Sociologists who study divorce have focused on three major questions. First, some have taken a macro perspective and examined how and why divorce rates have changed over time. In this research, scholars have looked at broad social trends and how they are related to divorce rates. Second, there have been many studies of why individual couples decide to get a divorce. In this research, sociologists have examined the characteristics of individual couples and how they are associated with the risk of divorce. The third major thrust of research has been to explore the consequences of divorce. Major focuses of this research have been on how divorce affects economic wellbeing, psychological wellbeing, and physical health.
A major social trend during the past century has been a global increase in the divorce rate. During the second half of the twentieth century divorce rates increased in most industrialized countries. Divorce rates have been highest in the US, but there have been increases in many other countries as well. In the US the divorce rate was relatively stable between 1950 and 1965, increased dramatically between 1965 and 1980, and decreased slightly between 1980 and 2000. In the US it has been projected that about a half of all marriages will be terminated by divorce, and a half of all children will have spent some time in a single parent home by the time they reach age 18.
During the past 20 years there has been a gradual decrease in the US divorce rate. Small but consistent yearly decreases in the divorce rate have resulted in a significant reduction in the divorce rate. From 1980 to 2000 the divorce rate per 1,000 married women decreased from 22.6 to 19.0, a decrease of 16.3 percent (US Census Bureau 2004). Recent evidence indicates that this decrease is not due to increased cohabitation or the aging of the population.
Sociologists have observed that the divorce rate is affected by rapid social change and social upheavals such as war and depression. For example, in the US the divorce rate increased after both world wars and during and after the Vietnam War. It decreased during the Great Depression, was relatively stable from 1950 to 1965, and decreased modestly from 1980 to 2000. Some of the social characteristics that appear to have contributed to the increase in the divorce rate are increased individualism, increasing marital expectations, the economic independence of women, and no fault divorce laws. These are trends that have been occurring globally during the past 50 years.
During the 1960s and 1970s there was social upheaval and change with much emphasis on rights and the questioning of traditional roles, responsibilities, and authority. The civil rights and feminist movements helped stimulate an emphasis on individualism. As a result, in con temporary western culture and across the globe, there has been increased emphasis on individualism, freedom, autonomy, and the pursuit of personal happiness, including individual marital happiness.
As individual happiness has been emphasized, the primary purpose of marriage has become the achievement of individual happiness. If love wanes and one does not achieve the expected happiness in marriage, a logical solution is to dissolve the relationship. In short, one consequence of individualism is a trend toward less commitment to marriage and greater acceptance of divorce, cohabitation, and alternatives to marriage (Waite & Gallagher 2000; Wilson 2002). Recent research illustrates how divorce has become much more common and acceptable during the past 50 years. Compared to the past, young married mothers are much more likely to state that divorce is the best solution to persistent marital problems, and social sanctions against divorce have decreased (Thornton & Young DeMarco 2001).
Another major social change during the past 50 years has been the increasing economic independence of women. For example, in the US the proportion of bachelor degrees earned by women increased from 35 percent in 1960 to 57 percent in 2002. The percentage of married women employed in the labor force increased from 32 percent in 1960 to 61 percent in 2003. Among married women with children under age six, 60 percent were in the labor force in 2003 compared with only 30 percent in 1970 (US Census Bureau 2004). A woman who is employed may be more likely to leave an unhappy marriage than a woman who is not employed. Similarly, an unhappy man may be more likely to leave if he knows his wife is financially independent (Schoen et al. 2002).
The norms of the broader culture are reflected in the law and as divorce became more common and accepted, no fault divorce laws were passed. Law is influenced by cultural norms, but it also may help shape cultural norms. The law may teach, reinforce values, and be a model for appropriate behavior. A number of researchers reported that no fault divorce laws had no effect on the divorce rate. On the other hand, several others found that divorce rates did increase as a result of the passage of no fault divorce laws. Debate continues over whether or not no fault divorce laws influenced the divorce rate. In recent research it was estimated that divorce rates would have been 6 percent lower if no fault laws had not been enacted (Friedberg 1998). Since the increase in divorce rates began before no fault laws were passed, the passage of no fault laws appears to have been a reflection of a cultural change already in existence. In addition, however, the findings suggest that no fault laws had an independent impact which helped shape the cultural acceptance of divorce and increase divorce rates.
Divorce Risk Factors
Divorce is a complex process influenced by many social and individual characteristics. Factors that have been found to be associated with the risk of divorce include age at marriage, premarital cohabitation, parental divorce, infidelity, alcohol and drug abuse, poor financial management, and domestic violence (Blumel 1992; Amato & Rogers 1997; Sanchez & Gager 2000). However, the nature and strength of risk factors differ across groups. To illustrate, in the US, premarital cohabitation is associated with subsequent marital dissolution among non-Hispanic white women but not among African American or Mexican American women (Phil lips & Sweeney 2005).
A major social change during the past century has been the increase in paid labor force participation of women. There has been debate about the influence of women’s employment on the risk of marital dissolution. Schoen et al. (2002) found that women’s employment was associated with an increased risk of marital dissolution among unhappily married women but not among happily married women.
There has been considerable study of couple interaction patterns and how they are associated with subsequent divorce. Contrary to expert opinion, Gottman et al. (1998) found that the extent of active listening by couples was not related to subsequent dissolution, nor was the amount of anger expressed. Rather, the risk of divorce was influenced by how couples handled disagreement and anger. Couples who could disagree without contempt or withdrawal were more likely to remain married. The ability to accept the influence of the other, starting discussions softly, and humor were all associated with greater marital stability. On the other hand, contempt, belligerence, and defensiveness were associated with a greater risk of marital dissolution (Gottman et al. 1998; Hetherington 2003).
Effects Of Divorce On Adults
Numerous researchers have found that compared with married persons, divorced persons tend to have more economic hardship, higher levels of poverty, lower levels of psychological wellbeing, less happiness, more health problems, and a greater risk of mortality (Hemstro¨m 1996; Amato 2000; Waite & Gallagher, 2000; McManus & DiPrete 2001). Cross national data have confirmed similar findings in 20 countries across the world (Mastekaasa 1994a; Amato 2000). One of the ongoing questions among social scientists is whether the differences between married and divorced individuals are due to selection or the stress of divorce. The selection explanation suggests that poorly functioning individuals have a high risk of divorce. Thus, characteristics that existed before the divorce produce the low levels of well-being rather than the divorce itself. If this explanation is correct, then differences between divorced and married persons could be explained by characteristics that existed prior to the divorce. An alternative explanation is that the stress of divorce lowers people’s well-being. If this explanation is correct, then divorce would produce significant reductions in well-being net of pre divorce characteristics. Although selection can account for some of the differences between divorced and non-divorced persons, recent research indicates that divorce appears to have a significant impact on well-being that is not explained by selection (Mastekaasa 1994b; Hemstrom 1996; Amato 2000; Waite & Gallagher 2000).
Although divorce is a stressful event, its impacts vary greatly according to the circum stances and attitudes of the people involved. Some are stressed by divorce but recover over time, while others are devastated and never recover. Hetherington (2003) observed that the majority of the divorced persons she interviewed were able eventually to build reasonably normal and satisfying lives. She identified six different patterns of adjustment to divorce. At one end of the continuum were the enhanced who adjusted well to the divorce. They were successful at work, socially, as parents, and often in remarriages. Ten years after the divorce, 24 percent of the women and 13 percent of the men were in the enhanced category.
At the other end of the continuum were the defeated, who spiraled downward after divorce and were low in self-esteem, had elevated scores on depression and antisocial behaviors, and often had difficulties with alcoholism or drug abuse. One year after divorce, about one third of the divorced adults Hetherington studied were in the defeated group. Ten years after the divorce, only 10 percent of her sample remained in the defeated group and they were mired in despair, poverty, and depression.
A key question is what helps adults adjust successfully to divorce. Four key factors have been identified in research: (1) income, (2) a new intimate relationship, (3) age, and (4) social networks (Wang & Amato 2000; Hetherington 2003). First, those with adequate financial resources are more likely to adjust to the divorce. Second, those with a new intimate relationship (dating regularly, cohabiting, or remarried) are better adjusted. Third, divorce adjustment is more difficult for older than younger individuals. In most cases older persons have invested more time in the marriage and may have more difficulty finding another partner. Fourth, social networks provide encouragement, support, and other resources. Hetherington (2003) reported that social networks were important for many in her enhanced group.
There are several questions that need to be addressed in future research. First, there is a need for more extensive study of the process of divorce. When individuals divorce they go through a process in which they change their identity from a married person to a single individual. They make a variety of decisions regarding money, residence, and childrearing. Divorce impacts relations with friends and relatives and it involves processing legal documents. Even though there has been extensive study of the causes and consequences of divorce, there has been relatively little study of the process people go through to obtain a divorce.
Another important area for future research is to study different subcultures and cultures. Relatively little is known about divorce rates and trends in other countries. Related to this is the need to examine how various risk and protective factors operate in different countries.
Finally, it would be useful to study the dissolution of other types of intimate relationships. For example, Avellar and Smock (2005) examined the economic consequences of the dissolution of cohabiting unions. We need to know more about the risk factors, the dissolution process, and the economic and social con sequences of the dissolution of cohabiting unions.
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