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The Devastation of Divorce

Bridget Maher

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Divorce has become so widespread in America that it now affects virtually everyone. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were only three divorces for every 1,000 marriages.[1] In 1996, the divorce rate among married women was 19.5, which is more than double the divorce rate of 9.2 in 1960.[2] Over half of all marriages are likely to end in divorce, based upon projections of current divorce rates.[3]

Much of the rise in divorce is due to no-fault divorce laws, which are on the books in all 50 states.[4] A recent study showed that the elimination of fault from marital dissolution and property settlements led to an increase in divorce rates.[5] In fact, a University of California at San Diego study showed that no-fault divorce was responsible for a 17 percent increase in the divorce rates between 1968 and 1988.[6]

American families have suffered greatly from divorce. The effects of divorce on children are particularly devastating. In 1990, over one million children were involved in divorce, which is more than double the number in 1960.[7] Several studies have shown how children are negatively impacted by divorce:

  • Children from divorced families have a risk of divorce that is two or three times greater than children from married parent families.[8]
  • Judith Wallerstein, who has extensively researched children of divorce, says that children experience feelings of rejection, loneliness, anger, guilt, anxiety, fear of abandonment by their parents and a deep yearning for the absent parent when their parents divorce.[9] Five years after their parents divorced, 37 percent of the children Wallerstein studied were moderately to severely depressed.[10]
  • Researcher Nicholas Zill found that children from divorced families are "much more likely to become depressed and withdrawn, display antisocial, impulsive, and hyperactive behaviors, and exhibit behavioral problems at school" than children from intact families.[11]
  • Children of divorced families are more likely to drop out of high school, engage in premarital sex at an early age, become pregnant as teens, and cohabit than children of married parents.[12]
  • In a nationwide study of 669 elementary students, children of divorce had lower scores in reading, spelling, and math when compared to children in intact families.[13]
  • A study of 18 year-old children who experienced their parents' marital disruption found that children of divorced families are more likely to endorse premarital sex and cohabitation, have negative attitudes toward marriage, and prefer a small family size than children who experienced the death of a parent.[14]

Adults are also negatively impacted by their parents' divorces or by their own divorces:

  • A study of 407 young adults aged 18-22 found that those who came from divorced families had less favorable attitudes toward marriage than those from intact families.[15]
  • Studies have shown that adults who experienced parental divorce as children have lower levels of well-being than adults from intact families.[16]
  • Divorced men have higher rates of mental illness and death due to accidents and suicide than married men. Also, divorced fathers who do not live with their children are more likely to engage in behaviors that compromise their health.[17]
  • A study of children's home environments found that divorced mothers are less able to provide the same level of emotional support to their children than married mothers.[18]

ENDNOTES

[1]Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), p. 19.

[2]Statistical Abstract of the United States 1999, Table No. 155 and Statistical Abstract of the United States 1990, Table No. 126.

[3]The National Marriage Project, The State of Our Unions 1999: The Social Health of Marriage in America (New Brunswick: National Marriage Project, 1999), p. 8.

[4]Margaret Brinig and F.H. Buckley, "No-fault Laws and At-Fault People," International Review of Law and Economics 18 (1998): 327--340.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Leora Friedburg, "Did Unilateral Divorce Raise Divorce Rates? Evidence from Panel Data," American Economic Review 88 (1998): 608--627.

[7]Statistical Abstract of the United States 1998, Table No. 160 and Statistical Abstract of the United States 1985, Table No. 120.

[8]The National Marriage Project, p. 8.

[9]Judith Wallerstein, Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce (New York: Basic Books, 1979), pp. 46--50.

[10]Ibid, p. 211

[11]Glenn Stanton, Why Marriage Matters: Reasons to Believe in Marriage in a Postmodern Society (Colorado Springs: Pinion Press, 1997), p. 136.

[12]Frank Furstenberg, Jr. and Julien Teitler, "Reconsidering the Effects of Marital Disruption: What Happens to Children of Divorce in Early Adulthood?" Journal of Family Issues 15 (1994): 173--188.

[13]David Popenoe, Life Without Father (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 57.

[14]William Axinn and Arland Thornton, "The Influence of Parents' Marital Dissolutions on Children's Attitudes Toward Family Formation," Demography, February 1996, pp. 66--81.

[15]A. Marlene Jennings and Connie J. Salts, et al, "Attitudes Toward Marriage: Effects of Parental Conflict, Family Structure, and Gender," Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 17 (1991): 67--79.[16]

[16]Paul R. Amato and Bruce Keith, "Parental Divorce and Adult Well-being: A Meta-analysis," Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991): 43--58.[17]

[17]Debra Umberson and Christine L. Williams, "Divorced Fathers: Parental Role Strain and Psychological Stress," Journal of Family Issues, 14 (1993): 378--400.

[18]Jane E. Miller and Diane Davis, "Poverty, History, Marital History and Quality of Children's Home Environments," Journal of Marriage and the Family 59 (1997): 996--1007.

Miss Maher is a policy analyst on marriage and family at the Family Research Council.

This article is published on the Family Research Council website. Reprinted with permission.



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