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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

Divorce and the Changing Family Experiences of Children

The implications of these new marriage patterns for children has been the subject of enormous attention and mounting concern.44 Close to a majority of children growing up today are likely to spend some time living in a single-parent family before reaching adulthood.23,45 And, at least one in five will acquire a stepparent or surrogate parent. Family instability is not novel to the latter part of the twentieth century. Uhlenberg calculated that about one quarter of all children growing up in 1900 lost a parent by death.46 If another 7% or 8% encountered a voluntary separation, then close to one in three spent time in a single-parent household during childhood. By mid-century, families had become more stable: the rapid decline of mortality was offset to some degree by rising voluntary dissolution and slightly higher rates of nonmarital childbearing. Still, the total disruptions probably did not affect more than one quarter of all children.47

Since the 1950s, when rates of stability were at their highest point, the risk of family disruption has more than doubled, owing to much higher rates of divorce and separation and, more recently, an explosion of nonmarital childbearing. Several estimates of children's probability of experiencing parental separation or divorce conclude that at least two in five children will see their parents separate before their late teens.20,48 More than one quarter of children are born to unmarried couples, generally couples who are not living together when the birth occurs. Of course, there is some overlap between these two populations, but still, close to half of all children will spend time in a single-parent household before age 18.

This staggeringly high figure does not even tell the whole story. Among African Americans, the proportion of children who live continuously with two biological parents throughout childhood is certainly less than one in five and may be as low as one in ten.49 Although data are unavailable on the experiences of different Latino groups during childhood, based on family composition, it is safe to assume that the difference among Hispanic populations is at least as great as the variation between Hispanics and either whites or African Americans. Puerto Rican patterns resemble those of African Americans while Mexican Americans appear to have even higher stability than white non-Hispanics.50

Marital disruption or nonmarital childbearing for many children initiates a complex family career.47 Most are likely to see one or both parents live with a partner for a time. Some of these partnerships eventuate in marriage; others dissolve and are succeeded by new relationships. Some remarriages persist while others end in divorce. At least one quarter of all children growing up today are likely to acquire a stepparent by marriage, and others will live with a quasi-stepparent. Beyond their household, children also may see their noncustodial parent enter new relationships. Thus, a high proportion of children growing up today will have more than two parents by the time that they reach age 18. Many more will gain additional parents in adulthood.

There has been considerable debate over the consequence of family flux on children's development and well-being. Many researchers stress the considerable costs incurred by children who are not raised in a nuclear family. Others cite the fact that most studies show relatively modest effects on children's adjustment in later life and observe that divorce represents an improvement in family circumstances for some children.51 (See the article by Amato in this journal issue for an in-depth discussion of adjustment in children of divorce.)

Given the diversity of experience among children whose parents do not live together, it is difficult to arrive at a simple bottom line when assessing the effects of divorce. The starting point for families is so different, ranging all the way from instances where parents barely are acquainted to those who never live together to those who have lived together but are unsuccessful in collaborating to those who collaborate well before they separate but poorly afterwards to those who continue to collaborate effectively as parents even when they are no longer partners.

A growing body of research has examined how parents manage to raise children when they live apart.52 More than half of all noncustodial parents effectively drop out, maintaining little or no contact with their children after divorce and providing little in the way of economic support. One survey in 1981 revealed that a majority of noncustodial parents saw their children infrequently or not at all.53 Reports on child support also confirmed that a majority of noncustodial fathers contributed little or no support to their children—even those with formal support agreements.54 (See the article by Roberts on child support enforcement in this journal issue.)

Over the past decade, there appear to have been some indications that paternal involvement after divorce may be increasing as laws both permit shared responsibility and enforce paternal obligations.47 Unmarried fathers, too, may be experiencing the same opportunities and pressures for greater economic and emotional investment. Evidence from several longitudinal studies indicates that fathers who may be disconnected when children are young may become more involved with their offspring later in life.55 Still, the preponderance of data indicates that a high number of nonresident fathers (and a substantial minority of nonresident mothers) disengage from their children when they do not live in the household. (See the article by Shiono and Quinn in this journal issue for further discussion of paternal involvement with children after divorce.)

At the heart of the problem is that many regard parenthood as part of a “package deal” that is inextricably linked with marriage or a marriage-like relationship. Men, in particular, often relate to their children in large part through their wives or partners. The disintegration of that relationship reduces noncustodial parents' willingness to invest resources in their children. This is especially so after remarriage, when parents often feel supplanted and disadvantaged by a new figure.

As many studies have shown, the withdrawal of economic support often has devastating effects on the living standards of mothers and children.3,56 Though it is clear that stricter enforcement of child support will not lift all children in female-headed families out of poverty, the distributional effects would be substantial.57 There is ample evidence that women and their children are far worse off after divorce than men and that noncustodial fathers are not paying their fair share.58

The effects of paternal participation on children's emotional development are less clear, though many experts believe that children are better off when their noncustodial parents remain involved.59 In fact, the evidence for this assumption is equivocal at best. (See the articles by Amato, Kelly, and Thompson in this journal issue for further discussion of paternal participation and children's adjustment.) It may be that the level of paternal involvement is too low to produce a benefit or that greater involvement is accompanied by more conflict and ineffective collaboration.60

Despite a growing pattern of joint custody and shared responsibility, most formerly married and never-married parents do not cooperate effectively: they do not consult with one another, share information, support each other's efforts, or provide consistent monitoring and discipline.53 Thus, the general axiom that children are better off when both parents are involved, even if they do not work well together, needs further consideration by researchers and clinicians.

A growing body of evidence also suggests that remarriage can pose complications for children even though they benefit economically when the parent with whom they live remarries.47 The economic status of households headed by a remarried couple appears to be similar to that of couples in first marriages though few investigators have given careful consideration to the potentially greater economic demands on parents in second marriages. Still, there is no doubt that remarriage often lifts women and children out of poverty, probably because women are much less likely to reenter marriage if their potential partners have limited resources.

Remarriage not only reverses, to a large extent, the economic slide resulting from divorce but also introduces a new set of challenges for children. Remarriage can upset a stable family situation. It may, at least temporarily, divert attention and time that children may be receiving from their parents and perhaps create frictions between stepparents and nonresident parents. Family life can become more complex, uncertain, and possibly conflict-ridden, especially when households join children from different families.61 (See the article by Shiono and Quinn in this journal issue for further information on stepfamilies and adjustment.)

Most studies show that children in stepfamilies do not do better than children in single-parent families; indeed, many indicate that on average children in remarriages do worse.60,62 Remarriage creates a new family form that has been described by Cherlin as “incompletely institutionalized.” 63 Family rights and obligations are less clearly defined and understood than in nuclear households. The absence of normative consensus extends beyond the household. A growing body of research suggests that kinship ties among steprelations are more discretionary and probably less enduring.64 A positive aspect for children in stepfamilies is that they have access to a larger network of kin; a negative aspect is that these relations may be less reliable and committed to extending support and sponsorship.

Several recent studies of the effects of divorce and remarriage on kinship relations in later life indicate that marital disruption may be giving our kinship system a matrilineal tilt.65 Children are less likely to give and receive time and money from their fathers and their fathers' kin than from their mothers and mothers' kin. Remarriage restores a measure of balance between maternal and (step)paternal lines, but only to a limited extent. In sum, divorce truncates the kinship network, and remarriage only partly repairs it.

Despite the evident disadvantages of marital disruption for children—loss of economic status, instability of parenting figures, and the complexity of new family arrangements—it is important to recognize that most studies show that the differences between children who grow up with both biological parents in the home and those who spend some time in nonnuclear families are relatively modest.47,60 Unquestionably, marital disruption raises the risks of adverse consequences; but contrary to popular impression, the vast majority of children who experience life in single-parent families and stepfamilies do well in later life (see the article by Amato in this journal issue for an in-depth discussion of adjustment). This result suggests that we have not given enough attention to understanding when and why disruption matters or, perhaps, to some of the advantages for children whose parents improve their family situation by divorce.66