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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

Children and Divorce: Overview and Analysis
Richard E. Behrman Linda Sandham Quinn


In the United States during 1990, only 58% of children lived with two biological parents, although more than 79% lived in two-parent households. Most of the remaining children lived in a variety of other types of households headed by one or more adults.1 Whatever his or her family structure, a child has the best opportunity to thrive only when the household provides a loving, nurturing, stable, and protective environment.

Divorce receives a great deal of attention in the professional and academic literature as well as in other media. The journal's goal is not to repeat this literature, but rather to highlight key issues in divorce that are particularly significant for the well-being of children. These issues include the actual process of divorce, custody and visitation decisions, and the financial support of children following divorce, all of which we focus on in this Overview and Analysis. However, it is important first to appreciate the dimensions of divorce in this nation: how many children are affected by divorce, who they are, what living arrangements are made for them, and how these arrangements relate to other major trends in domestic situations for children. It is also helpful to put this problem in historic perspective. And of great import is the need to appreciate what is known and not known about the impact of divorce itself on the psychological and emotional development of children.

About 26% of all children under 18 years of age (17 million) live with a divorced parent, a separated parent, or a stepparent, according to the most recent available data (1988) summarized by Shiono and Quinn. In 1990, about 9.5% of all children (6 million) were living with a divorced single parent. In comparison, 7.7% (4.9 million) were living with a single, never-married parent. About 90% of these single parents are mothers. Generally, when single-parent families are compared by race, significantly higher proportions of white children are found to be living with divorced or separated mothers, and African-American children are found to be living with never-married mothers.

The trends in marriage, divorce, remarriage, and out-of-wedlock births which have resulted in these living arrangements for children are analyzed and discussed in the articles by Shiono and Quinn and by Furstenberg. Since the mid-1940s, annual first-marriage rates have declined from about 14% to about 7% of single women. In addition, between the 1960s and 1980s, the proportion of women marrying after becoming pregnant declined by about 50%, and the number of unmarried couples living in the same household increased fourfold. In general, women today are marrying at older ages, and African- American women are less likely to marry than white women.

Divorce rates have been increasing since the 1860s (about 10 per 1,000 married women per year), although there have been considerable fluctuations over the decades. There was a peak after World War II (24 per 1,000), followed by a trough in the 1950s (15 per 1,000). Through the 1970s, the rates rose dramatically to reach an all-time high of 40 per 1,000. Divorce rates have leveled off since the late 1980s (37 per 1,000 in 1988); however, at least 40% of young adult women today are likely to divorce sometime in their lives. An increase in divorce rates during the early years of marriage has resulted in a higher proportion of divorces occurring among parents with young children. Many believe the increased employment of married women outside the home has been a significant concomitant societal change related to the divorce rate (see the article by Furstenberg). This relationship is probably not a causal one in which either divorce or employment outside the home has caused the other, but rather a complex one in which both employment and divorce are influenced by an entire spectrum of social changes as well as by each other. The rate of employment of married women with preschool children has been particularly noteworthy; it rose from 11% in 1949 to 58% in 1988. Economic stress and deprivation also increase the risk of divorce.

Remarriage and the resulting restructured family have important consequences for many children. In the late 1960s, remarriage rates soared to an all-time high. Sixty percent of white women whose marriage ended in divorce between 1965 and 1984 had remarried by 1988. This was almost twice the rate occurring among divorced African-American women. Today, at least 30% of young adult women who divorce are likely to remarry. In general, younger women are more likely to remarry than older women, although this age differential does not occur among divorced men. During the first few years of remarriage, the risk of divorce is increased over that of first marriages.

Similar trends in marriage, divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation have occurred in many population subgroups in this country and Western Europe, although there are some important quantitative differences (see the article by Furstenberg). Hypotheses for the changing marriage patterns include the breakdown of the traditional gender-based division of labor where men work outside the home for wages and women specialize in domestic activity; the enhanced opportunity for women who enter the labor market to exercise the individual choice and personal freedom so valued in our society; the "sexual revolution" with increased availability of ways to prevent conception and terminate pregnancy; and changes in the divorce law.

Given that more than a quarter of all children in the United States have experienced the divorce or separation of their parents and that, at current divorce rates, this proportion is expected to grow to 40%, careful attention must be given to the direct effects of divorce on children. Perhaps the most obvious effects are changes in children's living situations and economic status. In 1991, 39% of divorced women with children lived in poverty, and 55% of those with children under six years of age were poor (see the article by Teachman and Paasch). In this same year, the poverty rate for all children was 22%. These issues are reviewed below in the context of custody and child support. There is also related and crucial concern about the effects of divorce on children's emotional and psychological well-being, and on their successful development and transition to adulthood.

Divorce and events related to divorce, including marital conflict and separation, are almost universally very stressful events in the life of a child. Most children exhibit a variety of signs of disturbance in the months after the separation, including anxiety, sadness, anger, aggression, noncompliance, sleep disturbances, and disrupted concentration at school. The length of this initial period of distress varies from child to child. Most children adapt reasonably successfully after this initial period, and most apparently evidence no long-term ill effects. However, children who experience divorce, as compared with children in continuously intact two-parent families, are at somewhat greater risk for symptoms of psychological maladjustment, behavior and social problems, negative self-image, and low academic achievement (see the article by Amato). Similarly, when comparing these two groups as adults, those adults who experienced parental divorce as children are more likely to evidence poorer psychological adjustment, lower socioeconomic attainment, and greater marital instability. However, the differences between the two groups, either as children or as adults, with respect to these untoward effects seem, in light of current research, to be small.

Further, there is considerable variation in each individual child's reaction to divorce: an affected child's psychological well-being can range from poorer to better than it was before divorce. Variables that are believed to account for children's adjustment to divorce include the amount and nature of involvement of the noncustodial parent, the custodial parent's adjustment to divorce and his or her parenting skills, interparental conflict before and after divorce, economic hardship, and other life stresses (for example, moving, changing schools, parental remarriage). Little is known about how these factors interact to affect a child's response to divorce, what the variations are in the response to divorce among children of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, what the long-term effects are on individual children, and how various legal and therapeutic interventions influence the outcomes for children.

Knowledge about the effects of marital conflict and divorce on children is limited by both the quantity and quality of available research. It is difficult to design and carry out research projects involving these families. Long-term follow-up studies are especially problematic. Further, there is a paucity of funding for such investigations.

Although many children adjust well to divorce without the need for therapeutic intervention, a minority have significant adjustment problems which warrant counseling. Interparental conflict after divorce (characterized by verbal and physical aggression, overt hostility, and distrust) and a high level of custodial parent emotional distress place children at high risk for emotional and behavioral maladjustment and disturbed parent-child relationships (see the articles by Amato and by Johnston). In general, evaluations of therapeutic intervention programs for children having adjustment problems related primarily to divorce have been favorable, although only a small number of studies are available. There is need for more research to improve the efficacy of treatment of these children.