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

History and Current Status of Divorce in the United States
Frank F. Furstenberg


This article explores the demographic and social changes that have come about in American families as a result of the “divorce revolution,” a phrase that Weitzman used to characterize the remarkable shift in marriage and divorce practices that occurred in the last third of the twentieth century.3 This change, dramatic as it sometimes appears, was actually a gradual one that is firmly rooted in American cultural values. True, the divorce revolution has occurred among most developed nations.4 Nonetheless, the pace of change and the prevalence of marital disruption and family reconstitution is distinctly American. By a considerable margin, the United States has led the industrialized world in the incidence of divorce and the proportion of children affected by divorce.5 Part of the mission of this article is to understand why this is so.

The first section of this article describes trends in divorce and remarriage (see the article by Shiono and Quinn in this journal issue for a detailed presentation of these and related important demographic changes) and comments on the growing pattern of informal unions that complicates our interpretation of recent patterns of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. The commonalities and differences between family patterns in the United States and those in other industrialized nations are discussed. The second section of the article identifies some important sources of the transformation in marriage practices. Although other articles in this volume deal more directly with the consequences of divorce for children, this article, in the third section, provides a demographic context for this discussion by comparing the family experiences of different cohorts of children as they have encountered increasing levels of marital instability. In doing so, it highlights the very different types of family patterns that occur among whites, African Americans, and Hispanics. In the final section, some themes that emerge throughout the article are addressed, including what sorts of trends might occur in the near future and whether various policy initiatives can influence the future of the family, the patterns of parenting, and the welfare of children who face high degrees of uncertainty in their family arrangements.