Tag Archives: effects of divorce

Parental Divorce Negatively Affects Later Parent/Child Relationships

mom and child morgefileWhen children experience parental divorce, they are more likely to have insecure relationships with their parents once they grow into adults. A new 2013 study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, reports that insecure parental relationships were most pronounced when the divorce occurred during early childhood. This is the first such study to determine that the timing of the divorce in the first years of life has a greater impact. It is also one of the first to demonstrate a link between the divorce and the parent/child relationship being harmed.

This research contradicts cultural assertions that children are very resilient and that they can easily get over family breakups, particularly if they are too young to really understand what is going on. On the contrary, early childhood is deemed a “sensitive period” during which the child learns how to trust and attach to others. Therefore, divorce during this sensitive period was shown to be more impactful.

There has been some disagreement in previous research about when during childhood the most harmful effects of parental divorce occur. A 1989 study by Allison and Furstenburg found greater distress, delinquency, problem behavior, and academic difficulties in children whose parents separated between infancy and age five. However, a 2005 study by Strohschein suggested older children whose parents divorced were more vulnerable to mental health problems.

This 2013 study by Fraley and Heffernan isolated and tested the sensitive period hypothesis which posited that, if true, the impact of parental divorce on adult attachment styles should be more pronounced if it occurred during early childhood than if it took place later in childhood. The study concluded that the data was in fact consistent with the sensitive period hypothesis. The researchers concluded that “not only is early divorce more consequential than later divorce, but it is also particularly influential when it takes place in the early years of life.”

Psychologists say some experiences, such as parental divorce, can influence our personality development more when they take place during a child’s early development. Why? A 2006 study by Sullivan suggests one possibility is that our nervous system is more malleable or plastic early in life, and so may be impacted to a greater degree during this time. A 2002 study by Fraley adds that early experiences help us set expectations for later experiences. So when a disruption in family relationships occurs very early, it changes the mindset and removes the secure foundation on which other relationships can be compared and built.

Adult Children of Divorce Have More Insecure Relationships with Parents
If you are a parent considering divorce, it is certainly worth noting that the action of divorce and its timing have major consequences for your child and for his or her future relationship with you and your spouse.

Researchers concluded that people who were younger when their parents divorced were more insecure in their relationships with their parents as adults than people who were older when their parents divorced. The first few years of life appear to be the most critical “sensitive period.” However, even when children were older when the divorce occurred, the parental relationships were more likely to be insecure.

Fraley and Heffernan used a fairly large testing group of more than 12,300 participants for this study and replicated the results with a second sample of 7,300. They included people who varied in parental divorce status, age, and age at parental divorce. Participants were mostly from the U.S., the U.K., and Canada.

Custody Affects Parent/Child Relationships
It shouldn’t be surprising that the amount of time the child spends with a parent was shown in this study to be linked with the security of the adult/child relationship as adults. People in the study were more likely to have an insecure relationship with their father if they lived with their mother. However, if they lived with their father, they were less likely to have an insecure relationship with him as an adult. And if they lived with their father, they reported more insecurity in their relationship with their mothers than with their fathers.

Adult children of divorce were more insecure with fathers than with mothers, on average. This is likely due to the fact that more mothers gain full custody. In fact, 74 percent of participants whose parents divorced reported that their mothers had primary custody, while 11 percent lived with their fathers, and the rest lived with a grandparent or other caretakers.

“These findings are valuable because they suggest that something as basic as the amount of time one spends with a parent or one’s living arrangements can have the potential to shape the quality of the attachment relationship that one has with a parent,” say researchers.

To summarize, divorce during the first few years of life affects children the most, and this family breakdown is likely to result in more insecure relationships with one or both parents, with custody being a major factor in relationship security. Is this study consistent with your own personal experience, or the experiences of your friends?

Photo courtesy of morguefile.com.

Lori Lowe is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It tells the inspiring, true stories of couples who used adversity to improve their marriages–from overcoming drug addiction to cancer, infidelity, religious differences, family interference and infertility, among many others. It’s available at Amazon.com and in various e-book formats here.

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Lasting Marriage Linked to Better Health

Last week Reuters reported that people who get married and stay married reported higher health ratings than other groups. This research, which surveyed more than 9,000 Americans aged 50 and older, was the first study to examine both marital transitions and marital status on a wide range of health dimensions.

While the study, like others before it, linked marriage to better health, it also found that individuals who lost a spouse through divorce or widowhood suffered a huge health toll, likely brought on by that high-stress period. The report adds that remarriage seems to lessen some of the health effects of divorce or widowhood, but that those in a lasting marriage still had better health.

“Think of your health as money in the bank,” said researcher and University of Chicago sociology professor Linda J. Waite. “Think of marriage as a mechanism for ‘saving’ or adding to health. Think of divorce as a period of very high expenditures.”

• Those who divorced or were widowed fared worse in terms of chronic health conditions than those who never wed. They experienced 20% more chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer, and had 23% more problems climbing stairs or walking a block than their married counterparts.

• People who never married were found to have 12% more mobility limitations and 13% more depressive symptoms, but no difference in chronic conditions from the group who remained married.

• Those who remarried had 12% more chronic conditions and 19% more mobility limitations, but no more depressive symptoms than those who remained married.

A 2005 John Hopkins University Study found that extremely stressful events, including losing a spouse, can cause heart attack-like symptoms called stress cardiomyopathy or “broken heart” syndrome.

“Some health situations, like depression, seem to respond both quickly and strongly to changes in current conditions,” explains researcher Waite. “In contrast, conditions such as diabetes and heart disease develop slowly over a substantial period and show the impact of past experiences, which is why health is undermined by divorce or widowhood, even when a person remarries.”

If you or someone you love has lost a spouse through divorce or death, it is imperative to see a physician regularly and prioritize your health.

Researchers factored in participants’ age, race, sex and education level. They added that marital quality—which was not a part of the study—may also affect health (happy marriages positively and unhappy marriages negatively). The full study was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Is Brad Pitt right?

This morning on the Today Show, Brad Pitt briefly discussed his family, including long-time girlfriend Angelina Jolie and their six adoptive children. When asked if he planned to marry Angie, he said if they determine it would benefit their children, they would do so. Well, here’s some evidence that could change the mind of people wondering if long-term cohabitation is as good a choice as marriage for families with children.

Hopefully, most Americans aren’t modeling their lives after Hollywood celebrities, but cohabitation is becoming more common, so the issue is worth discussing. Marriage is not just a financial decision; it is not just a decision of the heart. It involves these things of course, but when children are involved, they should also be considered.  So, today’s post is dedicated to studies showing how children are affected by marriage—emotionally, behaviorially, sexually, mentally, and physically. I would be happy to send you more details on any of these studies.

Research shows that in the U.S. cohabitators resemble singles more than they resemble married couples. Their unions are much less stable. One study showed that half of the children born to a cohabitating couple saw their parents split by the time they were five. The number was even higher for Latino or African-Americans. For married couples, 15% split in the same time period.

Another study found that even after controlling for socioeconomic and parenting factors, teenagers who lived in cohabiting households experienced more behavioral and emotional difficulties than those in intact, married families.

A study found married parents devote more of their financial resources to childrearing and education than do cohabiting parents, whereas cohabiting parents spent a larger percentage of their income on alcohol and tobacco. In the study, cohabiting couples had lower incomes and education levels. They also reported more conflict and violence and lower satisfaction levels.

Marriage has not only social effects on children, but also biosocial consequences. For example, girls appear to have their sexual development affected by male pheromones, which either accelerate or decelerate their development, depending on their family situation. Studies have shown that adolescent girls who do not grow up in an intact married home are more likely to menstruate early. On the other hand, girls “who have close, engaged relationships with their fathers” begin menstruation at a later age. Girls who live with an unrelated male menstruate even earlier than those living with single mothers. Researchers believe the father’s pheromones appear to inhibit sexual development, while an unrelated male accelerates her development. When a girl has earlier sexual development, she is more likely to become sexually active earlier and is at higher risk of teen pregnancies.

Boys also benefit from married parents. Boys in unmarried families carry out more delinquent acts. Boys in single-parent homes are about twice as likely, and boys in stepfamilies are 2½ times more likely, to commit a crime leading to jail time by their 30s. Boys in cohabiting families have been found to be more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior, cheating, and have more school suspensions. When a boy lives with his mother and her boyfriend, the boyfriend is more likely to be abusive than his own father. This leads to additional problems.

Additional research has suggested children with two married parents have better health and a longer life expectancy than other children.  This benefit starts in infancy, and remains a lifelong benefit.

It is tempting to suggest the difference is due to socioeconomic status or education levels. But many studies account for these factors. One such study followed academically gifted, middle-class children for 70 years. Researchers controlled for family background and childhood health status, and even personality characteristics. They found children of divorce had life expectancy reduced by four years. They also found that 40-year-old men whose parents had divorced were three times more likely to die in the next 40 years than were 40-year-old men whose parents remained married.

Even babies have a lower risk of mortality when born to married parents than if they are born to unmarried parents. The average increase in infant mortality is 50% for unmarried women. After controlling for age, race and education, infants with unwed mothers still have a higher mortality rate, even through early childhood years.

Sweden has a national health care system for all its citizens. But a study of the entire Swedish population showed boys who lived in single-parent homes were more than 50% more likely to die of various causes (i.e. suicide, accidents, addiction) than those in a married, two-parent home. Boys and girls in single-parent families were more than twice as likely to have problems with drug or alcohol abuse, psychiatric diseases, suicide attempts. They were also more likely to experience poisonings, traffic injuries or falls than teens in two-parent families.

Yet another U.S. study shows teens who live with their married parents are less likely to experiment to drugs alcohol or tobacco than other teens—even after controlling for age, race, gender, and family income.

Mental health of children was also affected when parents split up. Children of divorce have double the risk of serious psychological problems later in life than children with parents who stay married. They are more likely to suffer from depression, drug and alcohol abuse, or suicidal thoughts.  The exception is when a marriage has “high and sustained” conflict levels, children benefit psychologically if the parents divorce.

I could write many more examples, but I imagine you get the picture that marriage has been shown in lots of research to protect children in myriad ways. Let me just share the most shocking statistics for those of you still with me. It is hard to imagine for parents who love their children (and stepchildren), but children who do not live with their own two parents are at much higher risk of child abuse. Living with a stepparent is the most significant factor in severe child abuse. Children are more than 50 times more likely to be murdered by a stepparent (usually a stepfather) than by a biological parent. A different study showed children were 40 times more likely to be sexually abused than one living with both of his biological parents. A national study found that 7% of children who lived with one parent had been sexually abused, compared to 4% of children who live with both parents.

With this research in mind, do you believe marriage has a social benefit for children?

 

Information on these studies can be found in “Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition” by Institute for American Values, or send a request to me and I will send you details on the individual study.