The Causal Effects of Parental Divorce and Parental Temporary Separation on Children’s Cognitive Abilities and Psychological Well-being According to Parental Relationship Quality

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  • Published: 27 July 2020
  • Volume 161 , pages 963–987, ( 2022 )

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hypothesis about divorce

  • Anna Garriga 1 &
  • Fulvia Pennoni   ORCID: 2  

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We explore the effects of parental divorce and parental temporary separation on well-being of children at a specific stage of their development according to the parental relationship quality. Despite the importance of this subject, among previous studies only few consider very young children and are based on statistical methods properly tailored to enhance causal evaluations. We attempt to establish the effects on both cognitive abilities and psychological dimensions of children at age five by using data drawn from the first three waves of the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Using an appropriate imputation method, we apply the augmented inverse propensity treatment weighted estimator to infer causality. Overcoming some of the limitations of previous research, we find that the dissolution of high-quality parental unions has the most harmful effects on children, especially concerning conduct problems. We demonstrate the substantial variation on consequences of parental divorce depending on the level of parental relationship quality. We show that parental temporary separation is a type of family disruption that has significant negative effects on young children. In fact, we infer that they have more conduct and hyperactivity problems than children from stable or divorced families. Our results also suggest children to be targeted with appropriate policies aimed to reduce the adverse effect of family disruption.

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1 Introduction

Parental divorce and union dissolution is an increasingly common experience for children in all developed countries. It has raised the debate on whether parental divorce is damaging for children’s well-being and to what extent parents should remain together for the sake of the children. In accordance with this social concern, one of the most extensively discussed topics in the literature has been the average effects of divorce on children well-being. Many social surveys have been considered and various statistical methods have been used putting special emphasis on controlling for parental relationship quality and conflict prior to separation but often without considering that parental conflict does not always precede separation. In fact, a large percentage of low-distress couples divorce, a phenomena that has increased substantially in recent decades (Gähler and Palmtag 2015 ).

For this reason, some studies in the last two decades have offered a more nuanced explanation of the causality of divorce that focuses on the heterogeneity of divorce effects by parental relationship quality (Amato et al. 1995 ; Jekielek 1998 ; Hanson 1999 ; Strohschein 2005 ). They take into account in which way divorce affects different children, either positively or negatively, instead of concentrating on the average causal effect of divorce across the board (Amato 2010 ). These studies suggest that divorce may be a positive experience for children from high-distress marriages, while the dissolution of low-distress marriages may have opposite effects (Amato et al. 1995 ; Booth and Amato 2001 ). Despite the significant ramifications of these findings, to the best of the author’s knowledge only few studies have examined the heterogeneity of the consequences of parental divorce by the level of parental relationship quality. These studies (for instance, see: Amato et al. 1995 ; Jekielek 1998 ; Hanson 1999 ; Morrison and Coiro 1999 ; Booth and Amato 2001 ; Strohschein 2005 ; Fomby and Osborne 2010 ; Yu et al. 2010 ; Kalmijn 2015 ) present the following characteristics: a ) only two are based on non-US data, and only few use nationally representative samples or methods to infer causality; b ) they have mainly analyzed children’s psychological well-being while evidence on other children’s outcomes such as cognitive development is scarce; c ) the most of them focus solely on children in middle childhood or older. Amato ( 2010 ), in his most recent review of the literature, encourages more research concerning this issue. We use a national large sample with several cases of divorce and temporary separations among parents and cohabiting couples representing the current trend in the Western societies. We explore the effects both on the psychological well-being and cognitive development of the children. We investigate if and how these effects are different according to parental relationship quality. The latter is measured in a way to capture not only parental conflicts before separation but also communication, affection and emotions among the couple. We use the first three waves of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) which is a nationally representative longitudinal study of a cohort of British children born from 2000 to 2002 in the UK. We move forward from previous work and contribute in respect to the analysis of the interrelationships between family disruption, parental relationship quality and children’s psychological well-being and cognitive development. First, we test whether the hypothesis of heterogeneity of divorce effects by parental relationship quality is also true for children from UK. Second, we aim to assess whether this hypothesis is also valid for young children since only Fomby and Osborne ( 2010 ) account for very young children and do not find evidence of heterogeneity of divorce by parental relationship quality. We have specifically focused on a salient period of children’s lives, namely the transition to school. It is well-demonstrated that children who enter school without the necessary cognitive or socio-emotional skills have greater academic and behavioral difficulties during their school years and beyond than their more “school-ready” counterparts (Romano et al. 2010 ). Third, we aim to assess the heterogeneity hypothesis by improving and extending the methodological and analytical approach proposed in the literature. We focus on many of children’s outcomes rather than just on one or two since we consider the following multiple dimensions of children’s school readiness: three different cognitive abilities (verbal, problem-solving and spatial abilities) and five psychological dimensions (conduct, hyperactivity, internalizing and peer problems, and pro-social behavior). Unlike previous research on parental divorce, we use the Augmented Inverse Propensity Treatment Weighted (AIPTW, Robins et al. 2000 ) estimator in order to yield robust estimates of the effects of interest and an imputation method based on the statistical methodology of chained equations (Raghunathan et al. 2001 ), which allows us to jointly impute missing data for different types of variables. Furthermore, in previous research on the interplay between parental divorce, parental relationship quality and children’s outcomes, the fact that a significant proportion of parents separate only temporarily was not considered. Little is known about the level of relationship quality of these parents before separation and the risks children experience when they face this type of family disruption (Kiernan et al. 2011 ; Nepomnyaschy and Teitler 2013 ).

In sum, by using cohort data similar to that used by Fomby and Osborne ( 2010 ), we aim to test the following three hypotheses: i ) parental relationship quality and family disruption are unrelated processes that have independent effects on children (the independent hypothesis); ii ) the negative association between family disruption and children’s well-being may be spurious because poor relationship quality is related to both family disruption and poor children well-being (the selection hypothesis); iii ) the consequences of family disruption on children are contingent on the level of parental relationship quality experienced prior to this event (the heterogeneity hypothesis). To test this third hypothesis about the heterogeneity of the effects of family disruption by parental relationship quality is the main contribution of our study.

The paper is structured as follows. In Sect.  2 we provide a background section considering the effects of family disruption on children well-being, then we focus on the conceptual framework. In Sect.  3 we describe data and methods. In Sect.  4 we show the main results. In Sect.  5 we provide a discussion. The supplementary material provides further details on data, missing data imputation and additional tables with results.

2 Background

2.1 family disruption on children well-being.

Studies on the effects of parental divorce on children’s well-being that use ordinary least squares (OLS) and logistic models show that part of this effect is spurious and it is only partially explained by parental relationship quality (Hanson 1999 ). Since the late 1990s, several studies have used more innovative research designs to identify the independent effects of parental divorce and father absence such as lagged dependent variable models, growth curve models, individual and sibling fixed effects models, natural experiments and instrumental variables, and propensity score matching. McLanahan et al. ( 2013 ) review these studies and find consistent evidence that parental divorce exerts negative effects on the well-being of offspring. They also show that this evidence is stronger for children’s socio-emotional development, especially in externalizing problems, than for children’s cognitive ability. Nevertheless, they present the following features: a ) most studies of the effect that of parental divorce on cognitive and psychological development are based on US samples b ) very few studies focus on children who experience parental divorce in early childhood, and c ) only one (Strohschein 2005 ) explores the heterogeneity of divorce effects by the quality of the parental relationship prior to separation.

A weakness of existing research is that it does not consider parents who separate only temporarily. Recent studies observe that a non-negligible proportion of parents separate for a short time period and then re-partner with the same person (Kiernan et al. 2011 ; Nepomnyaschy and Teitler 2013 ). However, as stated by Nepomnyaschy and Teitler ( 2013 , 3) “in most studies, this family ‘type’ is usually classified as either intact or separated (depending on when cohabitation status is ascertained), but it may differ in many respects from both of those groups”. The reason this type of family disruption is scarcely considered in previous research is that most studies only use two waves of survey data, and at least three waves are necessary to detect it. The existing research on the characteristics of parents who only separate temporarily show that such couples have a more disadvantaged socio-demographic background than with continuously intact relationships (Kiernan et al. 2011 ; Nepomnyaschy and Teitler 2013 ). Despite that, the only two studies that analyze the consequences of temporary separation on children well-being find evidence of a negative effect, even when controlling for several socio-demographic characteristics (Kiernan et al. 2011 ; Nepomnyaschy and Teitler 2013 ). However, no study controls for the relationship quality of parents before separation and some evidence suggest that couples who separate temporarily have a lower relationship quality than stable couples long before separation occurs (Vennum et al. 2014 ). Thus, if poor parental relationship quality may cause temporary separation, then it is difficult to rule out the possibility that the negative association between parental temporary separation and children’s outcomes may be due to relationship quality rather than this event per se.

2.2 Heterogeneity of the Effects of Parental Divorce by Parental Relationship Quality

2.2.1 conceptual framework.

Two main explanations are provided regarding the heterogeneity of the effects of parental divorce Footnote 1 by parental relationship quality. One is the stress relief hypothesis (Wheaton 1990 ) which concerns the consequences of transitions in life roles. Wheaton ( 1990 , 210) stated that “…instead of being stressful, life events may at times be either non-problematic or even beneficial, offering escape from a chronically stressful role situation, creating the apparent paradox of more ‘stress’ functioning as stress relief”. According to this perspective, the stressful event of parental divorce may be beneficial for children whose parental relationship prior to divorce has been poor, as it takes them away from an aversive and stressful home environment. After divorce, these children should enjoy an improvement in their well-being since they no longer experience the parental conflict (Booth and Amato 2001 ; Strohschein 2005 ).

By contrast, the dissolution of low-distress parental relationships may be detrimental to children’s development. Children from relatively harmonious families may not benefit from divorce, since it is unlikely that they experience this event as stress relief. For these children, divorce may instead give rise to stressful situations such as a decline in their standard of living, moving to a poorer neighborhood, changing schools, and losing contact with the non-custodial parent (Amato 2010 ). Children from non-dysfunctional families may also begin to experience parental discord after separation, since issues such as custody, childrearing, visitation, and child support are potentially conflictual (Booth and Amato 2001 ).

In addition to changes in stress, children’s understanding and perceptions of divorce depend on the level of their parents’ pre-divorce relationship problems, another factor related to children’s adjustment after separation. Children who have witnessed parental disputes may anticipate their parents’ divorce and attribute it to external reasons, such as parental conflict, as argued by Booth and Amato ( 2001 ). For children from low-distress families, by contrast, divorce might come as more of a surprise and they might see divorce as a threat to their happiness. Booth and Amato ( 2001 ) give possible reasons as to how an unexpected divorce may adversely impact on children. First, for these children, it is more difficult to comprehend and accept the reasons for their parents’ separation. As Maes et al. ( 2012 , 276) state: “if children do not understand why their parents have divorced, they make up their own story around things they do know, increasing the danger that children will blame themselves”. Second, children who do not anticipate parental divorce may feel that they have little control over events in their lives (Booth and Amato 2001 ). Children’s self-blame and locus of control are, in turn, negatively related to their adjustment after divorce (Bussell 1996 ; Kim et al. 1997 ).

Are these useful in explaining the heterogeneity of parental divorce for infants and very young children? The explanation of children’s understanding and perceptions of divorce is unlikely to be valid for very young children due to the kind of reasoning needed for children to be able to anticipate this event and blame themselves for it. The stress relief explanation developed for older children and adults, however, can also be applied to infants and very young children. There is a growing and consistent body of research documenting that the exposure to poor parental relationship quality during infancy affects children’s well-being cross-sectionally during infancy and longitudinally during their pre-school years (Fitzgerald 2010 ; Graham et al. 2013 ; Zhou, Cao and Leerkes 2017 ). For example, a possible mechanism is that parental conflict experienced by infants is associated with neural responses to emotional tone of voice, particularly very angry speech (Graham et al. 2013 ). With the existing evidence, it is reasonable to assume that if parental conflict produces stress in infants, then when parental divorce occurs this source of stress will disappear and their well-being will improve.

The second explanation does not focus on the consequences of direct exposure of infants to parental conflict but highlights an indirect pathway through parental well-being: parental relationship quality moderates the effect of parental divorce on very young children because parental relationship quality also moderates the effect of divorce on parent’s well-being. To our knowledge, this explanation has not been mentioned by previous research and is based on two main premises. First, it has been largely demonstrated that parents’ emotional adjustment after divorce is an important predictor of children’s well-being (Amato 1993 ) and that parents’ emotional problems are also clearly associated with adverse children’s outcomes during infancy and early childhood (Petterson and Albers 2001 ; Kiernan and Huerta 2008 ). In addition to that, few empirical studies that have focused on this topic predominantly show that people who enjoyed a high relationship quality prior to divorce suffer the most harmful negative effects on their emotional well-being (for instance, see Wheaton 1990 ; Booth and Amato 2001 ; Williams 2003 ; Waite et al. 2009 ; Ye et al. 2017 ). For people with low levels of relationship quality, the findings are mixed. Some studies give support to the hypothesis that divorce is beneficial for the emotional well-being of people in highly conflictual or unsatisfactory relationships (for instance, see: Wheaton 1990 ; Williams 2003 ; Amato and Hohmann-Marriott 2007 ; Ye et al. 2017 ). Others find evidence that when people divorce from an unsatisfactory relationship, they experience a decrease in their emotional well-being but to a lesser extent than those who divorce from satisfactory relationships (Kalmijn and Monden 2006 ; Waite et al. 2009 ). For these reasons, it seems plausible to hypothesize that if divorce has the most harmful effects on parents who enjoyed a high level of relationship quality, their children would also experience the most harmful effects of this event.

2.2.2 Previous Research

To the extent of our knowledge the current research is based on the possible data according to the characteristics of the sample at the time and on the best method of analysis. Confidence in research findings increases when studies are based on a nationally representative sample with a large sample size. Some studies have less than 300 cases in the divorce group, and only three (Hanson 1999 ; Strohschein 2005 ; Kalmijn 2015 ) use nationally representative surveys. The majority of samples are based on American children, with the exception of Kalmijn ( 2015 ) and Strohschein ( 2005 ), and there is not enough evidence to conclude the hypothesis of heterogeneity of divorce effects is valid in all Western countries or if this hypothesis is country-specific. With exception of Fomby and Osborne ( 2010 ), all relevant studies examine only children whose parents are married; they exclude the large and increasing proportion of children who are living with their biological cohabiting parents (Kiernan et al. 2011 ).

Concerning the characteristics of the outcomes and focal variables we observe that seven of the nine studies in this field used the psychological well-being of offspring; there is less consistent evidence of variation in divorce effects in other important outcomes. Among studies concerning the heterogeneity of divorce, only one focus on educational achievement (Hanson 1999 ). For this reason, with the existing research, it is not possible to say whether the hypothesis about the heterogeneity of divorce effects is valid for most children’s outcomes, or only for psychological ones.

In addition, existing research does not focus on a specific stage of children’s development. Instead, samples are used with great variation in the children’s ages at the time of divorce, and the age when response variables are measured. Most studies look at children who experienced parental divorce over a wide range of ages (Booth and Amato 2001 ; Hanson 1999 ; Kalmijn 2015 ). In some of them, divorce occurred any time from when the children were born to when they were adults. Only Fomby and Osborne ( 2010 ) focus on a specific stage of children’s development namely parental divorce that occurs before age 3, and the response variable is measured at age 3. Second, as mentioned, studies finding evidence in favor of the heterogeneity hypothesis analyze children’s outcomes measured during middle childhood and/or adolescence (Hanson 1999 ; Jekielek 1998 ; Morrison and Coiro 1999 ; Strohschein 2005 ) or adulthood (Amato et al. 1995 ; Booth and Amato 2001 ; Yu et al. 2010 ; Kalmijn 2015 ) and the only paper that does not support this hypothesis focuses on outcomes in very young children (Fomby and Osborne 2010 ). These contradictory results may suggest that the effects of divorce only vary by parental relationship quality for children in middle childhood or older. However, with only one study on very young children, there is not enough evidence to conclude whether divorce effects are heterogeneous depending on the age of the child at the time of divorce and/or the age when the outcomes were measured.

3 Materials and Methods

The data correspond to the first three waves of Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) which is a high-quality profile survey representative for the UK (Plewis et al. 2000 ; Hansen and Joshi 2007 ; Plewis 2007 ; Hansen et al. 2012 ). The first sweep was carried out between September 2000 and January 2002. It contains information on 18,819 babies from 18,533 families, collected from the parents when the babies were 9–11 months old. The families were contacted again when the children were aged 3 and 5 years. The response rates achieved for the second (2004/05) and third (2006) waves were 78% and 79% of the target sample, respectively. More than two-thirds of the sample (around 69% representing 13,234 families) responded in all three waves (Ketende 2010 ). The MCS sample design allowed for over-representation of families living in areas with high rates of child poverty and/or high proportions of ethnic minorities. Survey methods were used to take account of the initial sampling design, and adjustments were made for non-response in the recruitment of the original sample and sample attrition over the follow-up period to age five. Footnote 2

We consider children whose family structure is available for all the first three waves of the MCS. The sample includes only singleton children and families where the mother is the main respondent at the first wave. More details on the data and on how we handle missing values are available in Section A1 of the supplementary material.

3.2 Variables

3.2.1 response variables.

The variables of interest for school readiness are measured when children are 5 years old, at the third wave. The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) (Goodman 1997 ) assesses children’s behavioral adjustment and is answered by the mother. The SDQ is made up of five subscales assessing emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity or inattention problems, peer problems, and pro-social behavior. Each subscale has five items with scores ranging from 0 to 2. Children’s cognitive development is assessed by using the British Ability Scales (BAS II) (Elliott et al. 1997 ). The following BAS subscales were used to measure different domains of cognitive development: the naming vocabulary test, which assesses expressive language; the picture similarities test, which measures pictorial reasoning; and the pattern construction test, which assesses spatial ability. These were conducted by an interviewer at home. The three tests assess the three most significant information-processing skills: verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning and spatial abilities (Hill 2005 ). A standardized score is computed for each cohort member according to his/her age band considered every three months. Table  1 shows the average scores for the response variables stratified according to the family situation at age 5 as defined in the following section. Children experiencing parental temporary separation or parental divorce shows lightly more psychological problems and lower scores for cognitive development with respect to children with stable family.

3.2.2 Focal Variables

We use the first three waves of the survey to create the following main family situations: children that experience parental divorce are those whose parents were together (married or cohabiting) until they were at least 9 months old, but who divorced when they were aged between 9 months and 5 years (N = 1177); children that experience parental temporary separation are those whose parents were together (married or cohabiting) when they were born and when they were 9 months and 5 years old (N = 277); however, on one or more occasions, their parents spent more than one month living apart; children in stable families are those whose parents remained in stable married or cohabiting unions from their birth until age 5 (N = 9001).

Partnership quality was derived from the Golombok Rust Inventory of Marital State (GRIMS, Rust et al. 1990 ) which is a psychometric instrument for the assessment of marital discord and the overall quality of a couple’s relationship. We only used the GRIMS scale for responses from the mother, as the fathers’ questionnaire showed a high percentage of missing cases. We use this scale at the first wave (9 months) since it has seven items, as opposed to four items in the subsequent waves.

The following four items, the responses to which were collected at the first wave assess the negative aspects of relationship quality: (1) “my partner doesn’t seem to listen to me”; (2) “sometimes I feel lonely even when I am with my partner”; (3) “I wish there was more warmth and affection between us”; and (4) “I suspect we may be on the brink of separation”. The other three items assess the positive aspects of relationship quality: (1) “my partner is usually sensitive to and aware of my needs”; (2) “our relationship is full of joy and excitement”; and (3) “we can always make up quickly after an argument”. The item responses consist of the following: strongly agree (0); agree (1); neither agree nor disagree (2); disagree (3); strongly disagree (4) and can’t say (5). “Can’t say” responses were considered as missing information. To create an ordinal scale, we included both the positive and the negative items, which involved reversing the answers to the positive items. For these items the answers were: strongly disagree (0); disagree (1); neither agree nor disagree (2); agree (3); strongly agree (4). We then added up respondents’ answers to the seven items, which produced a scale with a minimum of 0 and a maximum of 28.

Most studies, also due to few observed divorced couples, consider the heterogeneity of divorce by accounting for an interaction between parental divorce and the continuous variable measuring parental relationship quality. They assume that the magnitude and sign of the interaction effect is the same across any value of the relationship quality and they do not allow the extent to which the effect of parental divorce diverges in according to the intensity of the relation to be examined. Only Fomby and Osborne ( 2010 ) use a binary variable to identify couples with a low relationship quality if the reported value is below the 25th percentile of the sample distribution. We consider the quartiles of the empirical distribution and we account for the following ordered categories of decreasing union quality: very good, good, poor and very poor. We choose this specification to obtain a more accurate portrayal of children who experience especially poor and very poor parental relationship quality.

Table  2 shows the descriptive statistics of the family situation according to parental relationship quality. In the sample 86% belong to stable family, 11% experience parental divorce and around 3% experience parental temporary separation. The percentages of those reporting different levels of relationship quality are quite similar: 28% and 20% reported high and low quality relationships, respectively. The data reveal that parents who remained together from wave 1 (children were 9 months old) to wave 3 (children were 5 years old) had better relationship quality on average than those who divorced or experienced some period of separation. Comparing the two types of family disruption, parents who subsequently divorce exhibit worse relationship quality than those who only temporarily separate. At wave 1, around 18% of parents in stable family reported the lowest relationship quality compared with 32% of those who later separated temporarily and 39% of those who later divorced. Hence, in accordance with the selection hypothesis, a large number of children with divorced parents were exposed to poor union quality before parental separation. However, contrary to this hypothesis, Table  2 also shows that a considerable proportion of parents who divorced had not experienced poor relationship quality prior to ending their relationship. Among children whose parents divorced, around 17% and 22% belonged to families with the highest (q 1 ) and high (q 2 ) relationship quality, respectively. It is important to acknowledge that children whose parents had the highest relationship quality at wave 1 could experience poor parental relationship quality after this wave and prior to their parents’ divorce since this event occurs between wave 1 and wave 3 of the survey.

Although the percentages show that a large proportion of divorced parents reported the lowest level of relationship quality before separation, the row percentages demonstrate that the majority of parents with poor-quality relationships do not separate. Approximately three-quarters (73%) of mothers with the lowest level of relationship quality at wave 1 remained in a relationship with the father of their child four years later.

Overall, considering only values from Tables  1 and 2 , we cannot say whether the observed differences on school readiness between children from different family situations are explained by differences in parental relationship quality pre-dating the experience of family disruption.

3.2.3 Control Variables

The control variables illustrated in Table 3 are measured when children were 9 months old (wave 1), namely before parental separation took place, and took into account several socio-demographic characteristics related to family disruption and children’s well-being (Booth and Amato 1991 , 2001 ; Wilson and Waddoups 2002 ; Amato and Hohmann-Marriott 2007 ; Kiernan and Huerta 2008 ; Brown 2004 ; Kiernan and Mensah 2009 ; Brooks-Gunn et al. 2010 ; Muluk et al. 2014 ; Idstad et al. 2015 ; Karraker and Latham 2015 ; Oláh and Gähler 2014 ; Sabates and Dex 2015 ).

Concerning the social exchange theory (Levinger 1976 ) we include into the rewards and costs the following variables to control for the selection into family disruption: family income, housing tenure, mother’s educational attainment and ethnicity, mother’s health (depression and longstanding illness) and the presence of half- or step-siblings at home. We consider the following variables as barriers to family disruption: paid work status of the mother; whether the mother lived with someone else as a couple before living with the father of the child; type of parental union (married directly, cohabitation before marriage, or cohabitation); year that parents began living together as a couple; whether parents grew up in a non-stable family and mother’s attitudes to single-parent upbringing. Instrumental support is measured by the following response provided by the mother: “If I had financial problems, I know my family would help if they could”. Finally, another group of control variables is related to the division of unpaid work, which is associated with the probability of divorce: who is mostly responsible for household tasks and who is generally with and looking after the children.

3.3 Methods and Analytical Strategy

The effect of parental divorce (or parental temporary separation) on children’s outcomes is evaluated under the framework of counterfactual reasoning or Potential Outcomes (POs) (Rubin 1974 , Holland and Rosenbaum 1986 ). In this context, we are interested to estimate the Average Treatment Effect (ATE) that is conceived as the difference between the expected values of the POs of the children in the treated and untreated condition. We refer to the POs of individual exposed to treatment as \( Y_{i}^{\left( 1 \right)} \) and not exposed as \( Y_{i}^{\left( 0 \right)} \) for each i , i  = 1,…, n . The treatment is provided only to a fraction of the units, and it is denoted by a binary variable Z i that is equal to 1 if the individual i is treated and to 0 if he/she is not treated. The treatment effect is defined as the difference \( Y_{i}^{\left( 1 \right)} - Y_{i}^{\left( 0 \right)} \) and the same value over the population is the ATE defined as the expected value of the POs as follows

The realized outcome for individual i is given by

In this framework, the outcomes of the children whose parents are divorced or temporary separated are only observed in the presence of the treatment conditions and the outcomes of the children in stable families are only observed in the absence of treatment. That is, a child can experience parental divorce or can live in a stable family from 9 months to age 5. As recently stated by Kim ( 2011 ) the ATE joints the realized developmental outcomes for children had experienced divorce or temporary separation and the counterfactual outcomes for these children had their parents remained together. The effects of family disruption on children’s outcomes can be assessed only on average in this non-experimental study, since each child belongs to one of the treatment or to the control group and one PO is always not realized. Children experiencing family disruption may be not randomly selected, and the family characteristics that determine the disruption may also affect the child’s well-being through other pathways (McLanahan et al. 2013 ).

The Propensity Score (PS, Rosenbaum and Rubin 1983 ) is a multivariate statistical matching method proposed for data collected in non-experimental contexts aimed to reduce the bias of the estimator of the treatment effect by considering the observed pre-treatment covariates (Rosenbaum 2020 ). The PS concerns the conditional probability of the treatment (the probability of experiencing parental divorce or parental temporary separation) given the observed pre-treatment covariates. This aims to mimic an experimental context especially when the observational data are rich as in the context of this application where similar questionnaires are administered to the participants. For estimating the ATE the weighted regression estimator (Rosenbaum 1987 ) defined as the Inverse Propensity Treatment Weighted (IPTW) estimator (Robins et al. 2000 ) weights each unit according to the estimated inverse probability of receiving the treatment actually received. The weights are obtained as the inverse of the estimated PS and in this context they allow us to compare children exposed to divorce despite their low probability of exposure and children not-exposed to divorce. We use observable pre-treatment covariates collected into the column vector \( \varvec{X}_{i} \) whose realized values are denoted with \( \varvec{x}_{i} \) for i  = 1, …,  n . We assume that conditional to the pre-treatment covariates the average outcomes in the treated and control groups in the absence of treatment would be the same. Another assumption is defined as strong ignorability (Rosenbaum and Rubin 1983 ) and postulates that given the pre-treatment covariates the treatment choice is independent of the POs. The positivity assumption is also required meaning that each treatment level occurs with some positive probability. This is also defined overlap assumption since it implies that the support of the conditional distribution of the covariates x i given Z i = 0 overlaps completely with the conditional distribution of x i given Z i = 1 (Imbens and Wooldridge 2009 ).

Disposing of a sample of n independent units, the IPTW estimator uses weights estimated through the maximum likelihood estimates of the parameters of the multiple logistic regression model given by

In this way it is possible to mimic a pseudo-population in which the covariates are balanced between treated and untreated individuals. The Augmented IPTW (AIPTW) estimator has the smallest asymptotic variance among the class of the IPTW estimators (Robins et al. 1994 ) and it is obtained according to the proposal of Lunceford and Davidian ( 2004 ) as follows:

where \( \hat{f}\left(Y_i= {y_{i} |\varvec{v}_{i} } \right) \) denotes the multiple linear regression model estimated for the observed responses by using ordinary least squares or robust inferential methods with \( \varvec{v}_{i} \) denoting the vector of the observed covariates. All the relevant covariates should be included in the sets \( \varvec{x}_{i} \) and \( \varvec{v}_{i} \) . We propose to apply the AIPTW estimator since it corrects for possible mis-specifications in the PS model or in POs model and it is statistically more robust with respect to other methods. The so-called “double robustness” property (Bang and Robins 2005 ; Neugebauer and van der Laan 2005 ) implies that the estimator remains consistent if the POs or PS model are incorrectly specified, see among others, Cao et al. ( 2009 ) and Glynn and Quinn ( 2010 ). When the estimated weights are too large Robins et al. ( 2000 ) propose to truncate such weights up to a specified threshold, preventing to some units being highly influential.

The analytical strategy we follow is to consider the three hypotheses illustrated in the introduction and to show the results according to the following steps. First, we estimate the ATEs of parental divorce and parental temporary separation including the available covariates in the PS model shown in Table  3 and accounting also for the overall weights to consider attrition and the initial sampling design. We estimate the POs model by considering all the variables most directly related to the children’s living conditions selected according to the knowledge in the field. They are the following: sex of the child; number of children at home; mother’s education, ethnicity and labor force participation; household income; housing tenure; mother’s longstanding illness and depression, and type of parental union. Second, to evaluate the selection hypothesis we estimate the ATE including the parental relationship quality in the POs and PS models. Third, to evaluate the heterogeneity for parental divorce we estimate the ATE by considering the quartiles of the variable relationship quality in the POs and PS models. The heterogeneity hypothesis is not considered for children experiencing parental temporary separation. The three steps are repeated for every outcome by considering each time five imputed datasets in order to account for missing values. More details are provided in Section A1 of the supplementary material.

4.1 Average Effects of Family Disruption on Children’s Well-being

In order to evaluate i ) the independent and ii ) the selection hypotheses, we compare the following two models: Model 1, which only includes control variables, and Model 2, which also considers parental relationship quality in both outcome and treatment models. Table  4 reports the results for each psychological and cognitive dimension. As expected, this covariate is significant in predicting the probability of parental divorce and parental temporary separation for each dimension. We refer to Section A2 of the supplementary material for some additional results for conduct problems where we show the estimated regression coefficients of the covariates included in the PO and PS models (Table A1 and A2, respectively). Concerning the results showed in Table  4 we notice that the estimated ATE of parental divorce is significant for all the psychological dimensions and except for the picture similarity test in Model 1 for all the other cognitive dimensions. However, when parental relationship quality is introduced among the control variables (Model 2), the effect of parental divorce is not significant for internalizing problems and peer problems. For conduct and hyperactivity problems, the magnitude of the effect of parental divorce is still significant but is considerably reduced. For conduct problems, parental divorce increases the average score of 0.244 points (Model 1) with respect to the score of children in stable family but this average score decreases to 0.162 when parental relationship quality is included (Model 2). For hyperactivity, the effect of parental divorce is 0.407 in Model 1 and 0.241 in Model 2. By considering parental relationship quality the ATE is reduced of around 34% for conduct problems and around 41% for hyperactivity problems Footnote 3 . Unexpectedly, the effect of parental divorce on pro-social behavior becomes significant in Model 2. For the cognitive dimension, the estimated effect of parental divorce in Model 1 is significant for all cognitive variables with the exception of the picture similarity test. Unlike the results for the most psychological variables, when parental relationship quality is included (Model 2), the effect of parental divorce does not decrease for the pattern construction test, and even increases slightly for the vocabulary test.

The effect of parental temporary separation is not significant in any model for internalizing, peer problems and pro-social behavior. In contrast, parental temporary separation has a significant negative effect on children’s hyperactivity and conduct in both models. For parental divorce, parental relationship quality does not reduce the effect of parental temporary separation in any of these psychological dimensions. It is also important to point out that for conduct and for hyperactivity problems, the magnitude of the effect of parental temporary separation is greater than the effect of parental divorce. The results of Model 2 show that the estimated PO mean for the conduct scores of children in stable family is 1.287. Parental temporary separation increases this score by an average of 0.384 while parental divorce increases it by an average of 0.162. In other words, the effect of parental temporary separation increases conduct problems by around 30% while parental divorce only increases conduct problems by around 16%. Similar differences result for hyperactivity problems. Turning to cognitive variables, the effect of parental temporary separation is not significant in any model for the pattern construction and vocabulary tests and this effect is only significant in Model 1 for the picture similarity test.

4.2 Heterogeneous Effects of Parental Divorce According to Parental Relationship Quality

The third hypothesis is evaluated according to the results showed in Table  5 reporting the ATE estimated according to the relationship quality. With regard to the psychological dimension, the effect of parental divorce on conduct problems is only significant for children that experienced extreme levels of parental relationship quality. Among children whose parents reported the highest relationship quality (q 1 ), the PO mean in stable family is 0.960, with parental divorce increasing it by 0.349. In other words, children with parental divorce experiencing good relationship quality show more conduct problems than children in stable family. The difference in percentage is lower among children whose parents had a very poor relationship quality (q 4 ).

For hyperactivity problems, the effect of parental divorce is significant only for those whose parents had a very poor relationship. Children with parental divorce experiencing very poor relationships among parents, have a higher probability of reporting hyperactivity problems compared to children with a stable family; the difference in percentage is around 11%.

As it can be seen, for internalizing problems the average effect of parental divorce is not significant once parental relationship quality is considered. However, when this effect is analyzed according to the quartiles of parental relationship quality, we get similar results to those obtained for conduct problems. The effect of parental divorce is significant in the extreme level of the relationship quality: within the group of children whose parents showed very good relationships, those who experience parental divorce have a higher probability of manifesting internalizing problems compared to children from stable family; the difference in percentage is around 20% Footnote 4 . Within the group of children whose parents had very poor relationships, the difference in percentage is lower, at around 12%. For peer problems, the effect of parental divorce is only significant for children whose parents had a good relationship (q 2 ) and, for pro-social behavior, the effect is only significant for those with bad relationships (q 3 ).

With regard to the cognitive dimension of children’s school readiness, although the average effect of parental divorce on the picture similarity tests is not significant Table  4 , the results are different in Table  5 . The effect of parental divorce is significant and equal to − 1.326 among children with parents reporting very poor relationships (q 4 ). The effect for those experiencing very good relationships (q 1 ) among parents is not significant. For the vocabulary test, it is interesting to note that the estimated ATE is significant and negatively large for those children exposed to a very good relationship (q 1 ) among parents. In this category, parental divorce decreases the score of the vocabulary test by an average of 3.319 points. It is also significant but lower in magnitude for those whose parents had a bad relationship (q 3 ). For the pattern construction test the estimated ATE is significant and negative for children experiencing poor and very poor relationships.

5 Discussion

This work is an attempt to elucidate the interrelationships between family disruption and parental relationship quality by testing the following three main hypotheses: i ) parental relationship quality and family disruption are unrelated processes that have independent effects on children (the independent hypothesis); ii ) the apparent effect of family disruption is explained according to the parental relationship quality (the selection hypothesis); iii ) the effect of family disruption on children depends on the quality of the parental relationship (the heterogeneity hypothesis).

We advance previous research in several ways. First, we evaluate the importance of these hypotheses using a comprehensive view of child development rather than focusing on a single outcome. We analyze multiple domains of children’s school readiness: cognitive and psychological well-being. Second, we focus on very young children who are at a key point in their development, namely the transition to school, while most research focuses on children in middle childhood or older. Third, we also analyze parental temporary separation which is a type of family disruption that is only scarcely covered in previous literature. Fourth, unlike most previous research, our study examines the heterogeneity of divorce effects by parental relationship quality outside of the US by using a UK nationally representative sample. Fifth, we use a proper multivariate method to impute the missing values and we employ the augmented inverse propensity treatment weighted estimator to infer the causal effects in each imputed dataset and we combine the results. Up to our knowledge this estimator has not been used by previous studies to assess the effect of parental divorce on children well-being.

We find mixed support for the i ) independent and the ii ) selection hypotheses, obtaining a different pattern for each outcome and type of family disruption. The selection hypothesis is supported by the potential outcome models regarding the average effect of parental divorce on pro-social behavior, internalizing and peer problems. Nevertheless, there is evidence in favor of the independent hypothesis in five of the eight outcomes.

Parental temporary separation only has a significant effect on conduct and hyperactivity problems; however, the magnitude of the effect of this type of family disruption is greater than the magnitude of the effect of divorce. These results indicate that, although children experiencing parental temporary separation have been invisible in most previous research and family policies, they are also at risk, and more research on this type of family disruption is needed (Nepomnyaschy and Teitler 2013 ; Halpern-Meekin and Turney 2016 ).

With regard to the third hypothesis related to the heterogeneity of divorce effects, this study shows that the average independent effects mask the substantial variation of the effect of parental divorce. First, we find that a non-negligible proportion of children from divorced families did not experience parental relationship problems. For this group of children, the idea that the negative effects of parental divorce are explained by parental relationship quality is not valid. In addition, our findings clearly support the hypothesis that the dissolution of high-quality parental unions has the most harmful effects on children’s lives. We find that among children whose parents had a very good relationship quality, there are substantial differences between those whose parents divorce and those that remain together in six of the eight analyzed dimensions. In four outcomes, the effect of parental divorce is greater for them with respect to the others.

Our findings for children of non-distressed families are in accordance with the existing literature on the heterogeneity of divorce effects based on children in middle childhood, adolescence or adulthood using US and Canadian data. However, it is important to point out that our results based on children at age 5 clearly diverge from those obtained by Fomby and Osborne ( 2010 ) with children at age 3, which find that parental divorce is not harmful for children in high- and low-conflict families. This discrepancy is probably due to the fact that these authors categorize three-quarters of the unions as high-quality, while we consider of very good quality only those unions above the 75th percentile (highest relationship quality) of the sample distribution. This result is consistent with research on the heterogeneity of divorce effects in adults which shows that divorce has the most harmful emotional effects among those who had satisfactory relationships prior to separation. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the children of these parents, especially the very young, are also affected more strongly.

We do not find any evidence that corroborates the hypothesis that the effect of parental divorce is positive for children who experienced poor parental relationship quality (see also Booth and Amato 2001 ; Hanson 1999 ). It is also important to acknowledge that we do not expect to obtain this finding in a country such as the UK where fewer children are living in poor families compared to the US (OECD 2017 ). Comparative research on the heterogeneity of the effects of parental divorce is needed in order to determine to what extent this hypothesis varies by country and the mechanisms that may explain this variation such as the generosity of family policies.

In addition to that, we explain why we find a divergence between our result and the one obtained by previous studies. First, as mentioned, these studies have used a continuous measure of parental relationship quality and they consider the interaction effect between parental divorce and parental relationship quality instead we evaluate to what extent the effect of divorce differs between very good, good, poor and very poor relationship quality. This allow us to detect a non-linear pattern in some of our outcomes: children whose parental relationship lay in the extremes (very good or very poor) are those most affected by divorce while children whose parental relationship was moderately good or bad are the least affected. Making a comparison with adult data, our results are in line with the findings of Williams ( 2003 ). Second, the proposed model specification based on the augmented inverse probability weighted estimator which requires to specify a potential outcome model along with the propensity score model, has never been proposed in this context. Third, most previous research has focused on parental conflict measured in terms of the frequency of disagreements, rather than on a measure of overall marital discord and quality, the millennium cohort study does not, however, provide a direct measure of the disagreement among parents. Also, our measure of parental relationship quality is derived from the mother’s perceptions and therefore misses the father perceptions. Due to these limitations, we are not able to capture the overall level of relationship quality that children experience at home. For this reason, we cannot rule out the possibility that if we had better measures to assess disharmonious families, we may have found positive effects of parental divorce for children living in them. Future research may be improved by using more subtle measurements of relationship quality and focusing on the heterogeneity effects of divorce on very young children.

Another reason that could explain why parental separation is not beneficial for children who experienced poor parental relationship quality is that we are not able to capture its duration. Research shows that there are different trajectories of parental relationship quality over time and that experiencing persistent poor parental relationship quality has more negative effects on children’s well-being than experiencing temporary poor parental relationship quality. Hence, it is reasonable to hypothesize that parental separation can be positive for children whose parents experienced a chronically poor parental relationship quality while the same event can be damaging for children that only experienced temporary poor parental relationship quality prior to separation. An important contribution of future research would be to include the measurement of the duration and trajectories of parental relationship quality in the studies of the heterogeneity effects of parental divorce. In addition to that, future studies should not only analyze the heterogeneity effects of parental divorce but also the heterogeneity effects of other forms of family transitions such as parental temporary separation. Children experience an increase in the number and types of family dissolution experiences during childhood: parents separate and then they may get back together or have a new partner and may separate again (Amato 2010 ).

Overall, the present study makes two main contributions to the literature by employing a suitable model to infer causality by reporting that parental temporary separation has detrimental effects for children, and that parental divorce exerts the most harmful effects among children whose parents enjoyed a very good parental relationship quality prior to separation. Our results can be used also to define policies targeted to those children for whom the detrimental effect of divorce might be stronger.

We are only able to empirically study the heterogeneous effects of parental divorce and not the heterogeneous effects of parental temporary separation due to data limitations. For this reason, we only theoretically discuss the heterogeneous effects of parental temporary separation in this section. In addition to that, the literature does not provide any theoretical explanation about the heterogeneity of the effects of parental temporary separation.

Details on the survey, its origins, objectives, and sampling, as well as the content of the survey waves, are contained in the documentation attached to the data deposited at the UK Data Archive at Essex University.

These percentages are calculated by considering the estimated ATE multiplied by 100 and divided by the estimated PO referred to stable family.

The percentages are computed as explained in the previous footnote.

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Open access funding provided by Università degli Studi di Milano - Bicocca within the CRUI-CARE Agreement. Garriga thanks the grants of the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (Grants CSO2012-33476 and CSO2015-69439-R). Pennoni thanks the grant “Finite mixture and latent variable models for causal inference and analysis of socio-economic data” (FIRB—Futuro in Ricerca) funded by the Italian Government (RBFR12SHVV). The authors thank Isabella Romeo for her contribution to preliminary data analyses.

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Garriga, A., Pennoni, F. The Causal Effects of Parental Divorce and Parental Temporary Separation on Children’s Cognitive Abilities and Psychological Well-being According to Parental Relationship Quality. Soc Indic Res 161 , 963–987 (2022).

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The Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships

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Divorce and Close Relationships: Findings, Themes, and Future Directions

David A. Sbarra, Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

Connie J. A. Beck, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology, School of Mind, Brain, and Behavior, College of Science, University of Arizona, Tuscon, AZ

  • Published: 01 August 2013
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This chapter provides an update on current research concerning marital dissolution: its history, epidemiology/demography, causes, correlates/consequences, and emerging themes in the literature (including cohabitation, stepfamilies, legal interventions for complex family situations, behavior and genetic studies of family functioning, and the potential mechanisms of child and adult resilience in the face of divorce). In the United States, the divorce rate rests near 40 percent of all first marriages; this statistic, however, masks considerable variability in risk for divorce as a function of education and socioeconomic standing, among other factors. Furthermore, the fastest growing family form in the United States is nonmarital unions, and relatively few high-quality data exist on the rates at which these relationships dissolve and how family arrangements (e.g., child custody) are decided in these situations. The chapter closes with a series of questions that are open for future research. We emphasize the need to conduct more research on prevention programs (including mandated parenting education programs and voluntary multisession group treatments for parents and children) and to develop a deeper understanding of how the intervention and prevention programs can be best applied to complex family situations.

Marital separation and divorce are major personal upheavals that have the potential to disrupt family functioning and to negatively affect both children’s and adults’ psychological and physical well-being. This chapter provides an update on current research concerning marital dissolution: its history, epidemiology/demography, causes, consequences, and emerging themes in the literature. Although the scope of the chapter is broad, we also aim to outline and highlight important questions for future research. To approach these tasks, we begin by discussing the history and demographics of marital separation and divorce.

Divorce: History and Demographics

Before the 1600s, in most European countries, divorce was governed by the Church of England or Catholic Church and was not permitted ( Amato & Irving, 2006 ). Marriage was defined as a relationship that lasted for life without the possibility of exit except through death. Although the American Colonies were established to gain religious freedom, religious traditions surrounding the regulation of divorce followed the Pilgrims into the New World. The Colonies were, however, split on whether a couple would be allowed to formally divorce, the reasons (grounds) a couple could divorce, and the authority given the responsibility for adjudicating cases.

Between 1600 and 1800 social reformers were successful in moving regulation of marriage and divorce from the control of the Church to colonial legislative authority and then eventually to the courts ( Ahrons, 1994 ). Although the move from Church control to legal control was successful, the change was difficult and was debated for centuries. In the mid-1800s social reformers Robert Dale Owen and Elizabeth Cady Stanton strongly argued that couples who did not want to remain married or were in a violent marriage must have the right to divorce ( Blake, 1977 ). Stanton continued to raise the issue of at the annual woman’s rights convention in 1860. The reasons or grounds under which a couple could divorce were determined colony by colony and sometimes differed for men and women. Whereas adultery was generally agreed to be a grounds for divorce for both men and women, women in some colonies needed additional grounds, such as bigamy and desertion, to be allowed to divorce ( Ahrons, 1994 ).

During the late nineteenth century, the general societal reaction to divorce began to shift. During this time the first collection of divorce statistics for any state was gathered for Connecticut ( Blake, 1977 ). These statistics revealed that in the period from 1849 to 1852, there were 544 divorces, followed by 1,235 for the period from 1861 to 1864. In 1880 another study of divorces in the New England states was published (Allen, 1880 cited in Blake 1977 ). Seizing on these statistics, reformers argued that the increase in divorce were the sole responsibility of lax divorce laws ( Blake, 1977 ). Divorce reform organizations were formed. In 1881 the New England Divorce Reform League was founded. In 1885 it was reorganized as the National Divorce Report League, later called the National League for the Protection of the Family. The focus of these organizations was to repeal what they saw as lenient, omnibus provisions, which allowed broader grounds for divorce in divorce laws, and to pass additional restrictions such as the Michigan statute, which provided safeguards against the parties colluding and manufacturing evidence and allowing the state to defend certain cases ( Blake, 1977 ).

In 1887 Congress allotted $10,000 to the Commissioner of Labor Carroll D. Wright to collect marriage and divorce statistics for the States and Territories and the District of Columbia and increased the sum to $17,500 the following year ( Blake, 1977 ). Statistics were collected from 2,700 counties for a 20-year period. In doing so Wright sent workers directly to the counties to review records; however, several county courthouses had burned down (e.g., Cook County, Chicago, and Hamilton County, Cincinnati). In addition only twenty-one of the thirty-eight states required registration of marriages ( Blake, 1977 ). Even with these limitations, the data were important.

Many of the themes existing in early divorce laws can still be found today. As a result of liberal residence requirements, for many years Reno, Nevada was the place people could go for a “quick” divorce ( Blake, 1977 ). In addition, the more recent no-fault divorce grounds are essentially the modern-day equivalent of the omnibus clauses found in early statutes. Arguments concerning whether strict divorce laws can curb divorce still rage. In response to these arguments, several states passed covenant marriage laws, which add restrictions and processes to divorce ( Nock, Sanchez, & Wright, 2008 ).

By the early 1970s, there was a growing cultural sense that requiring people to remain married, or to manufacture evidence in order to get divorced, was neither reasonable nor socially acceptable. To accommodate this cultural shift in attitudes, in 1970, California became the first state to change the statutory laws so that couples could divorce without having to provide evidence that one party was at fault. By 1977 nine states had adopted a no-fault based law; by late 1983 all states except South Dakota and New York had adopted some form of no-fault divorce. As of October 2010 all states and the District of Columbia allowed no-fault divorce. Over the years this shift to a no-fault policy has been hotly debated, and many states allow some form of fault-based grounds for divorce alongside no-fault based grounds ( Adams & Coltrane, 2007 ; Nock et al., 2008 ).

Divorce Rates: Who and How Many?

Divorce rates began to rise in the 1960s, reaching a peak in 1981 at 5.3 per 1,000. Rates of divorce then began to fall, levelling off at 4 per 1,000 in 2000. This rate has remained reasonably stable since that time. Although demographic data concerning marriage and divorce from the 2009 Survey of Income and Program Participation are beginning to appear ( Kreider & Ellis, 2011 ), the most detailed research on these topics comes from data collected during the 1990s ( Sweeney, 2010 ). Marriage and divorce rates vary widely by age and race; however, currently roughly 40 percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce ( Kreider & Ellis, 2011 ). Approximately 69 percent of women and 78 percent of men will remarry ( Kreider & Ellis, 2011 ), and approximately 50 to 60 percent of those who remarry will divorce again at least once ( Ganong, Coleman, & Haas, 2006 ). The average length of first marriages is 8 years, and the average length of time between divorce and remarriage is 4 years ( Kreider &Ellis, 2011 ). Time between remarriage and redivorce is approximately 8 years.

Although important, these statistics do not reflect the rates of nonmarital unions and dissolutions, which are the fastest growing family form in the United States ( Kreider & Ellis, 2011 ). We do know the formation and dissolution of these unions are more fluid, but the actual statistics are illusive because official recordkeeping has not been put in place. A by-product of this shift to nonmarital unions is that a higher proportion of those who do marry are staying married. The latest data indicate that for increasing birth cohort years, the divorce rates fall. For example, for birth cohort years 1965 to 1969, the percentage of ever divorced falls to 18 percent for men and 22 percent for women 35 years old ( Kreider & Ellis, 2011 ).

There are period, demographic, and geographical differences found in the number of divorces ( Teachman, Tedrow & Hall, 2006 ). So far, state laws do not seem to be responsible for this variability ( Ahrons, 1994 ). Instead, the overall economy has a great impact. Divorces increase during period of economic growth and fall in years of declining economy ( Teachman et al., 2006 ). During wartime, divorces decrease; increases are observed when wars end and during times of relative peace ( Ahrons, 1994 ). Religious affiliations are important as well. Divorce is lower among those religions whose doctrines oppose divorce (Catholics and Jews) and more frequent among those whose restrictions are more liberal (Protestants and those of mixed religious affiliations, agnostics, and atheists; Rodrigues, Hall, & Fincham, 2006 ). Divorce is more common among people with no children as opposed to parents. It is also higher in urban than rural areas and higher in early years of marriage as opposed to later years. Generally divorce rates are highest in the West and some areas of the South and the lowest in the Northeast and sections of the Midwest ( Rodrigues et al., 2006 ).

Although statistics reveal that the divorce rates have remained fairly stable for the past 40 years, what is not reflected is that American families are basically changing structure. What is increasing at a phenomenal pace are unmarried partnerships and unmarried partnerships with children that dissolve. Unmarried, separated parents now make up approximately 40 percent of custody and parenting time cases coming before courts in the United States. In the years 1970 to 1999, the number of children in the United States living in two-parent households decreased from 85 percent to 68 percent. In 1999, 23 percent of children lived in a mother-headed household, and 4 percent of children lived in a father-headed household (Barber & Demo, 2006). It is now estimated that by age 13 years, 50 percent of American children reside in a family comprising one biological parent and an intimate partner ( Bullard, Wachlarowicz, DeLeeuw, Snyder, Low, Forgatch, & DeGarmo, 2010 ).

Risk and Resilience for Children and Adults

Moving from the demography of divorce to its psychological correlates, one of the most important, recent trends in the divorce literature involves a shift away from research based on studying pathological outcomes (e.g., What problems do children and adults face following the end of marriage? What is the magnitude of risk for intrapersonal and interpersonal outcomes associated with divorce?) to research examining moderators of adjustment and the factors that promote resilience in the face of marital dissolution. We review these outcomes in detail later in this chapter, but, for now, understanding the history of research on divorce outcomes is important for understanding the entirety of the divorce literature. Amato (2003) described the distributions of psychological well-being among offspring with divorced and continuously married counterparts. A key finding from this work is that, for psychological well-being in adult offspring, there is a 90 percent overlap in distributions from offspring of divorced and continuously married parents ( Amato, 2003 ). The literature in this area has moved, in the past 20 years, from focusing almost exclusively on the 10 percent of offspring who do poorly following divorce to a revised study of well-being in the face of risk ( Amato, 2010 ; Emery, 2004 ; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002 ). These changes reflect, in part, a more general focus on resilience across all of psychological science ( Bonanno, 2004 ).

The major historical debate in the divorce literature revolves around the lasting effects of marital dissolution on children and pits qualitative and quantitative research findings against each other. Beginning in the early 1970s, Judith Wallerstein conducted a series of open-ended interviews with 60 families (131 children) filing for divorce in northern California. Wallerstein’s research, documented most completely in an initial and two follow-up books ( Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989 ; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1996 ; Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2001 ), painted a grim picture for the lives of offspring from divorced families; children of divorced parents were believed to lived troubled lives as young men and women, with up to 50 percent demonstrating significant problems managing their moods or experiencing notable problems related to self-worth ( Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989 ). Wallerstein’s 25-year follow-up study suggested that the greatest effects of parental divorce on children are not evident until adulthood when people are faced with making important choices about romantic relationships. Not surprisingly, the suggestion that parental divorce in childhood exerts a major (and lasting) negative impact on who and how we choose to love as adults captured national attention and reified long-standing notions, based largely on Wallerstein’s earlier findings, that divorce is unequivocally bad for children.

Around the time Wallerstein and colleagues published results from her 25-year follow-up study, quantitative research was beginning to reveal a different pattern of outcomes for both children and adults following divorce. Two conclusions are noteworthy. First, most research on children of divorce supported what Amato (2003) has a called a “moderate version” of Wallerstein’s position; that is, on average, children of divorce tend to fare worse in important domains of functioning (reviewed in detail below) than children from continuously married families; the effect sizes of these differences, however, tend to be relatively small. Second, despite risk for poor outcomes, both children and adults tend to do well over time—that is, people are resilient in the face of divorce. Hetherington and Kelly (2002) noted that empirical research demonstrates that nearly 75 percent of children from divorce report a high level of psychological adjustment in adulthood. Emery (2004) echoed these conclusions by noting that, “Even though divorce increases the risk of psychological, academic and social problems for children, the vast majority of children whose parents divorce are functioning with the same level of competency as children whose parents are married ” (pp. 66, italics in original source). More recently, Amato (2010) concluded:

A reasonable assumption is that divorce can have varied consequences, with some children showing improvements in well-being, other children showing little or no change, some children showing decrements that gradually improve, and yet other children developing problems that persist well into adulthood….These considerations suggest that researchers should focus less attention on mean differences between children with divorced and continuously married parents and more attention on the factors that produce variability in children’s adjustment following divorce. (pp. 658)

Thus, in the time since 1971, when Wallerstein began her systematic studies of divorcing families in California, the field has moved largely away from debates about the magnitude of effects to studying mechanisms of action and the moderating variables that potentiate or attenuate risk.

Reconciling Risk and Resilience: Psychological Pain and the Divorce–Stress–Adjustment Model

As noted above, a major advance in the literature on child and adolescent outcomes following divorce was the discovery that relatively few children experience lasting problematic behavior disorders as a result of their parents’ divorce (see Amato, 2010 ). In thinking about child outcomes that can follow divorce, Laumann-Billings and Emery (2000) distinguished between disorder and distress, with the former being clinically significant psychopathology and the latter being lasting feelings of pain, regret, or inner turmoil regarding the loss of an idealized nuclear family. These authors found that whereas college-aged participants who experienced childhood divorce evidenced no differences in internalizing and externalizing symptoms compared with participants from intact families, significant differences emerged in subclinical distress, which the authors described as indicators of psychological pain ( Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000 ). Distress does not cause functional impairment, but lasting feelings of pain or regret can guide life choices and shape how people think about relationships.

Another important development in the literature on divorce is Amato’s (2000) divorce–stress–adjustment model, which describes uncoupling as a developmental process for children and parents that can set into motion a series of life stressors that present adjustment challenges. Depending on people’s resources and the amount of stress and strain instantiated by the separation (e.g., at the parental level, is there ongoing conflict? and at the child level, is there a loss of contact with one parent?), different predictions can me made about child and adult outcomes. A key element of the model is that positive or negative outcomes are contingent on individual and family resources, as well as the short-term outcomes (e.g., the loss of custody or major changes in financial well-being). In this framework, the effects of short-term changes can be potentiated by the degree of chronic stress on a divorcing family. For example, the mental health of single mothers may depend heavily on the degree to which there is active co-parenting conflict with an ex-partner (see Sbarra & Emery, 2008 ). From this perspective, the divorce–stress–adjustment model is a useful framework for making specific predictions about who will navigate the end of marriage with only transient distress and who will succumb to ongoing distress as a result of accumulated stressors.

Predictors of Divorce

Most marriages begin happily and are characterized by a great deal of optimism. Baker and Emery (1993) conducted a study to reveal just how optimistic people are about their marriage. One hundred thirty-seven adults who had recently filed for a first marriage license were surveyed about their knowledge of the general divorce rate and their estimate of the likelihood that their own marriage would end in divorce. In terms of the general divorce rate, participants accurately reported that 50 percent of marriages (in the early 1990s) would end in divorce, but the median response was 0 percent when assessing the likelihood that they personally would divorce ( Baker & Emery, 1993 ). This finding illustrates a foundational point: The transition from an optimistic beginning to teetering on the brink of divorce is a developmental process that unfolds over time ( Bradbury, 1998 ). Gottman (1994) referred to this process as the cascade model of marital dissolution. In this section of the chapter, we detail three of the major approaches to understanding the cascade toward divorce. It is important to recognize that the deterioration of marital quality occurs at multiple levels, including psychological processes within individuals, interactions between partners, and contextual demands and stressors that affect both between- and within-person dynamics. Research on the predictors of divorce is a large and active area of study; below, we outline some of the major findings in this area.

Intrapersonal Processes: Personality

Low positive emotion, high negative emotion, and low constraint are reliable predictors of divorce ( Kelly & Conley, 1987 ). One striking example of the way temperamental characteristics may increase risk for future divorce comes from a study by Caspi (1987) who followed children from the Berkeley Guidance Study into and through midlife. Children who evidenced explosive, uncontrollable temper tantrums were more than twice as likely to divorce later in life compared with children who did not display these angry outbursts. Another interesting example of work on this topic suggests that low positive emotion—indexed by smile intensity in yearbook photos—predicted subsequent divorce in later life ( Hertenstein, Hansel, Butts, & Hile, 2009 ). The authors suggested that the yearbook photos, which are extremely thin slices of behavior (literally, “snapshots of affect experience” in early life), reflected participants’ stable temperamental tendencies ( Hertenstein et al., 2009 ). Other research suggests that personality disorders (PDs) play a large role in the prediction of divorce. Using data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, Whisman and colleagues ( Whisman, Tolejko, & Chatav, 2007 ) found that compared with people without a diagnosed PD, those with paranoid, schizoid, antisocial, histrionic, avoidant, dependent, or obsessive-compulsive PDs were at substantially elevated risk to be divorced. Overall, research in this area suggests that variability in both the normal and dysfunctional domains of personality increase risk for divorce; later in this section we consider some of the interpersonal explanations for why this might be so.

The association between personality and divorce should be considered in light of the known genetic influences on marital instability. McGue and Lykken (1992) found greater concordance of divorce in monozygotic than dyzygotic twins, indicating that a substantial portion of the risk for marital dissolution can be explained by genetic factors (also see Jerskey et al., 2010 ). A follow-up study demonstrated that between 30 percent (in women) and 42 percent (in men) of heritable divorce risk was attributable to personality differences ( Jocklin, McGue, & Lykken, 1996 ), and other work shows that the genetic association with controllable life events, of which divorce is one, is entirely explained by differences in personality ( Saudino, Pedersen, Lichtenstein, McClearn, & Plomin, 1997 ).

Intrapersonal Processes: Parental Divorce History

As noted above, divorce is a heritable outcome, but the heritability of divorce is not 100 percent, indicating that environmental events play a large role in the dissolution of marriage. The intergenerational transmission of divorce can occur for both genetic and environmental reasons, but it is clear that individuals whose parents divorced are at substantial risk for seeing their own marriages end in divorce (e.g., Pryor & Rodgers, 2001 ). In a prospective empirical study focused on the environmental contributors to the intergenerational transmission of divorce, Amato and DeBoer (2001) demonstrated that parental divorce increased the risk of divorce in their offspring by nearly 50 percent. Interestingly, these authors found that the greatest risk for divorce in the second generation was observed among offspring whose parents reported low levels of discord prior to the divorce. Divorce in the second generation was better explained by a lack of commitment to marriage than by impaired relationship skills (which may be learned as a consequence of observing your parents’ behaviors leading up to and after the divorce). Other studies have investigated the possibility that father absence or large changes in socioeconomic status explain the intergenerational transmission effect, but neither of these explanations has much empirical support (see Lyngstad & Jalovaara, 2010 ).

More recently, D’Nofrio and colleagues ( D’Onofrio et al., 2007 ) used a children of twins (CoT) design (discussed more completely later in the chapter) to disentangle the genetic and environmental contributions to the intergenerational transmission of divorce. In a study of more than 2,300 adult offspring of twins, the authors found that 66 percent of the variability in risk for divorce among the offspring was accounted for directly by environmental experiences. This finding is consistent with a social causation explanation (i.e., divorce among adults operates through environmental processes to increase risk for subsequent divorce among adult offspring), whereas the remaining 34 percent of risk was due to genetic selection effects ( D’Nofrio et al., 2007 ). An important implication of this finding is that intervention efforts designed to reduce the stress and strain of marital dissolution among parents may also act to decrease the risk for subsequent divorce by children. This idea has yet to be tested empirically, but the approach represents an important route for determining precisely how parental divorce history may increase risk for later divorce in the next generation.

Intrapersonal Processes: Gender

There exists reliable evidence that men and women end marriage for different reasons. In reviewing literature on gender differences in the prediction of divorce, Amato and Rogers (1997) wrote:

…women often cite the husband’s use of authority, his cruelty, drinking habits, immaturity untrustworthiness, infidelity, poor money management, values, and lifestyle as causes of divorce. Although husbands often cite their wife’s infidelity as the cause of divorce, they also refer to their own drinking, drug use, as well as external causes such as family death, work commitments, and problems with in-laws. (p. 615)

In their prospective study of more than 1,500 adults, Amato and Rogers (1997) shed additional light on these differences by noting that women report more marital problems than men, largely because husbands were unlikely to report on wives’ experiences of marital distress; said differently, wives tended to monitor the emotional “pulse” of the marriage much more than husband, and this often leads to husbands underestimating the extent of problems in a marriage. Marital problems, in turn, were strong prospective predictors of divorce. Thus, women, relative to men, appear more sensitive to the variations in marital quality that predict the future likelihood of divorce.

In a more process-oriented investigation of the variables that predict divorce among couples, Gottman, Coan, Carrere, and Swanson (1998) studied a group of 130 couples over a 6-year period in a marital interaction paradigm that included behavioral coding of emotional expression as well as detailed assessments of physiological functioning during marital interaction tasks. The results revealed a specific patterning of interaction that predicted the future likelihood of divorce. Specifically, the highest probability of divorce was observed among couples in which wives demonstrated negative start-up behaviors (e.g., quickly accusing their husbands of wrongdoing in the marital interaction); in which husbands refused to accept influence from their wives; in which wives reciprocated low-intensity negative affect; and in which husbands failed to deescalate this low-intensity negativity ( Gottman et al., 1998 ).

These results are consistent with other gender differences that were first described by Gottman and Levenson (1988) , who proposed that the associations between affect and physiology may be more closely bound for men than for women. Indeed, Levenson, Carstensen, and Gottman (1994) found that during marital conversations husbands, but not wives, evidenced significant correlations between physiological arousal and negative affect. The authors suggested that this finding provides one explanation for the often-observed wife demand/husband withdraw pattern of marital interaction ( Christensen & Heavey, 1990 ), which is predictive of prospective declines in marital quality. In this dynamic, the demander pressures or criticizes his or her partner, which results in the withdrawer retreating through passive inaction or defensiveness. Levenson et al. (1994) proposed that one reason husbands may withdraw much more than wives is that when they engage in strong emotions, they often do so in the context of a high degree of physiological arousal, which is believed to impede effective communication during times of marital conflict.

Intrapersonal Processes: Attributions

The social-cognitive model of marital distress emphasizes the interpretations and evaluations that people make of their own and their partner’s behavior ( Karney & Bradbury, 1995 ). Compared with people who are satisfied with their relationship, dissatisfied partners are more likely to attribute each other’s negative behavior to broad and stable traits, and are more likely to view negative partner behavior as selfishly motivated and worthy of blame ( Bradbury & Fincham, 1990 ). Dissatisfied partners are also more likely to hold dysfunctional, extreme, or unreasonable assumptions (i.e., beliefs about how things are), standards (i.e., beliefs about how things should be), and expectations (i.e., beliefs about how things will be) with respect to oneself, one’s partner, and one’s relationship ( Baucom, Epstein, Sayers, & Sher, 1989 ). Buehlman, Gottman, and Katz (1992) combined data from a semi-structured oral (marital) history interview with a laboratory-based physiology task to study predictors of divorce among fifty-six couples. These authors found that husbands’ expressed disappointment in the marriage during the oral history interview was highly correlated with the future likelihood of divorce ( r = .68) ( Buehlman et al., 1992 ). This finding was interpreted in light of the larger constellation of marital problems: Wives of husbands who expressed disappointment also expressed greater marital unhappiness during the interview and evidenced greater contempt and anger, as well as a faster heart rate, during the marital interaction. Negative attributions about one’s partner play a critical role as kindling for arguments and disagreements that spur couples further in the cascade toward divorce ( Gottman, 1994 ).

Interpersonal Processes: Patterns of Interaction

The interaction patterns that are associated with high risk for divorce are well characterized ( Gottman & Levenson, 2000 ). Gottman (1994) described four interactional patterns (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) as highly predictive of divorce. He also outlined a marital balance theory and demonstrated that during marital interaction tasks, couples who remained married used as many as 5:1 instances of positive to negative affect (whereas the ratio was much closer to 1:1 in married couples who subsequently divorced). Markman and colleagues ( Markman, Rhoades, Stanley, Ragan, & Whitton, 2010 ) found that the precursors of decreases in marital satisfaction could be observed even before couples became married; in a sample of 210 couples, couples who evidenced a decrease in negative communication patterns were most likely to remain married over the first 5 years of marriage, and the authors interpreted these data as indicating that stable couples learn positive ways of handling negative communication in the early years of marriage ( Markman et al., 2010 ).

Contextual Variables

In addition to these intrapersonal and interpersonal processes, the past 10 years have witnessed a surge of research dedicated to understanding how life circumstances are associated with relational quality ( Bodenmann, 2005 ; Story & Bradbury, 2004 ; Story & Repetti, 2006 ). It is well established that financial hardship and daily stress increase risk for divorce ( Lavee, McCubbin, & Olson, 1987 ), and a major focus of the research in this area is to understand how external forces are associated with decays in marital quality and increases in the risk for divorce. Important distinctions in this area include whether the stressors are chronic (e.g., job loss) or acute (e.g., a heavy workload), and whether individuals and couples can adjust to these demands ( Story & Bradbury, 2004 ).

When external stressors decay relationship quality, how do these spillover processes operate? Neff and Karney ( Neff & Karney, 2004 ; see also Chapter 30 , this volume) assessed eighty-two newlywed couples every 6 months for the first 4 years of marriage and found that wives who experienced the highest levels of stress spillover demonstrated the greatest declines in marital satisfaction over the study period. Importantly, as reported stress levels increased, wives reported a corresponding increase in the perceptions of specific relationship problems, and these negative cognitions mediated the association between stress and relationship quality. Neff and Karney (2004) noted, “Stress may lead to lower satisfaction by hindering spouses’ ability to separate negative specific relationship perceptions from their global relationship satisfaction” (p. 145). Story and Repetti ( Story & Repetti, 2006 ) provided a conceptual replication of the spillover effect, demonstrating that negative mood mediated the association between wives’ daily workload and marital anger. Building on this research, Neff and Karney ( Neff & Karney, 2007 ) provided another replication of the spillover effect and also found evidence for a dyadic crossover effect, whereby husbands reported lower satisfaction when their wives experienced higher stress. This latter finding demonstrates that mediating processes linking contextual variables and relationship quality must be consider in terms of moderating processes that include different effects for husbands and wives.

One of the most well studied contextual factors impacting marital satisfaction is the transition to parenthood, especially for couples having their first child ( Cowan & Cowan, 2000 ). Cowan and Cowan (1995) reported that following the birth of a first child, about 15 percent of men and women move from above to below the clinical cut-off for marital distress on standard self-report assessment instruments. A meta-analysis of the studies on parenthood and marital satisfaction found that parents report lower marital satisfaction compared with nonparents and that marital satisfaction was negatively correlated with the number of children ( Twenge, Campbell, & Foster, 2003 ). However, the effect sizes obtained from the meta-analysis were small in magnitude and were moderated by individual differences: the effect of parenthood on marital satisfaction was stronger for younger couples and people from higher socioeconomic groups. Recent evidence suggests that these declines are more pronounced in couples who are highly satisfied with the first 6 months of marriage relative to less satisfied couples ( Lawrence, Rothman, Cobb, Rothman, & Bradbury, 2008 ).

Child Outcomes

For decades, the effects of divorce on children and adolescents have been the subject of intense research and policy debate. As noted above, researchers generally relied on a deficit family model assuming that family structure deviations from the ideal heterosexual, biological, always-married two-parent status would produce a number of problems for children and adolescent ( Barber & Demo, 2006 ). Dimensions of adjustment studied include psychopathology (externalizing and internalizing disorders), academic achievement, and interpersonal relationships (romantic, social, and parental).

Psychopathology (Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors)

As mentioned briefly above, the earliest findings about children’s well-being following divorce come from the influential study conducting by Wallerstein and colleagues ( Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980 ; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989 ; Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2001 ), who used semi-structured interviews of both parents and children with a nonrandom sample of parents who were seeking treatment. The families were followed-up at 18 months, 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, and 25 years ( Wallerstein et al., 2001 ). Entering the study, a large proportion of the parents had serious psychological problems ( Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980 ). The main finding from this study was that divorce is devastating and negatively affects the mental health, academics, and social relationships in most children both short and long term ( Lansford, 2009 ; Marquardt, 2006 ; Wallerstein et al., 2001 ). In this view, most children from divorced parents become psychologically disturbed adults. These adults go on to form unstable, unsatisfying intimate relationships that often end in divorce ( Amato, 2003 ; Wallerstein et al., 2000). Regardless of the problems with the research (discussed above), the Wallerstein findings are used by advocates to promote social policies to further restrict divorce and to socially ostracize parents who choose this option ( Popenoe, 2009 ). Beyond the findings from this single study, other investigations have provided evidence that divorce is associated with an increased risk for psychopathology. Depression, also referred to as internalizing problems, has been found to be higher in children and adolescents in divorced versus always-married families ( Barber & Demo, 2006 ). Depression also tends to be higher in girls as opposed to boys from divorced families ( Emery, 1999 ). In comparison, boys as opposed to girls from divorced families engage in more externalizing behaviors (aggressive, noncompliant, and socially deviant behaviors). Boys also exhibit higher levels of substance use and delinquency ( Barber & Demo, 2006 ). These findings are consistent across a number of studies.

Academic Outcomes

One of the major topics studied with respect to child outcomes following divorce is academic achievement. Parental divorce is associated with lower cognitive and academic performance and with increases in high school and college dropouts ( Barber & Demo, 2006 ; Hetherington, 1993 ). A 2001 meta-analysis investigating a decade of studies found the standardized (effect size) difference in academic achievement between children from divorced versus always-married parents to be 0.16. Using a longitudinal data set from a nationally representative sample, researchers found that differences in academic achievement could be nearly entirely accounted for by family functioning before divorce ( Lansford, 2009 ; Sun & Li, 2001 ).


Romantic relationships are also the focus of research on differences between children from divorced versus always-married families. Several studies investigating the intergenerational transmission of divorce noted above indicate that a parental divorce doubles the risk of divorce in the second generation ( Amato & DeBoer, 2001 ; Lansford, 2009 ). This risk is even higher if both spouses have parents who divorced ( Hetherington & Elmore, 2004 ; Lansford, 2009 ). The reasons for this difference are hypothesized to be lack of a strong commitment to marriage and poor role models for stability of relationships, compromise, and negotiation skills. In some studies the risk associated with a parental divorce is higher for women than men. One of the reasons for this increased risk is that women are traditionally the partners who monitor the emotional tenor of the relationship. If women do not have the interpersonal skills necessary to effectively communicate and stabilize the marriage, the relationship will fail. Mediators of the intergenerational transmission of divorce have been investigated and deficits in interpersonal skills (e.g., problems with anger, jealousy, hurt feelings, communication, infidelity) were found among those from divorced families, making it difficult to maintain stable intimate relationships ( Amato, 1996 ).

Considering relationships with parents, approximately 25 percent of adolescents in divorced families, compared with 10 percent in always-married families, become disengaged from their families, spend little time at home, and avoid activities, communication, and interactions with their families ( Hetherington, 1993 ; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999 ). Disengagement can be a healthy solution to family engaged in high conflict, provided there is a caring adult from outside the immediate family (aunt or uncle, grandparent, neighbor, teacher) who remains engaged with the adolescent ( Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999 ). Disengagement can also be due to lack of involvement and monitoring by the parents, which if coupled with association with a delinquent peer group, leads to academic problems and antisocial behaviors (substance abuse, delinquency, teenage sexuality, and childbearing) ( Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999 ).

Considering adolescent sexual behavior, a number of scholars have found strong evidence for a link between early father absence from the household and early adolescent sexuality ( Barber & Demo, 2006 ). This is particularly true for adolescent girls ( Ellis, Bates, Dodge, Fergusson, Horwood, Pettit, & Woodward, 2003 ). Several researchers have found that girls whose fathers left the household when the girls were very young (before age 5 years) reportedly have the earliest onset of sexual relations ( Donahue, D’Onofrio, Bates, Lansford, Dodge, & Pettit, 2010 ), participate in riskier sexual practices, and have higher rates of teen pregnancy ( Ellis et al., 2003 ). Interestingly, the differences in timing of first sexual relations and teen pregnancy when comparing girls from always-married to divorce family households are significantly reduced or sometimes disappear when control variables are used (including income, parental occupation, affiliation with defiant peers, mothers’ permissive sexual attitudes, inept parenting) ( Barber & Demo, 2006 , Ellis et al., 2003 ).

The relationship that most often suffers the greatest in a divorce is the relationship between children and their father. Across studies, the general conclusion is that there is a substantial reduction in the amount of contact between children and adolescents and their fathers after divorce ( Barber & Demo, 2006 ). As noted above, the lack of contact with adolescent girls has a significant impact on the timing of first sexual relations. If the family remains in high conflict or the father has antisocial characteristics, contact with the father does not appear to be positive for the children. If, on the other hand, the family is able to co-parent in a reasonably healthy manner, contact with the father is very positive for the children. An important aspect of father involvement is the quality of parenting. If the father is able to create an atmosphere of closeness and noncoercive discipline, providing advice and monitoring activities, the result is higher academic achievement and fewer externalizing and internalizing problems among the children ( Barber & Demo, 2006 ).

Meta-analyses on Child Outcomes

Two important meta-analyses were conducted, one in early 1990 ( Amato & Keith, 1991 ) and then its updated version in early 2000 ( Amato, 2001 ), to further summarize findings concerning child and adolescent academic achievement, conduct, psychological adjustment, self-concept, and social relations in divorced families. These two studies confirmed that across decades of research, the differences between children from divorced and always-married families were extremely small. In the 1990 meta-analysis, research from the 1950s through the 1980s found that the median differences between children from divorced and married families was 0.14 of a standard deviation ( Amato & Keith, 1991 ). This study also found that the more methodologically sophisticated studies yielded weaker effect sizes, as did more recent studies. In addition, when researchers used control variables (such as a child’s predivorce functioning or family income in analyses), the effect sizes were lowered.

The second meta-analysis ( Amato, 2001 ) investigated the studies conducted in the 1990s and found an overall difference of 0.24. This overall 0.24 effect size difference represents a range of differences between 0.12 and 0.22. Measures of academic achievement yielded a 0.16 difference; conduct problems 0.22; psychological adjustment 0.21; self-concept 0.12; and social relationships 0.15 ( Amato, 2001 ). In other words, children from divorced families scored approximately one-tenth to one-fifth of a standard deviation below children with always-married parents, across a range of outcomes ( Amato, 2003 ). To complicate matters, there are potential moderators that could affect adjustment not considered in these two meta-analyses, which may further attenuate the small differences found. Essentially, cross-sectional research cannot account for two important moderators: (1) predivorce individual and family functioning, and (2) number of transitions in family composition, family relationships, and resources in the short and long term ( Barber & Demo, 2006 ).

Moderators of Child Outcomes: Multiple Transitions

Experiences with multiple parenting transitions, changes in family living conditions, and changes in family resources are a consistent moderator of predivorce and postdivorce adjustment ( Ahrons, 2004 ; Amato, 2003 ; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002 ). Children live in a diverse set of ever-changing family living arrangements after separation that do not necessarily constitute a traditional mother- or father-headed, single-family household ( Barber & Demo, 2006 ). Those family forms include a parent cohabitating with another single adult or a series of adults, a parent cohabiting or marrying into a stepfamily or serial stepfamilies, and children moving into and out of households headed by grandparents or other relatives ( Barber & Demo, 2006 ). Amato (2003) found a direct relationship between the number of family transitions, defined as parental remarriages, and reductions in levels of psychological well-being of offspring. Children experiencing zero transitions (always-married families) and one transition (a divorce but neither parent remarries) had equal levels of psychological well-being. As the number of transitions increased, the offspring’s well-being declined. Children in multiple-transition families are thrust into and then back out of relationships with adults, new stepsiblings, grandparents, and extended families. As these relationships dissolve, the culture does not have good role models for whether or how to remain in contact.

Moderators of Child Outcomes: Parental Discord

Divorce is a dynamic process that unfolds across the life course of both adults and children. Careful longitudinal research has documented that marital disruption per se is not the most important factor leading to psychological problems for children and adolescents. In other words, family structure is not the determining factor, but family process can be extremely detrimental. Whether families remain married or divorce, high levels of family discord are consistently found to relate to negative outcomes for children ( Amato, 2003 ; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002 ).

Across studies, parental conflict has been associated with both internalizing (anxiety, withdrawal, low self-esteem, and depression) and externalizing problems (aggression and conduct problems), poor academic performance, and problems with peers ( Barber & Demo, 2006 ). If a divorce reduces the parental conflict, a divorce is actually better for children than if the parents remain married ( Morrison & Coiro, 1999 ). Divorce, however, does not always reduce parental conflict. Several longitudinal studies find that for most families, the first 2 years after divorce are particularly difficult ( Ahrons, 2004 ; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002 ), although for a group of parents, the conflict continues beyond the initial 2-year period. When it does, it is particularly detrimental for children.

Are Child and Adolescent Outcomes a Causal Consequence of Parent Divorce?

A major advance in family psychology is the application of genetically informed research designs that help researchers disentangle the potential genetic and environmental effects of parental divorce on child outcomes ( D’Onofrio et al., 2003 ). A long-standing assumption in family psychology is that the often-observed negative outcomes of divorce are causal consequences of the separation experience. However, a competing perspective is that third variables (e.g., low socioeconomic standing) may lead to both divorce and poor outcomes ( Emery, Waldron, Kitzmann, & Aaron, 1999 ; Peris & Emery, 2004 ) or that the underlying genetically liability for divorce ( McGue & Lykken, 1992 ) can be passed on to offspring through passive gene–environment correlations (see D’Nofrio et al., 2003 ). The processes, often referred to as social selection , pose a serious problem for making causal attributions from correlational research. Adoption studies provide an excellent means of separating nature and nurture. Using this method, O’Connor and colleagues ( O’Connor, Caspi, DeFries, & Plomin, 2000 ) found that divorce among adoptive parents was associated with increased rates of behavior problems and substance use in children but showed no differences (relative to adoptees whose parents did not separate) in terms of school achievement and social competence; this finding suggests that the latter two effects, which are often observed in uncontrolled correlational research ( Amato & Keith, 1991 ), may be due to passive gene–environment correlations.

More recently, investigators have started using a CoT design to disentangle causation and selection processes following parental divorce. In this design, the concordance rates of outcomes among the children of monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins are compared when the twins are discordance for divorce (e.g., rates of behavioral problems in children from divorced families are compared with those of their cousins in intact households). Because offspring of MZ twins share the same genetic relationship with their parent and their parent’s twin (i.e., their aunt or uncle), comparison of concordance rates among cousins of discordant MZ twins provides an estimate of a potential environment effect that is free of genetic confounds. For example, if the effect of divorce on children’s increased risk for substance abuse is explained by hostility, the passive correlation between hostility and child outcomes is controlled because cousins share the same genetic association with their aunt or uncle as they do with their parent (i.e., their aunt or uncle’s identical twin).

The CoT design has led to a number of important findings in this area: (1) Parental divorce appears to play a causal role in young adults’ drug and alcohol use, internalizing, and externalizing symptoms ( D’Onofrio et al., 2005 ), although the effect on internalizing symptoms was explained by passive genetic liability (selection) in another study; (2) parental divorce is associated with earlier initiation of sexual intercourse, and a greater probability of educational problems, depressed mood, and suicidal ideation, although increased risk for cohabitation and earlier initiation of drug use is explained by selection factors ( D’Onofrio et al., 2006 ); and (3) the association between parents’ marital conflict (a key element of outcomes in divorcing families) and children’s conduct problems is explained by passive gene–environment correlations in which the children’s outcomes are explained by the same genetic liabilities contributing to parents’ conflict ( Harden et al., 2007 ). The emerging literature using the CoT design is far from clear (e.g., one report indicates internalizing problems in children are a causal consequence of divorce, another paper suggest the effect is due to selection processes), but the method holds tremendous promise for developing a more precise account of the effects of divorce on children (see Amato, 2010 ).

Adult Outcomes

There is a large literature linking the experience of divorce with increased mental health problems in adults, and research is clear in documenting that the experience of marital separation or divorce can have a negative impact on adults’ parenting skills (see Hetherington, Bridges, & Insabella, 1998 ; Lansford, 2009 ). In this respect, it is nearly impossible to separate adult and child outcomes following divorce; parental well-being is inextricably linked to child and adolescent outcomes, but for the purposes of this chapter, we consider changes in parenting as an indicator of adults’ responses to separation.

In her review of the mechanisms linking divorce to child outcomes, Lansford (2009) notes that parenting practices can be disrupted in a variety of ways following divorce, including decreased effectiveness in monitoring and supervising children, problems with consistent discipline, and decreases in warmth and affection. Work in this area first emerged in the early 1980s, and Hetherington, Cox, and Cox (1982) reported that up to 1 year after divorce, custodial mothers showed less affection to their children, greater use of inconsistent discipline, and harsher punishments compared with mothers from nondivorced families. It is important to recognize that differences in parenting practices observed in divorced and married families are not necessarily a consequence of the marital separation process. In a large prospective study, for example, Amato and Booth (1996) found that parents who would subsequently divorce reported significant problems in their relationships with their children as early as 8 to 12 years before the separation. It is notable that this study also found that divorce was associated with additional decreases in affection between fathers and their children, but not mothers and their children ( Amato & Booth, 1996 ). Although disentangling whether decrements in parenting skills predate or follow divorce is complicated, it is clear that interventions designed to improve parenting following divorce do have a positive effect on child and adolescent outcomes, and we describe this work later in the chapter.

Adults’ Mental Health Outcomes

A great deal of research focuses on adults’ psychological functioning following separation and divorce experiences. Data on this topic come from many different fields, including epidemiology, psychology, and sociology. For example, using data from the US National Comorbidity Study ( N = 1,534), Afifi, Cox, and Enns (2006) recently found that compared with never-married and married mothers, separated or divorced mothers evidenced significantly higher rates of clinically significant major depression and generalized anxiety disorders after controlling for household income, education, ethnicity, age, and number of children. In a prospective panel study of more than 30,000 German adults, Lucas (2005) demonstrated that adults’ life satisfaction dropped precipitously in their years before a divorce and, on average, did not recover to predivorce levels up to 6 years after the divorce. Similarly, in a four-wave panel study spanning 12 years, Johnson and Wu (2002) found that divorce was associated with increased rates of psychological distress after accounting for levels of predivorce distress. Wade and Pevalin (2004) replicated these findings in a sample of more than 10,000 adults from the British Household Panel Survey that spanned 9 years. Specifically, this study found evidence that (1) adults who have mental health problems are more likely to be selected out of marriage in each successive wave of the study, and (2) after accounting for these selection processes, the experience of divorce was associated with a significant short-term, but not long-term, increase in mental health problems.

The findings described above illustrate what is the most important, and perhaps the most vexing, question in the literature on adults and divorce: Are the mental health correlates of divorce explained by problems that predate the separation or are they a causal consequence of the stress and strain conferred by the end of a marriage? These processes are typically described as the social selection and the social causation explanations for the association between divorce and mental health ( Amato, 2010 ), and there exists reasonable evidence for both processes. Social selection process may operate in two primary ways: (1) Mental health problems and psychopathology increase risk for divorce (e.g., Kessler, Walters, & Forthofer, 1998 ), and/or (2) the outcomes of divorce are better explained by marital processes (e.g., large decreases in marital quality) that predate the separation (e.g., Overbeek et al., 2006 ). Using data from more than 4,500 adults in The Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study, for example, Overbeek and colleagues (2006) found that the association between DSM-III-R diagnosed dysthymic disorder and divorce was entirely eliminated when accounting for marital discord that preceded the actual divorce. In this study, the association between divorce and substance abuse problems was not accounted for by marital quality, suggesting that both the marital process and the divorce itself may increase risk for poor outcomes depending on the outcomes in question ( Overbeek et al., 2006 ). The general, working consensus in the literature is that although selection effects are operating, they cannot account for the entirety of the association between the experience of marital separation/divorce and increased risk for poor mental health problems, including diagnosable psychopathology and decrements in psychological well-being or life satisfaction.

The strongest evidence that divorce exerts a causal effect on consequent mood disturbances comes from co-twin control designs. Because MZ twins are genetically identical, differences in mental health outcomes between twins who are discordant for life-event exposures are presumed causal. In a large study of middle-aged Danish twins, Osler, McGue, Lund, and Christensen (2008) found significantly higher rates of depression among both male and female MZ twins who experienced divorce or widowhood, leading to the conclusion that the end of marriage exerts a causal effect of mood symptom severity (independent of the way mood symptoms may predict the end of marriage). Of course, divorce and widowhood are different life events, and additional co-twin studies are needed to determine whether these events exert equally causal effects.

In considering the overall question of divorce and psychological outcomes, an interesting methodological issue concerns how the studies described above quantify their effects. Almost all of the research in the area of divorce and psychological outcomes uses average scores (i.e., mean summary statistics) as the outcomes of interests. In some cases, outcomes are described as the average rates of diagnosable psychopathology among divorced (versus married) people, and in other cases psychological outcomes are reported as mean trajectories across time (e.g., see Lucas, 2005 , for a description of mean changes in life satisfaction). Mancini, Bonanno, and Clark (2011) have recently suggested that average summary statistics obscure important within-sample variability in outcomes. Importantly, the authors note that because grand mean values are sensitive to the undue influence of outliers (i.e., the arithmetic average can be negatively skewed when a small number of people do particularly poorly following a stressful event), the effects of “loss events,” like widowhood and divorce, may appear worse than they actually are, and most people cope quite well over time. Using the same German panel data as Lucas (2005) , the authors conducted a series of latent class growth mixture models and demonstrated that 71.8 percent of participants could be classified as experiencing no change in subjective well-being before or following divorce, 9.1 percent of participants could be classified as experiencing considerable improvement in well-being scores following divorce, and 19.1 percent could be classified as experiencing moderate decreases in well-being following divorce (Mancini et al., in press). These results bolster the idea that resilience is the norm and not the exception following marital dissolution, and that it is possible that mean level summary statistics obfuscate the fact that nearly 80 percent of divorced adults do well in time.

Accounting for this variability in divorce outcomes is an important research task. One possibility is that the association between divorce and later emotional distress depends on the quality of the marriage before the loss. Amato and Hohmann-Marriott (2007) found that adults in high-conflict marriages reported an increase in life happiness following divorce, whereas adults in low-conflict marriages reported a decrease. An interesting feature of this study is that the authors were able to identify and find marriages that were characterized by moderate levels of happiness and low levels of conflict even in the years immediately before the divorce ( Amato & Hohmann-Marriott, 2007 ). Similarly, in the bereavement literature, positive psychological adjustment to widowhood is associated with lower levels of dependence on a spouse before his or her death, whereas greater distress is observed among widows who reported a high degree of marital closeness before the loss (Carr et al., 2000). Findings of this nature also are observed in the literature on children of divorce. Amato (2010) noted that predivorce levels of marital discord condition the probability of poor outcomes; following divorce in high-conflict families, children tend to show little change in well-being, whereas the end of low-conflict marriages is associated with decreases in well-being and increases in distress (e.g., Strohschein, 2005 )

Finally, one of the primary weaknesses of the literature on divorce and adult mental health outcomes is that few studies have focused on the mechanisms, or psychological processes, that connect the end of marriage and subsequent emotional distress. High-quality, processes-focused research in this area is almost absent. This lack of empirical research on mechanisms is surprising, given observations that divorce can induce shame, longing, loneliness, humiliation, rumination, identity disruptions, and prolonged anger or grief ( Emery, 1994 ; Weiss, 1975 ). Presumably, it is these emotional experiences that give rise to, or at least covary with, more severe forms of psychopathology. Using a dyadic model, Sbarra and Emery (2008) recently showed that fathers’ rates of co-parenting conflict following child custody dispute settlements depended on mothers’ rates of acceptance of the relationship termination. Specifically, fathers who reported the greatest levels of conflict were previously married to mothers who reported the greatest acceptance of the separation, and the authors interpreted this finding to suggest that prolonged co-parenting conflict (among fathers) following divorce might operate as an attempt to promote a reunion with an ex-partner who is no longer invested in the relationship. In a prospective analysis over 12 years, Sbarra and Emery (2005) also reported that mothers who continued to show regrets about the separation experience (i.e., low levels of acceptance) also reported the highest rates of depression. In the context of a divorce mediation study, these effects were interpreted to suggest that a potentially adverse effect of helping parents cooperatively renegotiate their separation relationship may be to prolong feelings of grief. Although these studies provide some insight into the correlates of better and worse adjustment to divorce, we still have a great deal to learn about both the mechanisms of recovery (i.e., variables associated with changes in psychological adjustment) and the variables that explain the association between marital status and mental health outcomes.

Adults’ Physical Health Outcomes

The literature on the physical health outcomes following divorce is less well developed than the literature on mental health outcomes, but work in this area is growing rapidly ( Sbarra, 2012 ; Sbarra, Law, & Portley, 2011 ). The rationale for much of the work in this area is that because divorce is an acute stressor (for many people) with the potential to become a chronic stressor (for some people), studying the processes associated with marital separation serves as an important model for studying how stressful life events may be associated with health-relevant biological endpoints. When considering the literature on divorce and health, it makes sense to consider broad-based population-level effects and the mechanisms that can potentially explain these effects. Given space limitations, we discuss the broad population level effects and the role of psychological stress and health outcomes, but we point the reader to other sources for the most current information on the study of marital status and health.

One of the most consistently replicated effects in the social relationships and health literature is the epidemiological finding that marital status is associated with risk for early death. A recent meta-analysis of thirty-two prospective studies (involving more than 6.5 million people, 160,000 deaths, and more than 755,000 divorces in eleven different countries) revealed that, compared with their married counterparts, separated or divorced adults evidenced a significant increase in risk for early death ( Sbarra, Law, & Portley, 2011 ). Divorced or separated adults evidence increased rates of early, all-cause mortality even in the fully adjusted models (that control not only for age but also for a variety of sociodemographic, health, and health behavior covariates). The effect size (an adjusted risk hazard of 1.23, which indicates that, on average, divorced adults are at 23 percent greater likelihood to experience death at each successive follow-up period in any given prospective study than married adults) is consistent with the magnitude of association observed in other large-scale studies, and it is notable that divorced men appear to have the highest death rates among unmarried adults (for a review of evidence from sixteen developed countries, see Hu & Goldman, 1990 ).

The research reviewed above focuses on all-cause mortality, but a more specific literature also focuses on suicide. For example, in a 10-year, prospective epidemiological study of mortality risk in 471,922 noninstitutionalized adults living in the United States, Kposowa (2000) found that men who were separated or divorced at the start of the study were 2.28 times more likely to kill themselves during the follow-up period than their married counterparts, whereas no significant association was found between marital status and suicide for women. In a follow-up analysis, Kposowa (2003) reported that divorced men were more than nine times more likely to kill themselves than were divorced women.

What do we know about the mechanisms linking the end of marriage and risk for poor health outcomes? First, consistent with the discussion above, social selection explains some of the physical health outcomes observed following divorce. In the previous section, we described work by Osler and colleagues (2008) , who used a co-twin control design to investigate rates of health outcomes between twins who were discordant for widowhood or divorce. The results indicated that depression and rates of smoking may follow from the ending of a marriage, but that differences in many other health outcomes (e.g., self-rated health, alcohol use, body mass index [BMI]) may be due to underlying genetic explanations, and not the stress of a relationship transition. In addition, the association between divorce and physical health may be explained by third variables that both increase the risk for divorce and increase the risk for poor health, such as hostility and neuroticism, but the evidence for this hypothesis is relatively scant. Using data from the Terman Life Cycle study, Tucker and colleagues ( Tucker, Friedman, Wingard, & Schwartz, 1996 ) reported that the risk associated with having ever experienced a divorce and early mortality could be reduced (by 21 percent for men and 15 percent for women) after accounting for childhood conscientiousness and a history of parental divorce.

Beyond social selection processes, separation and divorce can instantiate changes in social resources, health behaviors, and psychological stress that have long-term implications for physical health (for a description of each process, see Sbarra et al., 2011 ). Only a handful of studies have examined how the psychological responses to marital separation and divorce may be associated with biomarkers that have health implications. The work in this area began in the 1980s with a series of now seminal studies by Kiecolt-Glaser and colleagues (1987 ; Kiecolt-Glaser, Kennedy, Malkoff, Fisher, & et al., 1988 ). More recently, Sbarra and colleagues ( Sbarra, Law, Lee, & Mason, 2009 ) found that participants who reported greater divorce-related emotional intrusion (e.g., dreaming about the separation, experiencing waves of sudden emotion about the separation) evidenced significantly higher levels of resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure (BP). In addition, during a task in which participants mentally reflected on their separation experience, men who reported that the task required a great deal of emotion regulatory effort (i.e., feeling upset combined with a need to exert control of one’s emotions in order to prevent a worsening of distress) evidenced the largest increases in BP, and these effects were in addition to those observed for baseline functioning.

In summary, marital separation and divorce are associated with a statistically reliable increase in the probability of early death, yet we still know little about the mechanisms that explain this association. Only a few studies have examined emotional responding to divorce and associations with biomarkers that have distinct implications for endpoint health outcomes. Despite the nascent nature of this work, divorce-related subjective emotional experiences are consistently associated with heightened biological stress responses. Future research is needed to see if these emotional responses predict clinically meaningful health outcomes over the long term.

Barriers to Positive Adjustment: Conflict and Partner Abuse

As noted above, high levels of marital discord between parents seriously jeopardizes children’s and adolescents’ healthy development in multiple areas (emotional, social, and academic). Unfortunately, the marital discord and the divorce “high-conflict” couple literatures are not well integrated, particularly in relation to the quality of parenting. High-conflict divorcing parents are those engaged in intractable, ongoing, and unresolved conflict, and rather than diminishing, it intensifies after divorce or separation ( Coates & Fieldstone, 2008 ). Generated by their need to control or punish one another, these couples continue to relitigate minor and inconsequential issues (one-time changes to a parenting plan, telephone access, vacation planning, after school activities, and child hygiene). Parents often jump from one attorney to another, file multiple motions over child-related issues, and also misuse the child welfare system by filing multiple child abuse allegations ( Coates & Fieldstone, 2008 ). Sometimes it is one very troubled parent who drives the high conflict; although, it is presumed that in the vast majority of cases, both parents are actively involved in continuing the conflict ( Coates & Fieldstone, 2008 ). An interesting observation is that intimate partner abuse may be present, but it is not a feature of all high-conflict couples ( Coates & Fieldstone, 2008 ).

Unfortunately, as with the marital discord and high-conflict literatures, the intimate partner abuse (IPA) literature is also not well integrated; therefore, clear definitions of high conflict and the relationship between high conflict and intimate partner abuse are lacking ( Demo & Fine, 2010 ; see also Chapter 20 , this volume). Also lacking is the connection between the intimate partner abuse and parenting. The practical result of these divergent, poorly integrated research literatures is that there is precious little research that bears on the important question of whether a parent who commits intimate partner abuse against a partner can nevertheless be a good parent.

Divorce Interventions: Legal, Psycholegal, and Therapeutic

It is painfully obvious to any professional working with couples in the transition out of marriage that this is a period of financial, legal, and psychological crisis ( Sbarra & Emery, 2005 ). Unfortunately, this crisis occurs at precisely the point in time when important decisions about long-term structure of the family must be made ( Sbarra & Emery, 2005 ). For example, at this time couples must make decisions concerning legal and physical custody of children, parenting time arrangements, division of family assets, and payment of child support and/or spousal maintenance. These decisions then have long-term ramifications for families. Increasingly the process of divorce itself has been implicated as an added stressor for divorcing families.

Within the legal system, one of the main challenges is to process the necessary financial and child-related matters within the legal confines of state statutes without exacerbating existing problems between parents ( Erickson, 2010 ). The legal process is defined as the set of procedures used to obtain a legal divorce. It is a linear process with a set of complicated, rigid rules that unfolds over months to years. To begin the divorce process, one spouse files with the court a set of specific documents detailing why they are requesting a divorce, information about the children (if any), financial assets and liabilities, property (if any) and a detailed plan of how the spouse wishes all these matters to be resolved. The rigid rules detail what documents must be filed, the specific wording to be used, and how and when the documents must be given to the other spouse. The second spouse then has a particular period to submit his or her own set of documents to respond, to question any of the positions in the beginning set of documents, and to put forth an alternative plan. From this point forward, the legal process varies widely depending on whether the spouses agree, whether additional procedures are needed to help the spouses agree (attorney negotiations or mediation), or whether the disputed issues need to be settled by a judge in court at a trial.

Traditional litigation to resolve legal issues also varies widely. In its simplest form couples can negotiate on their own or hire attorneys to negotiate an agreement that addresses financial and child-related issues and file it with the court. Depending on the level of cooperation between the couple and the attorney, if any, the process of negotiation can be lengthy or relatively swift ( Beck & Tanha, 2009 ). At the extreme, couples can be so polarized in their desires and hostile emotionally as to require hours of attorney and other professionals’ time (accountants, appraisers, psychologists or psychiatrists, attorneys for the children), multiple documents filed with the courts, and court appearances to resolve the issues ( Beck & Tanha, 2009 ). This extreme form of traditional two-attorney litigation is seen as formalized competition in which there is a winner and a loser for each issue raised ( Sbarra & Emery, 2005 ). It is inherently competitive, adversarial, and expensive ( Beck & Tanha, 2009 ). For some couples, the competition becomes the focus, rather than what is in the best interests of the children. Unfortunately, little research has focused on this litigation process. The popular perception is that all divorce lawyers are argumentative, are hostile, and refuse to settle for what is fair, thus creating acrimony between their clients and boosting fees. This perception has not been empirically investigated or validated ( Beck & Tanha, 2009 ).

Couples can also opt out of hiring attorneys, and increasingly they are doing so ( Feitz, 2008 ). Some legal scholars argue that the self-represented (pro se) litigant is the single most important issue facing family courts today ( Schepard, 2002 ), and that pro se litigation the second most frequently cited problem by judges and court staff who process divorce cases ( Goerdt, 1992 ). These litigants arrive without knowledge of basic procedural requirements such as statutory time deadlines or understanding of the procedural requirements for conducting court hearings (e.g., subpoenaing witnesses). Evaluating the reliability of evidence and the advantages and disadvantages of various options is probably the most important factor in a divorce case and is the most difficult for pro se litigants ( Snukals & Sturtevant, 2007 ). Unless legally trained, pro se litigants are at a significant disadvantage in this regard. The number of these cases is substantial, though it varies across jurisdictions and types of proceedings. Studies have indicated that the range of family court cases that have at least one pro se client is 55 to 90 percent ( Feitz, 2008 ; McEwen, Rogers, & Maiman, 1995 ). Results from studies of the process indicate that couples with children and personal assets have tremendous difficulties navigating a process designed for legal professionals ( Sales, Beck, & Haan, 1993 ). What has not been investigated are the effects of couples navigating the divorce process on their own in terms of the levels of conflict between parents, types of divorce and parenting agreements developed, or effects (if any) on children in the short or long term.

What is clear is that individual judges have tremendous discretion in deciding divorce-related issues that come before them. This discretion leans to uncertainty in the potential outcomes of cases. In addition, attorneys have particular styles in working with each other and with clients, some more argumentative than others. Judges and attorneys are frustrated with clients attempting the legal divorce process designed for legal professionals. Thus, a level of uncertainty is introduced into the divorce process when couples rely on attorneys and judges to resolve disputed issues or rely on themselves without an adequate understanding of substantive law governing divorce or legal procedures. At a time when couples are emotionally and financially in crisis, many desire clarity from the legal process and are instead faced with uncertainty

Psycholegal Interventions

The contentious, emotionally and financially costly and uncertain nature of the traditional litigation process for resolving disputed divorce issues both before and after divorce has prompted scholars, practitioners, and policy makers to develop and implement less divisive forms of dispute resolution and divorce-specific education programs for couples at these times ( Beck & Sales, 2001 ). The programs remain based in law because most often attendance is legally mandated and important legal issues are addressed; however, the focus of the interventions facilitate discussion of emotionally laden issues and are based in psychological constructs.

Mediation has been advocated for its potential to resolve disputes with less acrimony among disputants, reduce economic costs, and increase satisfaction with divorce agreements ( Beck & Sales, 2001 ). Mediation is a task-oriented, time-limited intervention premised on the theory that disputing parties can negotiate equitable agreements in a confidential, collaborative dispute resolution process with a neutral third party, in a more casual forum than a courtroom ( Beck & Sales, 2001 ).

There has been a steady rise in the popularity of mediation for resolving divorce disputes concerning custody and parenting time. Divorce mediation in some form now exists in nearly every state, or in jurisdictions within each state, in the United States ( Murphy & Rubinson, 2005 ). If a couple is disputing custody or parenting time, then before setting a date for trial, twelve states mandate that the couple attend mediation ( Johnson, Saccuzzo, & Koen, 2005 ). In an additional thirty-three states, judges are given the authority to order (mandate) couples to attend mediation. The remaining states rely on a variety of local court rules that use each of these referral mechanisms ( Johnson, Saccuzzo & Koen., 2005 ). In litigation, spouses can resolve all disputed issues. In some states, all the divorce issues can be mediated (e.g., Alaska, Kansas), whereas others limit it to custody and parenting time issues (e.g., Arizona, Nevada). Paralleling the rise in popularity of mediation, there have been several empirical studies reporting very encouraging findings regarding the success of mediation (see Beck & Sales, 2001 ; Bickerdike & Littlefield, 2000 ; Emery, 1994 ; Emery, Laumann-Billings, Waldron, Sbarra, & Dillon, 2001 ; Emery, Matthews, & Kitzmann, 1994 ; Emery, Matthews, & Wyer, 1991 ; Emery, Sbarra, & Grover, 2005 ; Emery & Wyer, 1987 ; Kelly, 1989 , 1996 ; McIntosh, 2000 ).

Despite mediation’s increasing popularity and encouraging findings, legitimate concerns exist about mandating mediation when IPA is alleged ( Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011 ). In the context of IPA, concerns about victim and child safety, along with questions about the voluntariness and fairness of the mediation process, are the fulcrum of this debate ( Beck, Walsh & Weston, 2009 ). The proportion of divorcing couples in mediation that report having some type of IPA is high. Depending on the type of IPA assessed (i.e., psychological abuse, physical abuse, coercive control, physical or sexual violence), reported rates of IPA were 59 to 98 percent ( Beck, Walsh, Mechanic, & Taylor, 2010 ; Beck et al., 2009 ; CFCC Research Update, 2010). The IPA in these families also can be extremely serious. In one study, in 41 percent of the cases, there was a restraining order against one of the parties (with 15 percent currently in effect), and 7 percent of the participants did not feel safe at the mediation session (CFCC Research Update, 2010). The idea of a self-representation victim of IPA negotiating long-term legal agreements concerning children in mediation is extremely concerning. Lawyers are not judges and cannot order abusers to agree to terms in agreements that would provide safety for a victim (e.g., supervised parenting time and exchanges of children, restrictions on contact between victim and abuser) ( Beck et al., 2009 ). Unfortunately, at present there are few alternatives for the safe processing of these cases. Victims of IPA and without financial resources have few choices.

Parenting Coordination

For many couples, mediation presents an opportunity to negotiate both predivorce and postdivorce plans. There are, however, a small percentage of couples (8 to 12 percent) ( Coates, Deutsch, Starnes, Sullivan, & Sydlik, 2004 ) for whom mediation does not work. Even if agreements are negotiated, they quickly unravel. It has become clear that there need to be additional programs for these high-conflict families. One option gaining popularity is parenting coordinator programs (PCPs) (e.g., Beck, Putterman, Sbarra, & Mehl, 2008 ). In the early 2000s these programs arose across the United States and Canada driven by the frustration experienced by judges, court personnel, and others working with high-conflict families ( Deutsch, Coates & Fieldstone, 2008 ). Like other court-based programs, PCPs vary considerably in who delivers the intervention, the intervention provided, and the governing legal authority. Broadly, parenting coordinators (PCs) are lawyers and mental health professionals appointed by the courts to perform a quasi-judicial role with the families. The PCs are court-appointed for 1 to 2 years and work with the family to address and resolve a limited scope of parenting conflicts.

The proposed benefit of PCPs is that disputed issues will be resolved much more quickly and without the costly involvement of attorneys and lengthy delays necessary for court hearings. Originally PCPs focused on assisting parents in implementing their parenting plans after the divorce ( Greenberg, 2010 ); however, they now are providing a wider array of services both before and after divorce (parent education, case management, and support) ( Greenberg, 2010 ; Henry et al., 2009 ). Despite widespread implementation of these programs in the court systems across the North America, empirical research into the effects of PC programs is “practically nonexistent” ( Henry et al., 2009 , p. 684), but recent studies have addressed professionals’ points of view about the parenting program ( Beck et al., 2008 ) and the effectiveness of the PCP from the perspectives of clients and the court ( Henry et al., 2009 ). For future clients of these programs and for public policies concerning these programs, it is important to conduct empirically rigorous research (i.e., research using manual treatments control groups, random assignment to conditions, clearly defined goals and outcomes) to determine whether they are effective, and if so, for which clients the PCP was helpful and for which it was not.

Mandatory Informational Divorce Education Programs

Although a small percentage of high-conflict families often require intensive interventions (such as PCPs) to resolve routine parenting issues, there are more general issues all divorcing couples face, particularly in relation to managing interparental conflict and maintaining positive parenting practices. Many court administrators across the United States and Canada recognized divorcing parents were struggling, and Informational Divorce Education Programs (IDEPs) were created as a means to provide targeted education for parents early in the divorce process in the hopes that this education would in turn lessen the detrimental effects of divorce on children ( Pollet & Lombreglia, 2008 ; Sigal, Sandler, Wolchik, & Braver, 2011 ).

The first IDEPs began in 1970s, and they expanded quickly in the 1980s and 1990s. As of 2008, forty-six states had IDEPs, with mandatory attendance for all divorcing couples with children. Couples thus must participate in the program before their case can move forward or for the provision of any other services by the court ( Pollet & Lombreglia, 2008 ). Most IDEPs are short term (i.e., 2 to 4 hours) and are provided by either court-connected services (conciliation courts) or by service providers contracted by the local courts. The content of these programs varies considerably across programs and has continued to evolve.

Three recent reviews of IDEPs ( Fackrell, Hawkins, & Kay, 2011 ; Pollet & Lombreglia, 2008 ; Sigal, Sandler, Wolchik, & Braver, 2011 ) and several earlier reviews ( Braver, Salem, Pearson, & Deluse, 1996 ; Hughes & Kirby, 2000 ; Kramer & Kowal, 1998 ; Thoennes & Pearson, 1999 ) provide conflicting conclusions regarding the effectiveness of these programs. The most positive of the three recent reviews ( Pollet & Lombreglia, 2008 ) summarizes the conclusions presented by the program providers in journal articles without analyzing the research methods used to arrive at the conclusions. Nearly all outcomes measured were self-reported by attendees. The second review detailed a meta-analytic study of twenty-eight court-affiliated mandatory and voluntary programs targeting parents ( Fackrell, Hawkins, & Kay, 2011 ). The overall effect size for the nineteen control group studies was d = .39 ( p 〈 .000) indicating a moderate effect size. Examination of five specific outcomes also yielded generally moderate effect sizes for: co-parenting conflict, d = .36 ( p 〈 .001, k = 17); parent–child relationships and parental discipline, d = .49 ( p 〈 .01, k = 9); child well-being, d = .34 ( p 〈 .001, k = 5). Results for parental well-being was large at d = .61, although the significance of the effect was marginal ( p 〈 .10, k = 17). The result for differences in relitigation rates was reported to be small and insignificant at d = .19, k = 6. The authors conclude that the results of the meta-analysis are encouraging; however, relatively few IDEPs have been evaluated for effectiveness using sound experimental techniques (e.g., observational measures of child outcomes, objective measures of parent and child outcomes, long-term outcomes, randomized assignment).

The final review of IDEPs was an in-depth analysis of fourteen published studies evaluating various Parent Education Programs ( Sigal, Sandler, Wolchik & Braver, 2011 ). These authors found that there was a high level of reported satisfaction with the PEPs studied, but they took a more critical stance toward the adequacy of the research thus far. These authors concluded that because of limitations in study designs (e.g., lack of random assignment, clear specification of treatment, sufficient sample sizes, reliable and valid measures of outcomes), there is currently little evidence that the programs are achieving their stated goals of improving the quality of nonresidential parent–child contact, fostering quality parent–child relationships with both parents, reducing interparental conflict, improving co-parenting, reducing relitigation, or improving outcomes for children. The authors also note that it is premature to argue that the programs do not work; rather, it is more accurate to conclude that the programs have not been subjected to rigorous evaluation, so it is unclear whether or not they are effective ( Sigal et al., 2011 ).

Multisession Group Treatments for Parents and Children

Although research assessing the effectiveness of short-term, informational, often mandatory, court-connected divorce education programs (IDEPS) targeting parents is at best encouraging, there now exists strong evidence of the efficacy of several carefully designed randomized controlled trials of voluntary divorce-focused preventive parenting programs, some focusing on fathers ( Braver, Griffin, & Cookston, 2005 ; Cookston, Braver, Griffin, Deluse, & Miles, 2006 ; DeGarmo & Forgatch, 2005 ; DeGarmo, Patterson, & Forgatch, 2004 ), others focusing on mothers (Sandler, Miles, Cookston, & Braver, 2008; Zhou, Sandler, Millsap, Wolchik, & Dawson-McClure, 2008 ), and still others focused on stepfamilies ( Forgatch, DeGarmo, & Beldavs, 2005 ) and stepfathers specifically ( Bullard, Wachlarowicz, DeLeeuw, Snyder, Low, Forgatch, & DeGarmo, 2010 ; DeGarmo & Forgatch, 2007 ).

Sandler, Schoenfelder, Wolchik, and McKinnon (2010) found that outcome evaluations indicate that intervention effects on important aspects of parenting, including improvements in the quality of the parent–child relationship and increases in effective discipline ( DeGarmo & Forgatch, 2005 ; Wolchik, Sandler, Milsap, Plummer, & Greene, 2002 ), and increases in maternal warmth ( Wolchik et al., 2002 ). Improvements were found to last from 1 year after completion from the program ( Forgatch, Patterson, DeGarmo, & Beldavis, 2009 ) up to 6 years after completion ( Wolchik et al., 2002 ). The programs were also effective in reducing several important child and adolescent problems 2 to 9 years after intervention, including diagnosed mental disorders ( Wolchik et al., 2002 ), externalizing behavior problems ( DeGarmo & Forgatch, 2005 ; Wolchik et al., 2002 ), police arrests and delinquency ( Forgatch, et al., 2009 ), internalizing problems ( Braver, Griffin, & Cookston, 2005 ; Wolchik et al., 2002 ), substance use ( Wolchik et al., 2002 ), school performance, self-esteem, risky sexual behaviors, and active coping ( Wolchik et al., 2002 ). Interestingly, the New Beginnings Program ( Wolchik, et al., 2002 ) found that adding a child component to the parent intervention program did not provide significant additive effects over and above the parental program. In addition, stronger effects occurred for those who were at higher risk when entering the intervention program.

Important issues for the future of prevention programs for divorcing families are dissemination and broadening the scope to other, more complex family forms. Although the efficacy of these parenting interventions on improving long-term outcomes for youth is clear, what is less clear is whether effectiveness research in practice settings can also maintain the positive effects. Exciting new research is underway examining whether this is possible. The New Beginnings Program is currently being implemented in six community-based test sites (personal communication with Irwin Sandler, June 4, 2011 ). Another important focus is to extend the reach of these programs to include stepparents in the programs. Before age 13 years, 50 percent of children in the United States will live in a family that includes a biological parent and an intimate partner of the biological parent ( Stewart, 2007 ). The constellations of these families are complex and can include children brought to the new family from both partners and birth children of the new unions. Parenting practices in these complex families are extremely challenging.

Research on Nonmarital Unions and Stepfamilies

In 2007, nearly 40 percent of all children born in the United States were born to unmarried parents ( Ventura, 2009 ). These rates are up from 34 percent in 2002 and nearly double the rate in 1980 (18.4 percent) ( Ventura, 2009 ). In the past decade, research on nonmarital (cohabitating) and informal unions is increasing both in quantity and sophistication. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) is a collaboration between Columbia and Princeton Universities investigating a nationally representative, longitudinal survey of 5,000 children born in the United States between 1998 and 2000, including a large oversampling of children born to unmarried parents (3,700 born to unmarried mothers and 1,200 to married mothers) ( McLanahan, Garfinkel, Mincy, & Donahue, 2010 ; Osborne, McLanahan, & Brooks-Gunn, 2004 ). Parents were interviewed in the hospital immediately after the birth of a child with follow-up interviews when the same child was 1, 3, and 5 years old ( ).

The FFCWS findings indicate that most unmarried parents were romantically involved at the time of the child’s birth. Fifty percent of the couples were living together, another 32 percent were “visiting” (romantically involved but living apart), and 18 percent were “single” (8 percent were friends and 10 percent reported little to no contact) ( McLanahan & Beck, 2010 ). Therefore, approximately half of these children live at least initially with a single mother, whereas the other half live with both biological parents in a cohabitating union ( Waldfogel, Craigie, & Brooks-Gunn, 2010 ).

The stability of these families was, however, fragile. Approximately 60 percent of the relationships dissolved within 5 years of the child’s birth ( McLanahan & Beck, 2010 ). Of the three types of unions, cohabitating unions were the most stable, with 60 percent still living together or married 5 years after birth, compared with only 20 percent of the visiting parents. Adding to the complexity of these families, of those relationships that did not remain stable, many mothers (20 percent for cohabitating to 45 percent for single) formed new co-residential relationships and had an additional child or children (15 percent for cohabitating and 33 percent for single) by year 5 ( McLanahan & Beck, 2010 ).

Concerning the processes and consequences for children, the FFCWS assessed cognitive development, behavioral problems, and child health (obesity, asthma, hospitalization, accidents or injuries in the past year, and overall health). For those children of unmarried parents at the time of the birth but later married, the marriage improved the cognitive scores of their children compared with children whose biological parents never married ( Liu & Heiland, 2008 ). For children who remained in nonmarital families, consistent findings from several researchers indicated that the stability of the family form was the important factor in the children’s cognitive development. Children living under stable single-parent or stable cohabitating unions fared better than children in homes that were unstable ( Craigie, 2008 ). This finding has held with other data sets. Amato (2003) found a direct negative relationship between the number of family transitions and levels of psychological well-being of children. Sun and Li (2001) also found that the negative effects of multiple family transitions on children’s academic achievement were not only sustained but also could escalate over time.

The pattern of findings for the FFCWS data was more mixed for behavioral problems. Behavioral problems were elevated in cohabitating and single-parent families compared with married families and grew worse with each change in family structure ( Waldfogel et al., 2010 ). Behavioral problems were also elevated in stable single-mother families; however, mothers’ level of stress and parenting quality mediated this association ( Osborne & McLanahan, 2007 ; Waldfogel et al., 2010 ). Using a separate data set with observational measures and analyzing family structure and mother–child interactions by race and ethnicity, researchers found that a cohabitating relationship was not uniformly associated with more positive mother–child interaction; cohabitation was particularly difficult for the relationships of Hispanic women and their children ( Gibson-Davis & Gassman-Pines, 2010 ).

Data from the FFCWS concerning child health outcomes indicate that, overall, children born into nonmarital unions show consistently worse health even when researchers control for other potential differences (maternal age, race and ethnicity, education) ( Bzostek & Beck, 2008 ; Waldfogel et al., 2010 ). Single-mother headed households have the worst outcomes on all five measures of child health, whereas cohabitating families have poorer outcomes on some but not all measures ( Bzostek & Beck, 2008 ; Waldfogel, et al. 2010 ). Although these analyses considered and controlled for important group differences, not many do; thus, selection effects could drive some of the differences between unmarried unions and married families. In addition, only a limited number of studies investigate the influence of the children themselves on the family environments ( Hawkins, Amato, & King, 2007 ).

In terms of the number of stepfamilies, a historically strong finding in the literature is that the majority of divorced parents do remarry; 68 percent of women over age 25 years and 81 percent of women under age 25 years remarry within 10 years after divorce ( Bramlett & Mosher, 2002 ). This study also found that between 34 and 50 percent of these second marriages dissolve within the first 10 years of remarriage. Focusing on the number of people with stepfamily relatives, a recent nationally representative study of 2,691 adults found that 42 percent of the adults surveyed indicated they had at least one step relative, 30 percent had a step or half sibling, 18 percent had a living stepparent, and 13 percent had a stepchild (Pew Research Center, 2011). The demographic pattern of those who are most likely to live in a stepfamily is also the same as that of those who are most likely to cohabitate rather than marry (young people, blacks, those of lower income, and those without a college degree). Also, research finds that cohabitating couples are more likely to enter a new union with children (48 percent) than are those who remarry (37 percent) ( Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2000 ).

What has not been studied until recently is the process of postdivorce repartnering (the movement in and out of new romantic relationships) during the intermarriage interval. Anderson and Greene (2005) found that within 60 days of the divorce filing, 45 percent of parents in their study were dating in some form, 26 percent were interested but had not met someone, and 29 percent were not interested in dating. By the 2-year follow-up, 86 percent reported some dating experience, 71 percent reported having a serious relationship, and 24 percent reported a break-up of a serious relationship. Thus, there appear to be many transitions within the first 2 years after divorce.

A recent study focused on factors leading to the instability of second marriages and found that women who brought stepchildren into their second marriage experienced a higher risk of divorce, although the reverse was not true (man bringing a child into a second marriage) ( Teachman, 2008 ). Cohabitating with or having a child while cohabitating with a man, who eventually became a husband, also did not increase the risk of divorce ( Teachman, 2008 ). If this trend holds, it is women with children from previous relationships who are at highest risk of multiple family structure changes. This finding is important in that, as noted earlier, 40 percent of children are born to unmarried parents, and the vast majority of children remain with their mothers after divorce.

Although remarriage can have positive effects on physical and emotional well-being and standard of living, it does not appear to be as consistently positive for children ( Amato, 2000 ). When comparing children living with a stepparent rather than a single mother, poorer outcomes were found for children living in stepparent families concerning emotional well-being but somewhat better outcomes were found for these children concerning health and some behavioral measures ( Amato, 2000 ; Sweeney, 2010 ). The variability in outcomes may be partly due to the variability in dynamics of stepfamilies and in particular the variability in relationships between stepparents and stepchildren and between step and half siblings (Sweeney, 2010). For example, not surprisingly, high-quality relationships with both resident stepfathers and nonresident biological fathers are associated with better outcomes for children ( Sweeney, 2010 ). Consequences for children living in stepfamilies are complex, given that most children live through a parental break-up, live with a single parent, and then live through several relationship transitions ( Anderson & Greene, 2005 ) before living with a stepparent ( Sweeney, 2010 ). Disentangling the effects of these family transitions from those from the stepparent per se is difficult.

Emerging Themes and Future Directions

In concluding his review article on the past decade of research on divorce for the Journal of Marriage and Family,   Amato (2010) outlines eleven areas for future research. Rather than simply reiterate his points, our final section of this chapter attempts to build on Amato’s (2010) major conclusions; we emphasize the areas he covered that we view to be particularly important and also try to outline other new and emerging research directions.

What Are the Psychological Mechanisms that Underpin Resilience in Children and Adults after Divorce?

The general literature on human resilience to stress is well developed, but we know far less about why and how some people fare well or poorly following divorce. Research in the area of post-traumatic ( Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004 ; Tedeschi, Park, & Calhoun, 1998 ) and stress-related ( Park, Cohen, & Murch, 1996 ; Park & Helgeson, 2006 ) growth is beginning to shed light on how people can thrive in the face of even severe adversities. The essential idea underpinning these constructs is that difficult life events challenge people’s basic beliefs about the world and their place in the world, which then initiates the search for meaning to rebuild these beliefs (see Janoff-Bulman, 1992 ). Although notable controversies surround the measurement of perceptions of growth, evidence indicates that actual growth following a traumatic event is associated with improved (self-reported) well-being ( Frazier et al., 2009 ). Applied to the study of divorce, these constructs hold much potential for future work ( Tashiro & Frazier, 2003 ; Tashiro, Frazier, & Berman, 2006 ), but many questions remain. In what ways are beliefs about a just world and meaning structures disrupted by divorce? Among adults and children who are challenged or stressed by divorce, what characteristics promote meaning making and the emergence of growth? These are essential questions for understanding the mechanisms that define resilient outcomes in the face of marital dissolution, and the field will benefit from basic research rooted in theories of stress-related growth.

Deeper into Social Selection and Social Causation

At this point, it is incontrovertible that some of the alleged (child and adult) outcomes of divorce may be predate the divorce itself or be explained by the same underlying genetic associations that account for poor divorce outcomes (e.g., temperament or personality). What is not yet clear is precisely which outcomes can be deemed causal consequences of marital separation and divorce. The field needs to become aware of replicated findings from CoT and co-twin control designs, and then place greater emphasis on explaining the mechanisms of these outcomes in particular. In addition, experiments and clinical interventions remain the best way to determine causation. As reviewed above, child outcomes can be improved through parent education programs, but there is limited experimental or intervention research in the area of adult adjustment (for an exception, see Rye, Folck, Heim, Olszewski, & Traina, 2004 ). There is no area in which this is as critical as isolating the potential causal effects on adults’ health outcomes. Cohen and Janicki-Deverts (2009) recently argued that with the exception of a very few studies, the entire literature on social relationships and health is correlational in nature. In order to understand whether the social and psychological correlates of divorce translate into risk for poor health outcomes, interventions that target these social and psychological processes can be designed, and health-relevant biomarkers can be examined. An increase in experimentation and treatment development in this area would be a major contribution.

Learning More about Diverse Family Forms

Because of the sheer numbers of children living in complex and fluid family forms, much more attention needs to be placed on understanding these family forms and their effects on adults and children. Children in multiple-transition families are thrust into and then back out of relationships with adults, new stepsiblings, grandparents, and extended families. These changes in the demographics of any particular family, as well as in families in general, have led to new questions. Questions concerning the trajectories of parental relationships when partners have children from multiple partners, and the trajectories of children in these complex family forms, are very important to more fully understand. Recent evidence indicates, for example, that children born to men with children from prior partners will be less likely to grow up in an intact family, that the women who partner with these men are likely to spend time as a single parent, and that men who have children from multiple partners are less likely to establish stable family households ( Monte, 2011 ). The sheer diversity of family forms emerging today has many ramifications for many important legal, societal, and personal outcomes (e.g., custody, parenting time, calculations and payment of consistent child support, odds of marriage), leading to new research questions. For example, are current and formal, legal and cohabitating, partners of biological parents (and children of those dispirit unions) to be considered family ( Schmeeckle, Giarrusso, Feng, & Bengtson, 2006 )? Recent research examining the relationship between adult children and former stepparents indicates that, under certain circumstances (e.g., co-residence, marriage to biological parent, the perception of stepparent as a parent), these relationships continue ( Schmeeckle et al., 2006 ).

Legal, Psycholegal, and Therapeutic Interventions for Complex Families

What are the best ways to serve these complex families through legal, psycholegal, and therapeutic interventions? The information gleaned from additional research with these families can be used to assess and revise mediation, parenting coordination, parent education, and existing multisession group treatments for stepparents. Recent research in just one of these areas (multisession group interventions) indicates that it is in its infancy and suffers from many of the same problems as other programs for families (i.e., small samples, no control groups, no randomization to treatments, short-term follow-up periods, and no standardized outcome measures) ( Bullard et al., 2010 ; Whitton, Nicholson & Markman, 2008 ). One program for new stepfamilies is focused on enhancing parental practices in five core areas: skill encouragement, discipline, monitoring, problem solving, and positive involvement. The results of a randomized controlled trial with 2-year follow-up found that this program enhanced marital relationship processes, improved parenting practices, prevented deterioration in mothers’ marital satisfaction, and prevented increased teacher reports of children’s externalizing behavior problems ( Bullard et al, 2010 ).

Concluding Remarks

This chapter reviewed a relatively large body of research on the demography, the predictors, and the mental and physical health correlates of marital separation and divorce. We also reviewed research on several psycholegal intervention and prevention programs, as well as the changing face of American families and the implications of divorce for changing family structures. The chapter closes with a series of questions that are open for future research. We emphasize the need to (1) learn more about the social selection and causation processes that are operating to explain health outcomes; (2) focus greater research attention of resilience—for both children and adults—in the face of divorce, as well as the mechanisms that explain psychological outcomes following marital dissolution; (3) conduct more research on prevention programs, including mandated parenting education programs and voluntary multisession group treatments for parents and children; and (4) develop a deeper understanding of how the intervention and prevention programs can be readily applied to complex family situations that involve not only the dissolution of legal marriages but also the end of nonmarital unions. It is clear that these issues require interdisciplinary research, and advances will be realized through research that integrates, in some capacity, sociological, psychological, and legal theory and scholarship.

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The Morality of Getting Divorced

Justin mcbrayer considers when divorce is morally permissable, and when it isn’t..

It’s almost impossible to find someone whose life has not been significantly affected by divorce. Given this, the decision to end a marriage may be one of the most significant moral decisions a person ever makes. So under what conditions is it morally permissible to get a divorce?

To say that something is morally permissible means that there is no moral obligation requiring you to act differently. So getting divorced will be morally permissible only if you can do so while meeting all your moral obligations. So what are the moral obligations that might make ending a marriage morally problematic?

What Makes Marriage Morally Special?

Many ethicists agree that getting married generates special moral obligations that one would not otherwise have. It makes some actions required that would otherwise not be, for example, sacrificing something for your partner’s sake, and makes some actions wrong that would otherwise not be, for example, having sex with a non-partner. But what explains the fact that when two people marry, new moral obligations are created?

Marriage creates moral obligations primarily because it involves promise-making. Promise-making is a way of generating moral obligations – if I promise to pick you up at the airport, then I have taken on a moral obligation to do so. And whatever else a wedding ceremony may be, it is an event during which two people make promises to one another. It follows that getting married is a way of generating new moral obligations.

divorce cake split

Some ethicists resist this line of thought. They insist that marriage promises have no power to create new moral obligations. According to these philosophers, this is because marital vows are promises to feel a certain way or to have certain emotions towards one’s partner, but we have no control over our feelings or emotions, and it makes no sense to say that someone is morally obligated to do something that is beyond her control. Thus, promising to do something the doing of which one cannot control does not result in a new moral obligation.

There are at least two good reasons to reject this analysis. First, it is plausible that in the marriage context we are promising to do things that are in our control or over which we have indirect control. For example, when we get married we pledge to do our best to bring about a certain emotional state, or make an unconditional commitment to another person. Second, and more importantly, anyone who has been to a wedding can see that although there are often emotional components to marital vows, there are obvious behavioral components as well. In fact, most of us see getting married as a promise to do something for our partner. Consider the following wedding vow, taken at random from an online search:

“I, [name], take you, [name], to be my [husband/wife], my constant friend, my faithful partner and my love from this day forward. In the presence of God, our family and friends, I offer you my solemn vow to be your faithful partner in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow. I promise to love you unconditionally, to support you in your goals, to honor and respect you, to laugh with you and cry with you, and to cherish you for as long as we both shall live.”

Notice how heavily this vow focuses on actions compared to emotions: support one’s partner, honor one’s partner, respect one’s partner, and so on. Even the emotional content is easily understood in a behavioral sense: to be a faithful partner in sickness and health clearly has a behavioral component. To see this, imagine the following thought-experiment. Suppose Landon makes the aforementioned promise to Hannah. Suppose next that he feels all the right things toward her (for example, he is in love with her), but that his behavior is wildly erratic – he sleeps around, is verbally abusive to Hannah, abandons her when she is ill, etc. Would anyone be willing to say that Landon has fulfilled his wedding vow? Surely not. This shows that we see wedding vows as promises not simply to feel a certain way, but primarily as promises to act a certain way.

So marital vows do create new moral obligations. Furthermore, we typically think that the strength of the moral obligation generated by making a promise varies with the seriousness of the promise-making, the clarity of the promises made, and the consequences of breaking the promise. Marital promises score high in all three categories. A wedding vow, celebrated with all the pomp and circumstance many people can afford, is one of the most serious promises most people ever make. And although the clarity of wedding vows is not universal, many couples carefully construct the wording of their vows, spending a long time talking through what they are and are not willing to promise one another. Finally, breaking a marriage promise often has devastating effects for numerous people. In all, then, it appears that the marriage promise creates a strong and special obligation between the marriage partners.

Illegitimate Promises

Marriage obligations exist because of promises, then. So in order to determine whether divorce is morally permissible, we need to determine whether it would violate marriage promises.

First, it follows that divorce is morally permissible if marital promises have failed to generate special moral obligations in the first place. We noted that making a promise does usually generate moral duties. However, not all promises generate obligations. In particular, promises generate new obligations only when the person making the promise is autonomous , and informed, and does so willingly. Otherwise, the promise is morally illegitimate. We might say that it is not a real promise.

Sometimes a partner is coerced into marriage. Such coercion affects the condition that the marriage promise be made willingly . When angry parents force a scared pregnant girl to marry the father of her unborn child, it is implausible that either she or he does so entirely willingly. Alternatively, a marriage partner might be too young, too mentally undeveloped, or otherwise incompetent to make a morally binding pledge such as is required for a true marriage promise. In such cases, the promises are not made by a fully autonomous agent. When a thirteen-year-old girl marries a much older man, as is common in some cultures, it is implausible that she is emotionally and intellectually developed enough to give fully autonomous consent to the kind of promise made between partners in a marriage. Finally, a marriage partner might have been too ignorant of the situation or nature of the other partner, or even blatantly deceived by them. In such a case, the promise is not made by a suitably informed agent. For instance, when a girl deceives her partner about the fact that she is HIV positive, such deception annuls their marital promises.

In all of these cases, the marital promises are illegitimate, and hence they create no special moral duties between the partners. And if there are no such special moral duties, then it is morally permissible to sever the relationship through divorce.

Bilateral Divorce

divorce not speaking

If I promise to pick you up from the airport, but you find another ride, you may release me from my promise. Just as making a legitimate promise creates an obligation, releasing someone from a promise eliminates an obligation. Thus, one straightforward way for divorce to be morally permissible would be for both partners to release the other from their respective marital promises. Call that a ‘bilateral’ divorce – a divorce by mutual consent.

You might think that even if the two partners agree to end a marriage, it is still wrong to do so if their promises were made before God. However, a promise before someone is different than a promise to someone. A promise made before you makes you a witness, whereas a promise made to you makes you a beneficiary. You don’t have to get God’s permission in a case where He is not the beneficiary.

It is important to note two more things. First, even though a bilateral divorce is typically morally permissible – in other words, it is morally permissible all other things being equal – sometimes all other things are not equal. An obvious example of this kind of case involves families with children. Parents have moral obligations to their children as well as to each other. Insofar as these obligations require that parents refrain from doing what is bad for their children, and insofar as divorce is bad for children, then other factors notwithstanding, these same parental obligations require that parents refrain from getting a divorce, at least while the children are young enough to suffer harm from it.

Second, many people are troubled by apparently cavalier divorces. Hollywood stars who get married apparently on a whim and divorced six months later provide typical examples. These cases appear to be cases of bilateral divorce, and hence they are to that extent morally permissible. So what do we find so troubling about them? My suggestion is that there seems something amiss with the moral character of people who behave in this sort of way. What they do may, strictly speaking, be morally permissible, but the apparent attitude behind it reveals a moral vice: that they are quick to make promises that they are unable or unwilling to keep. People who casually make and abandon marital promises are not, morally speaking, the kind of people we want to be. This is not moral behaviour in the wider application of the term.

Divorce When A Partner Cannot Fulfill Their Duties

Moral philosophers often say that ought implies can. What they mean is that if you really ought to do something, this implies you must be able to do that thing. In other words, it is conceptually confused to say of someone that he ought to do something if it is impossible for him to do it. This principle is relevant to divorce in the following way: if you become unable to do what you have promised to do, then you cannot have a moral obligation to do that thing. And hence divorce will be morally permissible any time one of the partners is literally unable to keep the marital promise. However, determining whether a divorce is permissible for this reason requires being clear about what marital promises are about.

In many cases, marital promises are about goals over which we have indirect control. Two plausible candidates for the goals that marital promises are aimed at are: (A) the goal of fostering a loving relationship between the partners, and (B) the long-term goal of making a partner’s life better.

Suppose that these are both plausible candidates for what we are pledging when we get married. If the goal is (B), we have the following interesting result: when staying together does not make your partner’s life better, in the long run, then your marital promises do not obligate you to stay together. For example, suppose one of the partners becomes involved in an extramarital affair, and that she and her lover are happy building their lives together. In this case, it is morally permissible for the other partner to initiate a divorce on the grounds that his promise to his partner was aimed at making her life better and he is unable to do so given the current situation. Because he cannot do so, he has no moral obligation to do so. Thus, in this sort of circumstance it may be morally permissible to formally mutually end the relationship.

Unilateral Divorce

A ‘unilateral’ divorce happens when only one of the partners desires the dissolution of the marriage. Since promises produce moral obligations, the obligations from marital promises make it morally wrong to seek a unilateral divorce in many cases. Consider the case of a man who wants to divorce his wife on the grounds that she has been recently diagnosed with a chronic degenerative disease. This is not a morally permissable ground for divorce. In particular, neither non-reciprocation nor the lack of happiness of one of the partners justifies unilateral divorce.

Many people who divorce cite the fact that their partners did not reciprocate in certain ways as justification for the divorce. Their partners weren’t ‘doing their part’ in the relationship. Whether this counts as a morally adequate reason to get a divorce depends on whether the marriage promises were unconditional or conditional, and the nature of the conditions. Take, for instance, the promise to be sexually faithful to one’s partner. On an unconditional reading, this promise says, ‘No matter what happens, I promise to be sexually faithful to you’. However, on a conditional reading, the promise might say, ‘I will be sexually faithful to you so long as you are sexually faithful to me’. On the unconditional reading, one has a moral reason to be sexually faithful to one’s partner regardless of what he or she has done. On the conditional reading, one has a moral reason to be sexually faithful to one’s partner if and only if he or she has also been sexually faithful. Generally, if marital promises are conditional, then the non-reciprocation of a partner in such a way would cancel out the moral obligation generated, and hence a divorce would be morally permissible. But if marital promises are unconditional, then the non-reciprocation of a partner is morally irrelevant, and hence a divorce would be morally impermissible.

Does happiness, or the lack of it, count as a valid condition for divorce?

Regarding the (supposed) right to be happy, many people cite their ongoing unhappiness as the justification for their divorce. The idea is that if it becomes impossible for a person to be genuinely happy while married to their partner, it is morally permissible for them to divorce that partner.

divorce child cartoon

Two things should be noted in response to this line of thought. First, a right to be happy is at best a negative right: it is at best the right to pursue happiness as long as you can do so without violating the rights of others. But this sort of right doesn’t mean that a divorce is morally permissible, even if it is true that one cannot be happy without a divorce. Compare this with the negative right to own a car (that is, the right to take steps to own a car as long as you can do so without violating the rights of others). This right doesn’t mean that stealing a car is morally permissible, even if it is true that you cannot get one without stealing it. The crucial issue in both cases is whether the action in question would violate a moral obligation, and in both cases it would: breaking a marital promise in the first case, and the obligation not to steal in the second. Second, we don’t ordinarily think that one can get out of a promise, like any other sort of contract, simply because performance of the promise or contract will cause one unhappiness. Consider a standard commercial contract: one business cannot renege on a contract with another business even if doing so would be crucial for the profits or success of the first business. Or suppose I promise to pick you up from the airport, but on the appointed day realize that I would be happier doing other things. This does not mean that I no longer have a moral obligation to pick you up from the airport. By the same reasoning, one’s happiness, or lack of it, does not on its own make breaking a marital promise morally permissable.

Thoughts To Take Away

Many divorces are morally permissible. These include cases in which the marriage promise was illegitimate, scenarios in which one of the partners is unable to fulfill the promises, and considered bilateral divorce. But many divorces are also morally wrong, including those in which the partners have other obligations that require them to stay together, at least for a time, and unilateral divorces in which one partner’s non-reciprocation or one’s right to be happy is cited as the sole reason for the divorce.

There are two take-away thoughts. First, we should be very careful with the promises that we make to our marriage partner on our wedding day. These promises ground special moral obligations, and yet they are all too often vague, unclear, or impossible to fulfill. Partners entering into a marriage should have explicit conversations about their expectations for the future, the promises they are willing to make to one another, and the unconditional or conditional nature of such promises. Second, we should also be very careful about the decision to get a divorce. Whether a divorce is morally permissible depends on a great many things, including the content of the promises made between the partners.Merely citing a right to be happy does not dissolve the moral obligations we have in other areas of life. Nor does it on its own obviate the moral obligation we have to stick with a spouse when doing so makes us unhappy.

© Dr Justin P. McBrayer 2017

Justin McBrayer is a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Innsbruck and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fort Lewis College, the liberal arts college for the state of Colorado.

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Why Are Divorce Memoirs Still Stuck in the 1960s?

Recent best sellers have reached for a familiar feminist credo, one that renounces domestic life for career success.

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An illustration of a laptop computer dropping inside a stew pot, along with a tomato, an apron, a spoon and a spice shaker.

By Sarah Menkedick

Sarah Menkedick’s most recent book is “Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America.”

“The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own,” Betty Friedan wrote in “ The Feminine Mystique ,” in 1963. Taking a new role as a productive worker is “the way out of the trap,” she added. “There is no other way.”

On the final page of “ This American Ex-Wife ,” her 2024 memoir and study of divorce, Lyz Lenz writes: “I wanted to remove myself from the martyr’s pyre and instead sacrifice the roles I had been assigned at birth: mother, wife, daughter. I wanted to see what else I could be.”

More than 60 years after Friedan’s landmark text, there remains only one way for women to gain freedom and selfhood: rejecting the traditionally female realm, and achieving career and creative success.

Friedan’s once-provocative declaration resounds again in a popular subgenre of autobiography loosely referred to as the divorce memoir, several of which have hit best-seller lists in the past year or two. These writers’ candid, raw and moving exposés of their divorces are framed as a new frontier of women’s liberation, even as they reach for a familiar white feminist ideology that has prevailed since “The Problem That Has No Name,” through “Eat, Pray, Love” and “I’m With Her” and “Lean In”: a version of second-wave feminism that remains tightly shackled to American capitalism and its values.

Lenz, for example, spends much of her book detailing her struggle to “get free,” but never feels she needs to define freedom. It is taken as a given that freedom still means the law firm partner in heels, the self-made woman with an independent business, the best-selling author on book tour — the woman who has shed any residue of the domestic and has finally come to shine with capitalist achievement.

It is not the freedom for a woman to stay home with her child for a year, or five. The freedom to stop working after a lifetime toiling in low-wage jobs. The freedom for a Filipina nanny to watch her own children instead of those of her “liberated” American boss. The freedom to start a farm or a homestead or engage in the kind of unpaid work ignored by an economy that still values above all else the white-collar professional labor long dominated by men — and in fact mostly fails to recognize other labor as valuable at all.

One of the paradoxes the divorce memoir highlights is that women’s work is made invisible by a society that disparages it, and the only way it becomes visible is through the triumphant narrative of a woman’s escape from it — which only reinforces its undesirability and invisibility.

In Maggie Smith’s 2023 memoir “ You Could Make This Place Beautiful ,” Smith details the critical inflection point when her poem “ Good Bones ” goes viral, her career takes off and her marriage begins to implode. She tells a reporter from The Columbus Dispatch: “I feel like I go into a phone booth and I turn into a poet sometimes. Most of the other time, I’m just Maggie who pushes the stroller.”

Nothing threatening, nothing meaningful. Just a mom pushing the stroller in the meager labor of women — until she slips into the phone booth and transforms into an achieving superhero.

This is not to diminish Smith’s work, a unique and highly refined series of linked essays that build into an emotional symphony about marital breakdown. Her intention is not, like Lenz’s, to condemn the institution of marriage or to rejoice in her release from hers, which is complicated, excruciating and tender. Her depictions of divorce clearly resonate with readers and offer solace and insight into a common experience of heartbreak. But it’s worth asking what exactly is being celebrated in the huge cultural reception her memoir, and other popular divorce memoirs, have received.

Leslie Jamison’s book “ Splinters ,” published the same day as “This American Ex-Wife,” is an exquisite, textured and precise articulation of the collapse of her marriage, all nuance and interiority where Lenz’s writing is blunt and political. But here, too, we get a female narrator for whom freedom and acceptance ultimately signify professional success. Jamison is much more vexed about this formula, but in the end she settles for lightly querying rather than assailing it. She jokes about how her editor is stressed about book sales while she’s stressed about her baby sleeping on airplanes, and mocks this as a “humblebrag”: “ I don’t care about ambition! I only care about baby carriers! ” She rushes to clarify in the next sentence, “Of course I cared about book sales, too.”

Herein lies the ultimate paradigm, the space no woman wants to explore: What if the modern woman didn’t actually care about book sales? About making partner? About building a successful brand? That would be unthinkable. Embarrassing. Mealy, mushy, female.

But later in “Splinters,” Jamison skewers the cult of male, capitalist achievement: “My notion of divinity was gradually turning its gaze away from the appraising, tally-keeping, pseudo-father in the sky who would give me enough gold stars if I did enough good things, and toward the mother who’d been here all along,” she writes. I felt an electric optimism reading this. If feminism wants to tackle patriarchy, it needs to start with that pseudo-father and his metrics of a person’s worth.

Jamison struggles toward this in “Splinters.” She wants so badly to be remarkable. To banter about the Russian G.D.P. while she spoon-feeds her toddler, or to impress arrogant lovers who critique her conversation as only “85 percent as good as it could be.” At the same time, she yearns “to experience the sort of love that could liberate everyone involved from their hamster wheels of self-performance,” a love that will “involve all your tedious moments.”

Yes , I found myself saying, I want to read about this love . A mother love that is radical, creative, affirming, even and especially in its difficulty and tedium. Jamison almost gets there, but returns ultimately to the affirmation that it’s OK to want more: “quiet mornings at my laptop, tap-tap-tapping at my keyboard.”

It is certainly OK, and natural, to want more. But what I find most exhilarating in this beautiful book is the possibility that it’s also OK to let go of wanting. It’s OK to not write a best seller, to not hold a prestigious title, to not start your own brand. It’s OK, even, to not try to find yourself, that most American of quests.

Divorce, sure. Ditch the toxic men, strike out on your own. But there’s nothing new or radical there. The radical is in a feminism that examines care as profound, powerful work and centers rather than marginalizes mothering, as both a lived act and a metaphor. We must let go of this half-century-old notion that the self can be “found” only after the roles of “mother, wife, daughter” have been rejected.

With friends, Jamison recounts lively anecdotes from a trip to Oslo with her daughter in order to prove that her life had not “‘gotten small,’ a phrase I put in quotes in my mind, though I did not know whom I was quoting.” Yet in this phrase lies another way of living: letting things get small, in a world that sees and celebrates mostly superlatives, and getting down to the level of the local, the intimate, the granular, the home.

Explore More in Books

Want to know about the best books to read and the latest news start here..

An assault led to Chanel Miller’s best seller, “Know My Name,” but she had wanted to write children’s books since the second grade. She’s done that now  with “Magnolia Wu Unfolds It All.”

When Reese Witherspoon is making selections for her book club , she wants books by women, with women at the center of the action who save themselves.

The Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro, who died on May 14 , specialized in exacting short stories that were novelistic in scope , spanning decades with intimacy and precision.

“The Light Eaters,” a new book by Zoë Schlanger, looks at how plants sense the world  and the agency they have in their own lives.

Each week, top authors and critics join the Book Review’s podcast to talk about the latest news in the literary world. Listen here .

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Reasons for Divorce and Recollections of Premarital Intervention: Implications for Improving Relationship Education

Shelby b. scott.

Department of Psychology, University of Denver

Galena K. Rhoades

Scott m. stanley, elizabeth s. allen.

Department of Psychology, University of Colorado – Denver

Howard J. Markman

The study presents findings from interviews of 52 divorced individuals who received the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) while engaged to be married. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, the study sought to understand participant reasons for divorce (including identification of the “final straw”) in order to understand if the program covered these topics effectively. Participants also provided suggestions based on their premarital education experiences so as to improve future relationship education efforts. The most commonly reported major contributors to divorce were lack of commitment, infidelity, and conflict/arguing. The most common “final straw” reasons were infidelity, domestic violence, and substance use. More participants blamed their partners than blamed themselves for the divorce. Recommendations from participants for the improvement of premarital education included receiving relationship education before making a commitment to marry (when it would be easier to break-up), having support for implementing skills outside of the educational setting, and increasing content about the stages of typical marital development. These results provide new insights into the timing and content of premarital and relationship education.

Divorced individuals, compared to their married counterparts, have higher levels of psychological distress, substance abuse, and depression, as well as lower levels of overall health ( Amato, 2000 ; Hughes & Waite, 2009 ). Marital conflict and divorce have also shown to be associated with negative child outcomes including lower academic success ( Frisco, Muller, & Frank, 2007 ; Sun & Li, 2001 ), poorer psychological well-being (Sun & Li, 2002), and increased depression and anxiety ( Strohschein, 2005 ). Given these negative outcomes of marital conflict and divorce, the overarching goal of premarital relationship education has been to provide couples with skills to have healthy marriages.

The Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP; Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg, 2010 ) focuses on teaching appropriate communication and conflict skills, and provides information to help couples evaluate expectations, understand relationship commitment, and enhance positive connections through friendship and fun ( Ragan, Einhorn, Rhoades, Markman, & Stanley, 2009 ). Most research indicates that compared to control groups, PREP helps couples learn to communicate more positively and less negatively (e.g., Laurenceau, Stanley, Olmos-Gallo, Baucom, & Markman, 2004 ; Markman, Renick, Floyd, Stanley, & Clements, 1993 ), increases satisfaction, and reduces risk for divorce in the years following the program (e.g., Hahlweg, Markman, Thurmaier, Engl, & Eckert, 1998 ; Hahlweg & Richter, 2010 ; Markman & Hahlweg, 1993 ; Stanley, Allen, Markman, Rhoades, & Prentice, 2010 ). A few studies have shown more mixed or moderated results (e.g., Baucom, Hahlweg, Atkins, Engl, & Thurmaier, 2006 ; van Widenfelt, Hosman, Schaap, & van der Staak, 1996 ; Markman, Rhoades, Stanley, & Peterson, in press ). In an evidence-based tradition, the growing knowledge base can and should be used to generate insights about how to refine future efforts ( Stanley & Markman, 1998 ). One methodology that could improve PREP is to interview divorced individuals who participated in the program about their reasons for divorce and premarital education experiences in order to understand if the program covered these topics effectively.

Few studies have directly examined retrospective reports of reasons for divorce, particularly within the past two decades (see Bloom, Niles, & Tatcher, 1985 ; Gigy & Kelly, 1992 ; Kitson & Holmes, 1992 ; Thurnher, Fenn, Melichar, & Chiriboga, 1983 ) and no study, to our knowledge, has examined reasons for divorce in a sample of individuals who participated in the same relationship education program. Within a sample of divorcing parents, Hawkins, Willoughby, and Doherty (2012) found that the most endorsed reasons for divorce from a list of possible choices were growing apart (55%), not being able to talk together (53%), and how one’s spouse handled money (40%). Amato and Previti (2003) found that when divorced individuals were asked open-endedly to provide their reasons for divorce, the most cited reasons were infidelity (21.6%), incompatibility (19.2%), and drinking or drug use (10.6%). A statewide survey in Oklahoma found that the most commonly checked reasons for divorce from a list of choices were lack of commitment (85%), too much conflict or arguing (61%), and/or infidelity or extramarital affairs (58%; C. A. Johnson et al., 2001 ). International studies have found highly endorsed reasons for divorce to be marrying too young, communication problems, incompatibility, spousal abuse, drug and alcohol use, religious differences, failures to get along, lack of love, lack of commitment, and childlessness, to name a few ( Al Gharaibeh & Bromfield, 2012 ; Savaya & Cohen, 2003a , 2003b ; Mbosowo, 1994 ).

In sum, across studies some consistency exists regarding the importance of issues such as communication, incompatibility, and commitment as reasons for divorce, while other issues seem to vary across samples. Thus, it would be helpful to understand the reasons for divorce in former PREP participants in order to highlight specific areas that the program could have addressed better and in order to improve that program’s effectiveness. In addition, no study, to our knowledge, has asked divorced participants who all participated in the same premarital program to provide suggestions for improving relationship education programs based on their own experiences in the program and considering that their marriages ended in divorce. These results could be valuable for practitioners to consider in order to improve the PREP model specifically and relationship education efforts more generally. The current study qualitatively interviewed individuals who had completed PREP and later divorced about their premarital education, including what they wished would have been covered, as well as their marital experiences, particularly regarding their reasons for divorce. Therefore, this study sought to understand both participants’ reasons for divorce as well as how they thought relationship education could have better addressed their needs. The ultimate goal of the current study was to provide new knowledge on potential ways to help relationship education best prevent marital distress and divorce.


Data were collected from 52 individuals who received PREP premaritally but subsequently divorced at some point in the following 14 years. These individuals were all initially participants of a larger study of the effectiveness of premarital education ( N = 306 couples; Markman et al., 2004 ; Stanley et al., 2001 ). All participants in the current study either received PREP through the religious organization ( n = 24) that performed their weddings or PREP through a university ( n = 28). The sample included 31 women and 21 men. Of these, 18 men and 18 women had been married to each other (we were unable to assess the former spouse of the other 16 individuals). At the first time point of the larger study (i.e., the premarital assessment), these participants were 25.4 years old on average ( SD = 6.67), with a median education of 14 years, and median income of $20,000–29,999. At the time of the post-divorce interview, the average age was 37.2 ( SD = 6.5), the median education level was 16 years, and 32 of the participants (61.5%) had a least one child. The average number of years since premarital intervention to the post-divorce interview was 12.2 years, and the average number of years from finalized divorce to participating in the interview was 5.2 years. The sample was 88.2% Caucasian, 5.9% Native American, 3.9% Black, and 2.0% Asian; 1 participant did not report race. In terms of ethnicity, 84.3% of the sample identified as Non-Hispanic and 15.7% as Hispanic.

Couples ( N = 306) were recruited for the larger study through the religious organizations that would later perform their wedding services. At the initial wave of the study in 1996, participants were required to be planning marriage with someone of the opposite sex and needed to participate as a couple. As mentioned earlier, they were assigned to either receive PREP through the religious organization, PREP at a university, or naturally-occurring services. Throughout the duration of the larger study, participants were asked to complete annual assessments that included questionnaires and videotaped discussions. If a participant expressed that he/she was divorced or currently divorcing throughout the larger study, this information was recorded. From 2010–2012, we attempted to contact all divorced participants ( n = 114 individuals) to ask if they would participate in the current study. Of these individuals, we were unable to contact 35 participants, 18 declined an invitation to participate, and 1 participant was deceased. Participants who divorced and had received naturally-occurring services ( n = 8) were excluded from these analyses because we could not know exactly what premarital services they had received. There were no significant differences between divorced individuals who participated in this study compared to divorced individuals who did not participate across age at marriage, ethnicity, personal income, or relationship adjustment at the premarital assessment ( p s > .05).

All participants completed an individual 30-minute audio-recorded interview over the phone about their divorce and their recollections of their premarital intervention. They received $50 for participating in this interview. All interviews were transcribed verbatim for analyses. All study procedures were approved by a university Institutional Review Board.

Reasons for divorce

Using items from a previous survey on reasons for divorce ( C. A. Johnson et al., 2001 ) participants were asked to indicate whether or not each item on a list of common problems in relationships was a “major contributor to their divorce” (“yes” or “no”). These items included lack of commitment, infidelity/extra-marital affairs, too much arguing or conflict, substance abuse, domestic violence, economic hardship, lack of support from family members, marrying too young, little or no premarital education, and religious differences.

Qualitative feedback on progression of divorce

If participants indicated any of the reasons for divorce, they were subsequently asked to elaborate on how this problem progressed to their eventual divorce by the questions “Considering the problems you were telling me such as [the major reasons for divorce the participant listed], how did they move from problems to actually getting a divorce?” and “You said that [cited reason] was major contributor to the divorce. Can you tell me more about that?” We will only present detailed results from this qualitative feedback on reasons for divorce that were endorsed by at least 20% of participants.

Final straw

Participants were also asked if there was a “final straw” to their relationship ending, and to expand on that reason if there was one.

Who should have worked harder?

Participants were asked two questions ( C. A. Johnson et al., 2001 ): “Again looking back at your divorce, do you ever wish that you, yourself, had worked harder to save your marriage?” (with response options of “Yes, I wish I had worked harder” or “No, I worked hard enough.”) and “Do you ever wish that your spouse had worked harder to save your marriage?” (with response options of “Yes, I wish my spouse had worked harder.” or “No, my spouse worked hard enough.”)

Qualitative feedback on PREP

Participants were asked to report and elaborate on what they remembered, found difficult, or wished was different about their premarital education experience in an open-ended format. Example questions from the interviews include “What do you remember about the premarital preparation or training you and your ex-spouse took part in?” and “Based on your experience in a marriage that didn’t work out as you planned, do you think there is any kind of information or education that would have made a difference in how things turned out?”

Analytic Approach

Both quantitative and qualitative approaches were utilized to address our research questions. For the first phase of analysis, answers were counted for close-ended questions, such as the list of major reasons for divorce (see Table 1 ) and if there was a “final straw” (yes or no). For open-ended questions, we followed a grounded-theory methodology ( Creswell, 2006 ; Strauss & Corbin, 1998 ). For the first phase of coding, after repeated readings of the transcripts, two coders, including the first author and a research assistant from the larger project, followed a grounded-theory methodology to generate common themes related to participants’ recollections of their premarital education and reasons for divorce (from open-ended items; Creswell, 2006 ; Strauss & Corbin, 1998 ). The two coders then met repeatedly to compare results and to establish consistency. If the coders disagreed across codes, they discussed their codes with the second author to come to a conclusion. Next, axial coding was used to analyze how different codes vary in order to create specific categories of the individual codes ( Creswell, 2006 ; Strauss & Corbin, 1998 ). For example, axial coding involved examining how respondent reports of general themes (e.g., communication problems) varied in their presentation (e.g., communication problems throughout the relationship vs. communication problems only at the end of marriage).

List of Major Reasons for Divorce by Individuals and Couples Who Participated in PREP

Note. The individuals column reflects the percentage of individuals in the total sample who said yes to each reason. The couples column reflects the percentage of couples who had at least one partner say yes to each reason. The couple agreement column represents how many couples had both partners cite each reason out of the couples that had a least one partner mention that reason.

The final stage of coding included selective coding in which categories were refined and relationships between concepts were noted, such as how reasons for divorce related to difficulties utilizing PREP skills. Once all codes were determined, the first author and a new coder, another research assistant on the project, coded all transcripts with the established coding system. Codes were counted for all individuals, as well as couples as a whole (partner agreement on the same code) and couples in which only one partner from the relationship reported a specific code (partner disagreement on the same code). The average Cohen’s Kappa (per code) was .71 ( SD = .28) and the median was .80.

Analyses are presented at the individual level by using data from all 52 participants, as well as at the couple level by using data from the 18 couples ( n = 36) in which both partners completed interviews.

Reasons for Divorce

Table 1 presents the “major contributors for divorce” list. Overall, the results indicate that the most often cited reasons for divorce at the individual level were lack of commitment (75.0%), infidelity (59.6%), and too much conflict and arguing (57.7%), followed by marrying too young (45.1%), financial problems (36.7%), substance abuse (34.6%), and domestic violence (23.5%). Other problems, such as religious differences, were endorsed less than 20% of the time. The order of these rankings was essentially identical at the couple level, although rates of endorsement increased because both partners were reporting. The following provides qualitative elaborations by participants on these specific reasons for divorce.

Results indicated that the most common major contributing factor to divorce reported by participants was lack of commitment , reported by 75% of individuals and by at least one person in 94.4% of couples. Of the couples in which at least one partner mentioned commitment as a problem, 70.6% represented couples in which both partners agreed that lack of commitment was a major reason for divorce. Some participants reported that commitment within their relationships gradually eroded until there was not enough commitment to sustain the relationship, while others reported more drastic drops in commitment in response to negative events, such as infidelity.

“I realized it was the lack of commitment on my part because I didn’t really feel romantic towards him. I always had felt more still like he was a friend to me.” “It became insurmountable. It got to a point where it seemed like he was no longer really willing to work [on the relationship]. All of the stresses together and then what seemed to me to be an unwillingness to work through it any longer was the last straw for me.”

The next most often cited major contributing factor to divorce was infidelity , endorsed by 59.6% of individuals and by at least one partner in 88.8% of couples. Of those couples who had a least one partner report infidelity as a reason for divorce, only 31.3% represented couples in which both partners agreed that infidelity was a major contributor to the dissolution of their marriage. Thus, the majority of couples with apparent infidelity in their relationships only had one partner mention it as a contributing factor to their divorce. Overall, infidelity was often cited as a critical turning point in a deteriorating relationship.

“It was the final straw when he actually admitted to cheating on me. I kind of had a feeling about it, but, you know, I guess we all deny [because] we never think that the person you are married to or care about would do that to us.” “He cheated on me […] Then I met somebody else and did the same thing. […] And when he found out about it we both essentially agreed that it wasn’t worth trying to make it work anymore because it just hurt too bad.”

Conflict and arguing

Too much conflict and arguing was endorsed by 57.7% of individuals and 72.2% of couples had at least one partner report that was a major contributor to divorce. Of these couples, 53.8% of couples agreed that too much conflict and arguing was a contributor to divorce. Overall, participants indicated that conflicts were not generally resolved calmly or effectively. Respondents also reported that such communication problems increased in frequency and intensity throughout their marriages, which at times, seemed to coincide with lost feelings of positive connections and mutual support. By the end of the marriage, these respondents indicated that there was a significant lack of effective communication.

“I got frustrated of arguing too much.” “We’d have an argument over something really simple and it would turn into just huge, huge fights […] and so our arguments never got better they only ever got worse.”

Marrying too young

Getting married too young was reported as a major contributing factor to divorce by 45.1% of individuals and by at least one partner from 61.1% of couples. Both partners mentioned this reason in 27.3% of these couples. Participants who endorsed this item were an average of 23.3 years old at the time of marriage ( SD = 5.5) and participants who did not endorse this item were 29.2 ( SD = 6.7). In commenting about this issue, some participants reported that they had only known their partners for short periods of time before their marriage and/or that they wished they had dated their partners longer in order to either gain a better perspective on the relationship or to make a more rational decision as to whom they should marry. Additional comments about this issue included reports that participants were too young to make mature objective decisions regarding their marriage decisions.

“The main reason [we divorced] was because of our age. I think that being 19 at the time we got married, it just didn’t take. I think that we didn’t take anything as seriously as we should have.” “I wish that we wouldn’t have […] gotten married so young. I wish we would have waited a little bit longer before we actually got married.”

Financial problems

Financial problems were cited as a major contributor to divorce by 36.7% of participants and by at least one partner from 55.6% of couples. Of couples who had at least one partner endorse financial problems as a contributor to divorce, 50% represented couples in which both partners agreed that financial problems were a major reason for divorce. In elaborating about this issue, some participants indicated that financial difficulties were not the most pertinent reason for their divorce, but instead contributed to increased stress and tension within the relationship. Other participants also expressed that some financial difficulties were linked to other problems (e.g., health problems, substance abuse).

“I had a severe illness for almost a year and I was the only employed person [before that] so obviously money ran very short.” “The stress of trying to figure out the finances became a wedge that was really insurmountable.”

Substance abuse

Substance abuse was reported as a major contributing factor to divorce by 34.6% of participants, and by at least one partner in 50% of couples. Of these couples, only 33.3% of partners agreed that substance abuse was a major contributing factor to divorce. Thus, similar to reports of infidelity, the majority of couples who listed substance abuse as a reason for divorce had only one partner cite this reason. Generally, participants expressed that the severity of the substance abuse problem in their relationship was either minimized over the duration of the relationship, or if attempts to address the problem were made, the partner with the substance abuse problem would not improve and/or seek help. After several attempts to address the problem, the relationship finally ended.

“I said ‘absolutely no more bars’ and as soon as I found out he was back in them, I asked for [a divorce].” “He never admitted that he even drank. It wasn’t me against him. It was me against him and the disease.”

Domestic violence

Domestic violence was cited as a contributing factor to divorce by 23.5% of participants and by at least one partner from 27.8% of couples. Of those couples in which one partner listed domestic abuse a major contributor to divorce, 40.0% of partners agreed that it was a major contributor to divorce. Elaborations of this item included descriptions of both physical and emotional abuse. Participants often expressed how the abuse in their relationship developed gradually, with intensified cycles of abuse and contrition, until the severity of the abuse intensified to insurmountable levels.

“[There was] continuous sexual abuse and emotional trauma which only got worse over time.” “There were times that I felt very physically threatened. There was a time that there was a bit of shoving. I got an elbow to my nose and I got a nose bleed. Then there was another time that he literally just slid me along the floor. […]We’d work on it. It would happen again.”

Final Straw

After assessing participant major reasons for divorce, we were interested to see if participants indicated a single event or reason that constituted a “final straw” in the process of their marriage dissolution. Overall, 68.6% of participants and at least one partner in 88.9% of couples reported that there was a final straw leading to the end of their marriage. General themes of final straw issues where generated through qualitative methods for participants who reported a final straw. Of the individuals who indicated that there was a final straw involved in ending their marriages, the most common cited reason was infidelity, which was reported by 24% of these participants, followed by domestic violence (21.2%) and substance abuse (12.1%). At the couple level, no couples (0%) had both partners report the same reason for the final straw. Participants expressed that although these final straw events may not have been the first incident of their kind (e.g., the first time they realized their partner had a substance abuse problem) an event involving these behaviors led to the final decision for their relationship to end. Also, there were some situations in which individuals expressed that these three issues may have interacted with one another or other relationship issues.

“[My ex-husband] and I both had substance abuse problems which led to infidelity […] which also led to domestic violence”. “Along with him having alcohol and drug issues as well as infidelity issues [and] the stress, came the physical and verbal abuse.”

Who is to Blame?

Considering that infidelity, domestic violence, and substance abuse were the most often endorsed “final straw” reasons for divorce, we were interested in deciphering which member of the relationship participants saw as responsible for these behaviors. In examining participants’ elaborations of infidelity, substance abuse, and domestic violence, we found that 76.9%, 72.2%, and 77.8%, respectively, described these events in terms of their partner engaging in these negative behaviors, and only 11.5%, 11.1%, and 0%, respectively, volunteered that they engaged in the behavior themselves.

Furthermore, when participants were asked if their partner should have worked harder to save their marriages, 65.8% of men and 73.8% of women believe that their ex-spouse should have worked harder to save their marriages. Conversely, when participants were asked if they, personally, should have worked harder to save their marriages, only 31.6% of men and 33.3% of women expressed that they, personally, should have worked harder. Further, at the couple level, 70.6% of couples showed a pattern in which the women believed their ex-husbands should have worked harder to save their relationships while their ex-husbands did not believe they, themselves, should have worked harder. Only 11.7% agreed that the husband should have worked harder and 11.7% had the husband endorse that he should have worked harder with the wife disagreeing. Conversely, only 35.3% of couples displayed the pattern in which the men blamed their ex-wives for not working harder while their ex-wives, themselves, denied that they should have worked harder. Only 11.7% agreed that the wife should have worked harder and 17.7% had the wife endorsed that she should have worked harder with her husband disagreeing. Further, 35.3% of couples agreed that the wife had not needed to work harder to save the marriage, while only 5.9% of couples agreed that the husband had not needed to work harder. Thus, most participants believed their ex-partners should have worked harder, but at the couple level, there were more couples in which both partners agreed that the wife did not need to work harder than there were couples in which both partners agreed the husband did not need to work harder. When asked who filed for the divorce, 63.5% of participants indicated that the woman filed for divorce and only 25% participants indicated that the man filed for divorce.

Feedback on PREP

Next, we provide the findings on the most commonly cited qualitative feedback reported by participants regarding how to improve premarital education. The following results and percentages refer to counts of qualitative codes created by the research team based on common themes in the interviews.

Learning more about one’s partner

Results show that 42.3% of participants and 77.8% of couples expressed that they wished they had known more about their ex-spouse before they were married. Of these couples, 28.6% of partners agreed. These statements included desires to understand their partner better in order to improve their communication and better prepare for the marriage, or conversely, information that would have led them to never marry one’s partner in the first place. Indeed, 30.8% of participants specifically mentioned that they wished they had recognized “red flags” to leave the relationship before they entered their marriage.

“I think the only information that could have [helped] would’ve been information that might have led me to not marry him.” “I probably wish that we would have had more premarital counseling and had somebody tell us we should not be getting married.”

Participating in the program before constraints to marry

Twenty-five percent (25.0%) of participants specifically reported that they were influenced by constraints to stay in the relationship already in place during the program. Example constraints included having become engaged, set a wedding date, sent out invitations, or purchased a dress, which made it difficult for participants to objectively reconsider if they were marrying the right person through the educational experience. Thus, a large portion of participants expressed that receiving PREP just before marriage made it difficult for them to seriously considered delaying their wedding plans in order to make more objective decisions about the relationship.

“It was one of those things where you’re like, ‘Well, I already have the dress. We’re already getting married. We already have all the people. Everything is already set up and we bought the house.’ And you just kind of think, ‘Well you know I’m sure things will get better.’ You see the red flags but you kind of ignore them.” “I just didn’t have the guts to say, ‘You know what, I understand the dresses have been paid for. The churches have been booked. The invitations have gone out. But I don’t think I want to do this.’”

Improved support for ongoing implementation

Thirty-one percent (30.8%) of individuals and 38.9% of couples had at least one partner express that, although they found PREP skills helpful during the duration of the program, they had difficulty using these skills in their daily lives outside of their premarital education classes. Of these couples, 42.9% of partners agreed that they had difficulty implementing program skills in their marriage. In general, these participants expressed that, in the heat of the moment, it was hard to utilize their communication skills, such as staying calm, actively listening, working toward the problem as a team, or taking “time outs” as suggested in PREP. Other participants simply expressed that it was hard to remember and perfect their skills after the program ended because they did not practice them regularly.

“I think that the techniques […] were helpful. I just think it mattered if you were going to apply the principles or not. And I don’t think a lot of them were applied.” “It helped with discussion and listening tools. I think, it’s just the follow through, you know. We didn’t remember those things when it came down to it.” “He tried to use it at the beginning, but it was just the continual using of the techniques that were given to us.”

Education regarding the realities of marriage

In addition to not knowing enough about one’s partner, 48.1% of participants and 72.2% of couples expressed that they did not know enough about the realities or stages of marriage after participating in the program. Of these couples, 38.5% of partners agreed. These comments included surprise that their partners changed over the course of the marriage, as well as trouble facing new problems when they emerged (e.g., lack of attraction/connection, decreases in commitment and satisfaction, and new abuse problems).

“Premarital counseling teaches you how you get along, and that you should communicate, but it doesn’t really talk about the phases of a marriage over time.” “[I wish I had learned] that the biggest area in life in an ongoing relationship is knowing that things are going to come up that aren’t perfect. That after the wedding day, and the build up to the wedding day, real life is going to kick in and you have to really have some tools to deal with it.”

The goal of this study was to increase understanding of divorced individuals’ perspectives on whether their premarital education prepared them for marriage and how relationship education could be modified to better address couples’ needs. Thus, among individuals who received PREP premaritally and later divorced, this study addressed reasons for divorce as well as ideas for what else would have been helpful in relationship education. It is the first study to qualitatively assess divorced participants’ recommendations for relationship education services. Given the small sample and qualitative nature of the reports, the implications discussed below ought to be considered preliminary.

We asked about reasons for divorce to know whether PREP addressed the kinds of problems that couples who went on to divorce tended to experience. The most commonly cited reason for divorce was lack of commitment, followed by infidelity and too much conflict and arguing. These top rated major reasons for divorce noted here are similar to those found in large random surveys of divorced participants (cf. C. A. Johnson et al., 2001 ; Hawkins, Willoughby et al., 2012 ). Overall, these findings support the importance of covering communication and commitment in premarital education programs to help foster successful marriages; however, in light of participant feedback on PREP, the program may have been able to cover these and other topics more effectively.

Whereas issues like communication and commitment overlap with core content in PREP and other programs (see Markman & Rhoades, 2012 ), a substantial portion of responses suggested that, although the skills taught in PREP may been helpful, they did not implement them in real-life situations, particularly during heated discussions. Research indicates that commitment and conflict management are related in that commitment helps partners inhibit negative behaviors and engage in more positive behaviors at critical moments ( Slotter et al., 2012 ); thus, the issues of commitment and conflict management are likely intertwined in important ways. Further, consistent with other research on a German version of PREP ( Hahlweg & Richter, 2010 ), participants also reported that they forgot some of the communication skills over time.

These findings highlight a key question for the couple research field regarding how to enhance couples’ ability to use beneficial strategies when they are most needed. One solution could be to increase the time couples spend in premarital education in order for them to master essential skills and to help them become more likely to constructively derail negative processes as they emerge. At the same time, the version of PREP that these couples received was 12 hours long, which is both on the long end of what most couples receive in premarital education ( Mdn = 8 hours; Stanley, Amato, Johnson, & Markman, 2006 ) and in the range of what tends to be the most effective dose ( Hawkins, Stanley, Blanchard, & Albright, 2012 ). Longer curricula do not seem to lead to stronger effects ( Hawkins, Stanley et al., 2012 ), but future random-assignment studies could address this question better.

With most premarital education services, including PREP, couples are not provided opportunities to practice new skills or receive coaching while they are upset or experiencing a difficult disagreement. A group or workshop format likely inhibits such real-world discussions. It could be that couples would benefit from new program content that helps them practice their skills better when they are having trouble. Couples may also benefit from additional opportunities to perfect the use of program strategies after the intervention has ended, such as through booster classes or individual meetings with coaches. Research indicates that such boosters may be effective ( Braukhaus, Hahlweg, Kroeger, Groth, & Fehm-Wolfsdorf, 2003 ). New technologies now offer innovative ways to deliver such boosters, such as through online training or smart phone applications.

Content Considerations for Premarital Education

Introducing new content on the issues that participants identified as final straws in their marriages may also be beneficial. These issues were infidelity, aggression or emotional abuse, and substance use. Addressing these behaviors directly in relationship education raises some questions regarding which couples relationship education providers might seek to help stay together as opposed to help break-up. We believe premarital education should serve as a prevention effort to help healthy and happy couples stay that way and that keeping distressed, abusive, or otherwise unhealthy couples together would not be a positive outcome. Research on the development of these “final straw” behaviors seems particularly important in the future. A limitation of the current study is that the pre-intervention assessment did not include the kinds of measures necessary to determine the extent to which couples in this study presented with these problems before marriage. Thus, future research is needed to investigate whether premarital education can help prevent couples from developing some of these “final straw” behaviors and whether it may help some couples with problems such as aggression or substance abuse either get the additional help they will need to change these behaviors or break up. We discuss preliminary ideas about whether/how premarital education might cover each of these final straw issues below.

Over half of all participants cited infidelity as a major reason for divorce and infidelity was the most often endorsed “final straw” reason. Infidelity is not a major focus in PREP, though the curriculum does address the importance of commitment, including protecting one’s relationship from attraction to others. Based on participants’ reports from this study, it may be that premarital programs could be improved by more directly addressing how to reduce the potential for extramarital involvement.

If providers or programs choose to address infidelity explicitly, Markman (2005) provides useful guidelines for covering the topic. These recommendations include informing participants that there are specific situations and developmental time periods within relationships with increased risks for engaging in extramarital relationships (e.g., transition to parenthood, close relationships with attractive alternatives, significant drinking). Furthermore, participants could be informed that the risk for extramarital relationships may increase during stressful times—such as when partners are separated for long periods by work demands or experiencing low marital satisfaction—and this information could be shared with participants. Partners could also be given structure to talk with each other about expectations for fidelity, management of relationships with friends or co-workers who could be attractive alternatives, and boundaries for their relationship. However, one barrier to increasing a focus on the prevention of infidelity in premarital education is that relationship commitment and satisfaction is highest right before marriage ( Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2006 ), so engaged couples may not be receptive or eager to directly address the possibility of future extramarital affairs during this time ( Allen et al., 2005 ).

Substance abuse also appeared to be a prevalent problem at least for half of divorced couples in this sample. Overall, reports indicate that although substance abuse problems may have developed gradually throughout these relationships, this issue constituted the final straw to end the relationship for a number of individuals once the situation was perceived as insurmountable. Substance abuse is not currently addressed in PREP except that all couples attending PREP are provided with information on how to get more help for a range of problems, including substance abuse.

Premarital programs may benefit from educating participants on how substance abuse is not uncommon as a reason for divorce in an effort to encourage participants to address substance abuse problems as early as possible. Such program additions could also include how to recognize and get help for substance abuse and could encourage partners to discuss their expectations for substance use in the relationship. Partners may also benefit from discussing how to support each other in seeking help, should the need ever arise. Furthermore, couples could be taught that if a substance abuse develops in the relationship, there is often a discrepancy between partners regarding perspectives on the extent of the problem, which is evident by this study’s findings.

Domestic violence was cited by over a quarter of couples as a reason for divorce. When asked to elaborate, some described verbal abuse, while others described physical aggression. Often participants explained that they initially believed they could work through the problem, but later found it unbearable, as some participants considered an act of physical aggression as the final straw in their relationship. As others have suggested ( Halford, Markman, Kline, & Stanley, 2003 ), premarital education programs may benefit from teaching participants about recognizing, preventing, and getting help for aggression in relationships. In current models of PREP, all participants learn that aggression is unacceptable and they all receive basic information on ways to get help (e.g., through shelters), as to not put particular couples or individuals in awkward or unsafe circumstances in class. Still, more could be done.

The field continues to debate how to best address this issue, as different types of violence and couples of varying risk may warrant different approaches. M. P. Johnson (1995) distinguishes between situational couple violence and intimate terrorism. Specifically, situational couple violence tends to be much more common and represents aggression that comes out of conflict. It is typically initiated by either partner while intimate terrorism encompasses more controlling, threatening behavior, typically by the male partner.

With 36% of unmarried couples having experienced some form of physical aggression in the last year ( Rhoades, Stanley, Kelmer, & Markman, 2010 ), relationship education programs should take care not to scare couples who have experienced aggression away from seeking help. As is done routinely in PREP, it seems necessary in relationship education that providers and program content emphasize to all participants that any aggression is unacceptable and also suggest specific, local ways to seek help for problems with aggression. To develop further content, an understanding of the literature on aggression and violence, including men’s vs. women’s roles, and the different type of violence, is likely particularly important, as recommendations may be different for different kinds of problems. For example, recommendations for situational couple violence might include couple and/or individual therapy focused on intensive skills to help better manage negative affect and conflict effectively whereas intimate terrorism would most likely call for referrals to shelters or law enforcement. For further recommendations regarding domestic violence and relationship education, see suggestions by Derrington, Johnson, Menard, Ooms, and Stanley (2010) .

Financial hardship

Financial hardship was cited as a major reason for divorce that provided stress on their relationship by over half the sample. Although PREP helps couples learn communication skills to discuss stressful topics in general, it is worth considering whether specific content on money and economic stress is warranted. Participants could be asked to more directly share expectations about finances and learn coping skills for times of significant financial strain. They could also be provided with appropriate community resources to improve or stabilize their financial situations or these resources could be incorporated into relationship education efforts.

Marriage expectations

Almost half of interviewees commented that they did not know enough about the typical course of events in marriage. PREP typically addresses expectations by encouraging participants to recognize and discuss their own expectations for marriage ( Markman et al., 2010 ), but it does not provide explicit information about how marriages and families tend to develop over time. More content on normal marital development could be helpful. For example, information could be provided about how satisfaction typically drops and conflict tends to increase during the transition to parenthood (e.g., Doss, Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009b ) and about the course of attraction and sexual desire in relationships.

Previous research has shown that couples who develop serious difficulties, and eventually seek help, usually do so long after the problems have become deeply entrenched ( Doss, Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009a ). Thus, relationship education programs may benefit from providing guidelines regarding when to seek professional help and even have couples practice these difficult conversations to encourage them to seek help early and at times when changes are easiest to make. There is survey evidence that premarital education is associated with being more likely to use services later in the marriage ( Williamson, Karney, Trail, & Bradbury, 2012 ), but more direct content on how and when to seek help may be warranted.

This point about seeking help early is complicated by the fact that the majority of participants saw their partner as primarily responsible for participating in the “final straw” behaviors (infidelity, domestic violence, and substance use) and for not working hard enough to save the marriage. Most participants also believed that they, personally, should not have worked harder to save their marriages. Therefore, premarital education may need to focus on encouraging help seeking behaviors in couples with the understanding that most individuals may see their partners as primarily responsible for their difficulties, and therefore, may not feel personally responsible. In addition, the majority of couples displayed a pattern in which the women blamed their ex-husbands while their ex-husbands did not see themselves as responsible. Interestingly, as has been found elsewhere ( Amato & Previti, 2003 ; C. A. Johnson et al., 2001 ), women in this sample were also more likely to eventually file for divorce than men. Thus, it may be especially important that husbands and wives develop realistic expectations about seeking help together, so that they later do not disagree about what circumstances might constitute a need for help.

The Timing of Premarital Education

Our findings show that a considerable number of participants wished that they had known more about their partner before marriage, saying they would have either learned how to handle differences better or left the relationship. Many others believed they had married too young. Also, a portion of participants mentioned that they participated in PREP during a time when the constraints of wedding plans made it more likely for them to ignore factors that may have otherwise ended their relationship. These participant comments highlight the difference between when couples might ideally benefit from premarital education compared to when couples typically seek it. One of the potential benefits of relationship education is that is can help some couples on an ill-advised or premature path toward marriage to reconsider their plans (see Stanley, 2001 ); however, couples typically participate in these programs close to their wedding dates, a time when ending the relationship may be especially difficult.

A potentially stronger overall prevention strategy is to reach people earlier in their relationships, before constraints to marry are in place, or even before individuals enter relationships ( Rhoades & Stanley, 2009 ). Early, individual-oriented relationship education can help individuals develop and practice healthy relationship skills and also help them end unsafe or unhealthy relationships ( Rhoades & Stanley, 2011 ). One recently-developed relationship education curriculum designed for individuals, Within My Reach ( Pearson, Stanley, & Rhoades, 2008 ), has shown success in teaching these skills and helping individuals reach their personal relationship goals ( Antle, Karam, Christensen, Barbee, & Sar, 2011 ). Thus, future research may wish to consider how to encourage individuals and/or couples who have yet to make commitments to marry to participate in relationship education programs, as well as how and when these programs should advise individuals to leave damaging relationships.

Conclusions and Limitations

This study provides new information regarding the reasons for divorce and possible improvements to relationship education programs based on feedback from divorced individuals who participated in PREP premaritally. Although the study focuses on improving the PREP model specifically, relationship education programs working with premarital populations may also find value in our findings, particularly regarding how to cover specific topics deemed important by our participants. Other programs may also benefit from suggestions to provide relationship education earlier and to provide services to help couples master their skill development over time.

This study also has several limitations that warrant discussion. First, respondent reports of their progression toward divorce and premarital education experiences were retrospective and may therefore be biased by the passing of time. Future studies may wish to evaluate relationship problems and reasons for divorce closer to the couple’s decision to divorce. Second, the sample was mostly White and only included participants in heterosexual relationships who married within mostly Christian-based religious organizations. Therefore, future studies are needed to examine whether these findings would be replicated with other groups or cultures. A third limitation is the lack of a comparison group of couples who participated in PREP but did not divorce. As a result, it is not clear whether or not the problems and recommendations these participants identified are specific to this divorced sample, or would translate to couples who remain married. Finally, all participants in this study received PREP when they were engaged to be married so research is needed to evaluate reasons for relationship dissolution and how to improve programs that target individuals and couples in different relationship stages (e.g. dating or married). Nevertheless, this study provides new insight in potential improvements to the content and timing of relationship education.


This research was supported by award number R01HD053314 from the Eunice Kennedy Shrivner National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Eunice Kennedy Shrivner National Institute of Child Health and Human Development or National Institutes of Health.

Contributor Information

Shelby B. Scott, Department of Psychology, University of Denver.

Galena K. Rhoades, Department of Psychology, University of Denver.

Scott M. Stanley, Department of Psychology, University of Denver.

Elizabeth S. Allen, Department of Psychology, University of Colorado – Denver.

Howard J. Markman, Department of Psychology, University of Denver.

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My ex and I had a nesting divorce. We all lived in the house during the week and alternated staying at an apartment on weekends.

  • Mitzi Campbell is a 57-year-old mother of three
  • She and her ex-husband tried nesting during their divorce for five years, from 2007 until 2012.
  • She said nesting had its upsides but didn't lessen the blow for her kids when they split households.

Insider Today

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Mitzi Campbell . It has been edited for length and clarity.

My ex-husband and I started thinking about getting a divorce in 2007. It was totally amicable — we just knew that our relationship wasn't one that was going to last forever. At the time, we were living in a large house with our three children, the youngest of whom was 6.

There was a major economic crisis going on and we weren't in a position to sell the house and buy two separate properties. We were still in the middle of making the final decision if we were going to officially get a divorce. The term "nesting" — keeping the kids in the same family home while the parents move in and out — wasn't one we had ever heard of, but given finances and our indecision about splitting, it was how we decided to go about our separation.

We decided to try nesting

Since the house was large, we started by taking different bedrooms in the house and splitting our time with the kids. I would do the morning routine with the kids one day, and he would do the next. For a year, this worked.

But when we started meeting with a mediator and lawyer to finalize the divorce, we decided it would be best if we stayed in the house together during the week, but rented a separate, smaller place that each of us would take turns living in on the weekends. We both wanted more than just a bedroom to ourselves, and started to think about pursuing romantic relationships with other people. The "other" house was only 15 minutes away from the family home.

It was exciting — creating this new life for myself as an individual outside of my marriage. I loved having my own space. An unintended positive from this setup was that we both got space to process the divorce, and decide what we wanted our future lives to look like.

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During the week, when we were both staying in the large house in different bedrooms, we hardly saw each other, but when we did, we were very amicable with one another. Our top priority was co-parenting well for the sake of our kids.

One of us stayed at an apartment each weekend

At first, the kids were sad when one of us would leave for the weekend. They didn't like it, but eventually, it became the normal pattern for them. We were both happy that the kids' lives didn't massively change as we divorced . They got to stay in one place rather than travelling back and forth with a suitcase.

They were a little confused about our set-up, however. Most of their friends either had married parents who lived together, or divorced parents who lived separately.

Although this set-up was healthy for my ex-husband and me to process our divorce and engage in self-care, I often found it lonely and missed my kids and my house when I was away every other weekend.

We lived like this for around two years, but it wasn't a financially sustainable way of living — it was just too expensive to keep paying our mortgage and rent for an apartment we were only using on the weekends, and our finances took a hit.. During those two years, we also both started dating new people, so we decided we'd stop renting the extra house and stay at our partners' places every other weekend instead.

This continued for another two years, before we finally decided to sell the house in 2012. We sold it and moved into two smaller properties, only three miles away from each other.

Throughout our five years of nesting, our kids were happy. They got to stay in their large family home, didn't have to travel back and forth to see their parents , and often saw us together. It was a slow transition for them, and I don't regret doing it.

However, there were some downsides I hadn't expected.

While nesting worked for the most part, there were some challenges

The years we were frequently living under the same roof but not a couple, the kids held on to the hope their dad and I would get back together . At times, it might have been more confusing for them than helpful, especially when my ex-husband and I started dating other people.

I felt like in some ways, we delayed the inevitable grief they'd feel when we completely cut ties with each other. When we did stop nesting and sold the house, they found the lifestyle change hard. Although I still think it served as a good transitional period for the kids, not having their mom and dad living together all of the sudden was really hard for them, even though we felt we had eased them into it.

They also had to move out of this very large home they'd lived in since babies, into two smaller houses. It was something of a rude awakening for them. With our finances split in half , we had to watch our money more carefully.

Divorce is severing, or at least changing, a connection, and you can prolong or try to mitigate the effects of this for your children, but in the long run, you all have to come to terms with a new world in which the parents are no longer sharing a life. If families are going to nest, a long-term plan really needs to be put in place, keeping in mind how that eventual change will impact the kids.

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