Pennington, & Spink, 2001).

Children of Divorce Speak.

Finally, how do children from divorced homes feel about parental divorce have affected them? Few studies have extensively interviewed the offspring of divorced parents in order to gage their beliefs on how divorce has affected their lives. However, in one such study, life-story interviews were conducted with 40 young adults living New Zealand. Consistent with findings in other studies, the majority of participants believed that they had or were currently experiencing negative effects of parental divorce. These negative effects ranged from difficulty in intimate relationships to problems with parents. More specifically, 70% of respondents related problems communicating with others, trusting others, and being overly emotional. All consistent with previously mentioned studies. Sixty percent allows worried current relationship stability as well as marriage in the future. Many were concerned that they will not be able to maintain current or future relationships and the relationship could possible end in divorce. All this concern was revealed despite the fact that the majority of the participants were in healthy relationships (Cartwright, 2006).


With divorce rates on the rise it is important to understand the possible affects that divorce can have on children, importantly for this paper the influence divorce had on relationships There is overwhelming evidence for the possible negative effects of divorce on children. These effects range from weaker relationships parent-child relationships to lower optimism about marriage. However, it is also important to note that there are other variable at play, such as personality types, religiousness, socialization, and genetic influences. Simply put the effects of divorce are not cut and dry. Whether or not a child suffers because of parental divorce is based on multiple interrelated factors. However, it can be said that negative effects of divorce are prevalent and should be paid much heed. Fortunately, it appears that many of these negative effects can be negates through positive interactions with both parents.

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