Divorce is of sociological significance for several reasons. To begin, divorce rates are often seen as indicators of the health of the institution of marriage. When divorce rates rise or fall, many sociologists view these changes as indicating something about the overall quality of marriages or, alternatively, the stability of social arrangements more generally. Viewed from another perspective, divorce interests sociologists as one of several important transitions in the life course of individuals. The adults and children who experience divorce have been studied to understand both the causes and consequences. From this perspective, a divorce is as much an event in the biography of family members, as other life-course transitions (remarriage, childbirth, and retirement). The sociological interest in divorce also focuses on the social trends it is part of, figuring prominently in any sociological analysis of industrialization, poverty rates, educational attainment, strategies of conflict resolution, or law.

For sociologists, divorce may characterize an individual, a family, a region, a subgroup, a historical period, or an entire society. It may be studied as either the cause or consequence of other phenomena. Still, the overriding concern of almost all research on this topic has been the increase in divorce over  time. Divorce is now almost as common as its absence in the lives of recently married couples. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 43 percent of marriages begun in the early 1990s will end in divorce (NCHS 1998), a significant decline from the estimates of 50 percent to 65 percent in the late 1980s (Martin and Bumpass 1989). The decline in divorce rates in the recent past is probably a result of the aging of the post-World War II Baby Boom generation who are no longer at high risk of divorce because of their age. It is also possible that American marriages are becoming somewhat more stable than they were a decade ago. Still, the fluctuations in divorce rates one decade to the next do not mask the more general trend for the past two centuries. Understanding the increase in divorce has been the larger sociological endeavor regardless of the particular perspective employed. A historical account of trends is necessary before considering contemporary issues associated with divorce.

A Brief Historical Record of Divorce in America

The Colonial Period

Divorce was not legal in any but the New England settlements. The Church of England allowed for legal separations (a mensa et thoro), but not for divorce. The New England Puritans who first landed at Plymouth in 1621, however, were disenchanted with this, as well as many other Anglican doctrines. Divorce was permitted on the grounds of adultery or seven-year desertion as early as 1639 in Plymouth. Other New England colonies followed similar guidelines. Divorce governed by rudimentary codified law was granted by legislative decree. Individual petitions for divorce were debated in colonial legislatures and were effected by bills to dissolve a particular marriage. Still, though legal, divorce was very rare. During the seventeenth century, there were fiftyfour petitions for divorce in Massachusetts, of which forty-four were successful (Phillips 1988, p. 138). The middle colonies provided annulments or divorces for serious matrimonial offenses such as prolonged absence or bigamy. The southern colonies afforded no provisions for divorce whatsoever.

Post-Revolutionary War

Immediately after the Revolutionary War, without British legal impediments to divorce, the states began discussion of laws to govern divorce. In New England and the middle states, divorce became the province of state courts while in the more restrictive southern states it was more often a legislative matter. By the turn of the nineteenth century, almost all states had enacted some form of divorce law. And by the middle of the century, even southern states were operating within a judicial divorce system.

The shift to judicial divorce is significant. By removing divorce deliberations from legislatures, states were forced to establish grounds that justified a divorce. Such clauses reflected the prevailing sentiments governing normative marriage— they indicated what was expected of marriage at the time. And by investing judges with the authority to interpret and adjudicate, such changes significantly liberalized the availability of divorce. Northern and southern states permitted divorces for specific offenses such as adultery, desertion, bigamy, and increasingly with time, cruelty. In the newer frontier western states, grounds resembled those of the East plus ‘‘any other cause for which the court shall deem it proper that the divorce shall be granted’’ (Phillips 1988, p. 453).

Throughout the nineteenth century, there was a gradual liberalization of divorce laws in the United States and a corresponding increase in divorce as well. Where divorces totaled a few hundred at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the numbers grew exponentially as the century wore on; 7,380 divorces in 1860, 10,962 in 1870, 19,663 in 1880, 33,461 in 1890, and 55,751 in 1900 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1975). These figures assume greater significance when growth in population is removed from them. Whereas the divorce rate (number of divorces per 1,000 marriages) was but 1.2 in 1869, it had climbed to 4.0 by 1900. In short, the increase in divorce outstripped the increase in population several times.

A number of factors have been identified as causes of such dramatic increases. In part, these can be described as social changes, which made marriage less essential. The growth of wage labor in the nineteenth century afforded women an alternative to economic dependence on a husband. In an economy dominated by individuals rather than families, marriage was simply less essential. Life as a single individual gradually lost its legal or social stigma (New England settlements had forbidden solitary dwelling while southern communities had taxed it heavily).

More important, however, were fundamental shifts in the meaning of marriage. Divorce codes reflected the growing belief that marriages should be imbued with heavy doses of affection and equality. Divorce grounds of cruelty or lack of support indicate that marriage was increasingly viewed as a partnership. Where a century earlier men had been granted greater discretion in their personal lives, latter nineteenth-century morality attacked such double standards. Men were not necessarily less culpable than women for their vices. Victorian morality stressed the highest standards of sexual behavior for both husbands and wives. Changing divorce codes coincided with the passage of laws restricting husbands’ unilateral control over their wifes’ property. The passage of married women’s property acts throughout the nation in the latter nineteenth century acknowledged married women’s claims to property brought to or acquired in marriage. By 1887, thirty-three states and the District of Columbia gave married women control over their property and earnings (Degler 1980, p. 332).

Divorce codes including omnibus grounds such as ‘‘cruelty’’ (which could justify a divorce from a drunkard husband, for example) may be viewed as reflecting a Victorian American belief that women were morally sensitive and fragile, and in need of protection (Phillips 1988, p. 500). More particularly, the growing use of offenses against the intimate and emotional aspects of marriage reflected a growing belief that such things constituted matrimonial essentials. If a failure of intimacy could justify the dissolution of a marriage, then intimacy may be viewed as a core expectation of marriage.

The Twentieth Century

The first half of the twentieth century was a continuation of trends established in the latter nineteenth century. Two world wars and the Great Depression interrupted gradually increasing divorce rates, however. During each war and during the Depression, divorce rates dropped. After each, rates soared before falling to levels somewhat higher than that which preceded these events. Sociological explanations for these trends focus on women’s employment opportunities. Women’s labor force participation permits the termination of intolerable unions. The separations, hastily timed marriages, and sexual misalliances characteristic of wartime were also undoubtedly factors in the post-war divorces rates. Further, the increases in divorce following these difficult times may be seen, in part, as a delayed reaction. Once the Depression or war was over, the reservoir of impending divorces broke. And finally, postwar optimism and affluence may have contributed to an unwillingness to sustain an unhappy marriage.

The second half of the century witnessed even more dramatic increases in divorce. With the exception of the peculiar 1950s (for an explanation of this anomaly, see Cherlin 1992), the trend for the second half of the 1900s was a regular and exponential growth in divorce until around 1980, at which point the increase stopped.

Though specific explanations for the increase in divorces during the twentieth century vary, several themes may be noted. First, marriage has lost much of its central economic and social significance— especially for women. For example, divorce was undoubtedly inhibited by the fact that prior to the twentieth century, custody of children was uniformly awarded to fathers (since they were legally responsible for financial support). With the acceptance of Freudian ideas of psychosexual development and similar ideas about intellectual and cognitive growth, the so-called Tender Years Doctrine became accepted practice in courts during the early 1900s which then awarded custody to mothers as regularly as they had once done to fathers. And as it became more commonplace, remarriage began to lose some of its stigma. All these changes made it possible for women to divorce their husbands if they wished. But why did so many wish to obtain divorces?

The simplest explanation is that more divorce is a consequence of higher expectations of marriage. More and more grounds for divorce are developed as there are higher and higher expectations for what a marriage should be. In the nineteenth century, drunkenness, cruelty, and failure to provide were added to more traditional grounds of adultery and desertion. In the early twentieth century, cruelty was continually redefined to include not only physical, but mental cruelty as well.

The post-war surges in divorce created sufficient numbers of divorced persons so that the practice lost much of its stigma. The increase in divorce becomes more understandable when the loss of stigma is considered alongside the increase in women’s employment since the mid 1960s. When women are employed, there is less constraint on them to remain in a marriage. But there is also less constraint on their husbands who will not be required to support their employed ex-wives after a divorce.

Since 1970, divorce has been fundamentally redefined. No-fault divorce laws passed since the early 1970s have defined as unacceptable those marriages in which couples are ‘‘incompatible,’’ have ‘‘irreconcilable differences’’ or in which the marriage is ‘‘irretrievably broken.’’ Prior to the no fault regime, divorces required proof of a fault (crime) on the part of one spouse. The court decided whether to grant the divorce. Divorce proceedings were intentionally adversarial. Today, the non-adversarial grounds for divorce are almost entirely based on the failures of emotional essentials. Emotional marital breakdown may have been a feature of large numbers of marriages in earlier historical periods. Only now, however, is such a situation viewed as solely sufficient grounds for terminating the marriage.

Divorce in The West

Any theory of divorce must be able to account for the broad similarities in historical (twentieth century) trends throughout the entire Western world. These similarities exist despite notable differences in national economies, forms of government, and the role of the church. The trends are well known. There was very little divorce until the end of the nineteenth century, a slow but constant growth in divorce rates through the first half of the twentieth century (interrupted by two world wars and an international economic depression), and significant increases in divorce rates since the 1960s. The twentieth century, in short, is when most significant changes in divorce rates occurred. And the changes noted in America were seen in most other Western nations. Between World Wars I and II, there were widespread changes in divorce laws that reflected changing beliefs about matrimony and its essentials. The strains of war and the associated problems that produced more divorces made the practice more conspicuous and consequently more acceptable. There is no doubt one cause of divorce is divorce. When obscure, the practice was stigmatized and there was little to counter stereotypes associated with its practice. When divorce became more commonplace, it lost some of its stigma. Social changes pertaining to women’s roles are a large part of the story of divorce during the postwar era. One sign of these changes was the growth, throughout the West, of women’s labor force participation. But the most conspicuous symbol of the changing role of women was the passage of suffrage legislation throughout the Western world. Before 1914, women were permitted to vote only in New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Norway, and eleven western U.S. states. In the United States, women were enfranchised in 1920. In Britain, Sweden, Germany, and many other European countries, suffrage passed soon after World War I.

Divorce laws, similarly, were altered between the wars in accordance with changing views of marriage and the role of women. The British Parliament enacted divorce reform in 1937 by significantly extending the grounds for divorce (including cruelty) and granting women new options for filing for divorce. Scotland reformed its divorce laws in 1938 by extending grounds for divorce to include failures of emotional essentials— cruelty and habitual drunkenness, for example. In 1930, the Canadian Parliament for the first time empowered judicial magistrates to grant divorce rather than requiring legislative decrees. And the Spanish divorce law of 1932 was the most liberal in contemporary Europe—providing divorce by mutual consent (Phillips 1988, p. 539). Even Nazi Germany permitted no-fault divorce by 1938 (though divorce law was aimed at increasing the number of Aryan children born).

Following World War II, divorce rates throughout the Western world stabilized after an initial increase. The low divorce rates, high fertility, and lower age at marriage that characterized all Western nations after World War II are trends that have not been adequately explained. Whether these trends reflected the consequences of war, the effects of having grown up during the worldwide depression, or a short-term rise in social conservatism is now debated. Regardless of the cause, the decade of the 1950s is universally regarded as a temporary aberration in otherwise long-term and continuous twentieth century trends. Not until the 1960s were there additional significant changes in divorce laws or divorce rates.

Divorce Rates in the United States (1940-1995)

Figure 1: Divorce Rates in the United States (1940-1995)

The 1960s were years of significant social change in almost all Western nations. The demographic consequences of high fertility during the 1950s became most apparent in the large and vocal youth movements challenging conventional sexual and marital norms, censorship, the war in Vietnam, and educational policies. Challenges to institutional authority were commonplace. Divorce laws were not immune to the general liberalization. ‘‘Between 1960 and 1986 divorce policy in almost all the countries of the West was either completely revised or substantially reformed’’ (Phillips 1988, p. 562). Most such reforms occurred in the late 1960s to the late 1970s. Unlike earlier divorce law reforms, those during the post-World War II era did not extend the grounds for divorce so much as they redefined the jurisdiction over it. The passage of no-fault divorce laws signaled a profound shift in the way divorce was to be handled.

Most significantly, divorce became the prerogative of the married couple with little involvement of the state. No-fault divorce laws do not require either spouse to be guilty of an offense. Instead, they focus on the breakdown of the emotional relationship between the spouses. These statutes typically require a period of time during which the spouses do not live together. Beyond that, evidence must be adduced to substantiate one or both spouses’ claim that the marriage is irretrievably broken. The significance of no- fault divorce lies entirely in the fact that decisions about divorce are no longer the prerogative of the state or church but rather of the married couple.

The passage of no-fault divorce laws in the West is properly viewed as a response to changing behaviors and attitudes. Indeed, social science research has shown that divorce rates began to increase significantly prior to passage of such laws and did not change any more dramatically afterward (Stetson and Wright 1975).

The changes in divorce law and actual divorce behaviors in the West are a reflection of the redefinition of marriage. More vulnerable and fragile emotional bonds have replaced the economic constraints that once held spouses together. The availability of gainful employment for women makes marriage less essential and divorce more possible. Indeed, the significant changes in women’s social positions and the corresponding changes in normative expectations (i.e., gender) have been the subject of significant sociological research. These changes are recognized as fundamentally altering almost all social institutions. Marriage is no exception.

The redefinition of marriage in the latter twentieth century throughout the West reflects the profound changes in relationships between men and women that have occurred. No longer an economic institution, marriage is now defined by its emotional significance. Love and companionship are not incidents of the institution. Rather, they are essentials. Meeting these high expectations may be difficult, but sustaining them is certainly more so.

Taken together, the changes in the second half of the twentieth century may be summarized as redefining the meaning of marriage. Children are not economic assets. Spouses are not economic necessities. Marriage is a conjugal arrangement where the primary emphasis is on the relationship between husband and wife. The reasons for divorce are direct consequences of the reasons for marriage. As one changes so does the other. Since it is more difficult to accomplish and sustain matrimonial essentials, it is easier to terminate the legal framework surrounding them. Divorce has become less costly (financially, legally, and reputationally) as marriage has become more so (in terms of the investments required to accomplish what is expected of it).

Correlates of Divorce

Sociologists have documented a number of demographic and personal characteristics that correlate with the probability of divorce. These include early age at marriage, premarital births, premarital cohabitation, divorce from a previous marriage, and low educational attainments. Social class is inversely related to divorce, yet wives’ employment significantly increases divorce probabilities (see Huber and Spitze 1988 for a review).

Half of all recent marriages began with cohabitation (unmarried couples living together) (Bumpass and Sweet 1989). Repeated national studies have found that married couples who cohabited (either with each other or with others) before marrying have higher divorce rates than those who never cohabited (Nock 1995). The reason is still unclear. Research shows that cohabiting individuals are less committed to the idea of marriage or marital permanence. They are also less religious and tend to be drawn from lower social classes (both of which are associated with higher divorce rates) (Nock 1995). Cohabitation appears to foster (or reflect) a belief that problems in intimate relationships are solvable by ending the relationship. When such beliefs are carried into marriage, the result is higher divorce rates.

Race correlates with divorce—even after controls are imposed for socioeconomic correlates of race—with black individuals having divorce rates approximately twice those of whites. However, such large differences associated with race are recent in origin. Not until the late 1950s did significant differences in divorce, separation, and other marital statuses emerge between blacks and whites, even though a pattern of marginally higher marital disruption has been found among blacks for at least a century. Such findings suggest that the differences stem more from contemporary than historical circumstances. As Cherlin suggests, the recent changes in black Americans’ family situations resemble those of other racial and ethnic groups, though they are more pronounced. The restructuring of the American economy, the decline in semi-skilled jobs, and the rise in service occupations has resulted in higher rates of black male unemployment or low wages, and better opportunities for black women. ‘‘Faced with difficult times economically, many blacks responded by drawing upon a model of social support that was in their cultural repertoire, a way of making it from day to day passed down by African Americans who came before them. This response relied heavily on extended kinship networks and deemphasized marriage’’ (Cherlin 1992, p. 113).

Consequences of Divorce For Children

A central concern of much of the recent research on divorce is how children fare. Developmental psychologists describe five ways in which marital disruption may affect children’s adjustment. First, some adults and some children are more vulnerable to the stress and strain of divorce. Personality characteristics, ethnicity, or age for example, may make some individuals more susceptible to negative outcomes. Second, the absence of one parent, per se, may affect children’s adjustment to divorce. Boys, in particular, appear to benefit from the presence of a male adult. Third, the loss of income creates many indirect problems for children, including changes in residence, school, neighborhood, and peer networks. Fourth, divorce often diminishes the custodial parent’s ability to provide supportive and appropriate parenting, especially if depression follows marital disruption. And finally, negative, conflictual, and dysfunctional family relationships between parents, parents and children, and siblings are probably the most damaging consequence of divorce for children. (Hetherington, Bridges, and Insabella 1998).

Figure 2: Divorce in Selected Countries, 1995

Figure 2: Divorce in Selected Countries, 1995

Longitudinal research has shown that children who experience divorce differ from others before the disruption occurs. Cherlin showed that children whose parents were still married, but who would later divorce, showed more behavior problems and did less well in school than children whose parents would remain married (Cherlin et al. 1991).

Even after such predisruption differences are considered, divorce takes a toll in the lives of children who experience it. Divorce significantly increases the chances that young people will leave their homes due to friction with a parent, increases the chances of premarital cohabitation, and increases the odds of premarital pregnancies or fatherhood (Cherlin, Kiernan, and Chase-Lansdale 1995). The effects of divorce in young adulthood include higher rates of unemployment and lower educational attainments. Divorce weakens young people’s connections to their friends and neighbors due to higher rates of residential mobility (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994). Following divorce, many children are subjected to changes in residence, often to disadvantaged neighborhoods where peers have lower educational prospects. The lack of connections to others affects parents’ ability to monitor their children. It also limits young people’s knowledge about local employment opportunities.

The changed economic circumstances caused by divorce affect children in many indirect ways. The loss of available income may affect the quality of schools children attend if custodial parents move to poorer neighborhoods. The lack of income may limit children’s opportunities for extracurricular activities (e.g., travel, or music lessons). The need for income often compels custodial parents to work more hours, reducing their ability to monitor children’s after-school activities.

In their socioeconomic attainments, children who experienced their parents’ divorce average one to two fewer years of educational attainment than children from intact homes (Krein and Beller 1988; Hetherington, Camara, and Featherman 1983). Such effects are found even after rigorous controls are imposed for such things as race, sex, years since the divorces, age at time of divorce, parental income, parental education, number of siblings, region of residence, educational materials in the home, or the number of years spent in the single-parent family. There are comparable effects of divorce on occupational prestige, income and earnings, and unemployment (Nock 1988).

White women who spent some childhood time in a single-parent family as a result of divorce are 53 percent more likely to have teenage marriages, 111 percent more likely to have teenage births, 164 percent more likely to have premarital births, and 92 percent more likely to experience marital disruptions than are daughters who grew up in two-parent families. The effects for black women are similar, though smaller. Controls for a wide range of background factors have little effect on the negative consequences of divorce. Further, remarriage does not remove these effects of divorce. And there is no difference between those who lived with their fathers and those who lived with their mothers after divorce. Experiencing parents’ divorce has the same (statistical) consequences as being born to a never-married mother (McLanahan and Bumpass 1988; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994).

Such large and consistent negative effects have eluded simple explanation. Undoubtedly much of the divorce experience is associated with the altered family structure produced—in almost 90 percent of all cases a single-mother family—and the corresponding changes in family functioning. Such a structure is lacking in adult role models, in parental supervision, and in hierarchy. On this last dimension, research has shown that divorced women and their children are closer (less distinguished by generational distinctions) to one another than is true in intact families. Parent and child are drawn together more as peers, both struggling to keep the family going. The excessive demands on single parents force them to depend on their children in ways that parents in intact families do not, leading to a more reciprocal dependency relationship (Weiss 1975, 1976). Single mothers are ‘‘. . . likely to rely on their children for emotional support and assistance with the practical problems of daily life’’ (Hetherington, Camara, and Featherman 1983, p. 218). In matters of discipline, single mothers have been found to rely on restrictive (authoritarian as opposed to authoritative) disciplinary methods—restricting children’s freedom and relying on negative sanctions—a pattern psychologists believe reflects a lack of authority on the part of the parent (Hetherington 1972). Whatever else it implies, the lack of generational boundaries means a less hierarchical family and less authoritative generational distinctions.

The institutional contexts within which achievement occurs, however, are decidedly hierarchical in nature. Education, the economy, and occupations are typically bureaucratic structures in which an individual is categorically subordinate to a superior— an arrangement Goffman described as an ‘‘eschelon authority structure’’ (1961, p. 42). The nuclear family has been described as producing in children the skills and attitudes necessary for competition within such eschelon authority relationships in capitalist production and family childrearing. ‘‘The hierarchical division of labor (in the economy) is merely reflected in family life’’ (Bowles and Gintis 1976, p. 144–147). The relative absence of clear subordinate-superordinate relationships in single-parent families has been argued to inadequately socialize children, or place them in a disadvantageous position when and if they find themselves in hierarchical organizations (Nock 1988).

For Adults

A wide range of psychological problems has been noted among divorcing and recently divorced adults. A divorce occasions changes in most every aspect of adult life; residence, friendship networks, economic situation, and parental roles. Marriage in America makes significant contributions to individual well-being. Thus, regardless of the quality of the marriage that ends, emotional distress is a near-universal experience for those who divorce (Weiss 1979). Anxiety, anger, and fear are dominant psychological themes immediately before and after divorce. At least for a year or two after divorce, men and women report psychosomatic symptoms of headaches, loss of appetite, overeating, drinking too much, trembling, smoking more, sleeping problems, and nervousness (Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry 1980).

The emotional problems occasioned by divorce are accompanied by major changes in economic situations, as well—especially for women. The vast majority of those involved in divorce experience a significant decline in their immediate standard of living. This problem is especially acute for women who—in almost 90 percent of cases— assume custody of children. Immediately after a divorce, women suffer an average 30 percent to 40 percent decline in their overall standards of living (Hoffman and Duncan 1988; Peterson 1989). Either in anticipation of or as a consequence of divorce, there is typically an increase in divorced women’s labor force participation. Analyzing national longitudinal data, Peterson estimates that one year before the divorce decree (when most divorcing individuals are separated), women’s average standard of living (total family income divided by the poverty threshold for a family of a particular size) is 70 percent of its level in the previous year. As a consequence of increased hours worked, the standard of living increases one year after divorce and by five or six years after divorce, ‘‘the standard of living of divorced women is about 85 percent of what it had been before separation’’ (1989, p. 48). Women who have not been employed during their marriages, however, are particularly hard-hit; the majority ending up in poverty.

Child support payments are not a solution to the economic problems created by divorce for two reasons. First, about one-quarter (24 percent) of women due child support receive none (39 percent of men awarded child support receive none). Another one-quarter receive less than the courtordered amount. In 1991, the average amount of child support received by divorced mothers was $3,011 per year ($2,292 for men) (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1995). About 16.7 million, or 85 percent of the 19.8 million children in single-parent families in 1997 were living with the mother; 60 percent of whom were divorced (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998a). Their median family income was $22,999 compared with $34,802 for those in single-father situations, and $51,681 for children in households where both parents were present (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998a). Families headed by single mothers are the most likely to be in poverty, and represent 55 percent of all poor families. In 1997, a third (31.6 percent) of all single-mother families were in poverty compared to 5.2 percent of two-parent families (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998b). Analyzing national longitudinal data, Duncan concluded that changes in family status—especially divorce and remarriage— are the most important cause of change in family economic well-being and poverty among women and children (1984).

Single-parent families in America have grown dramatically as a result of increasing divorce rates. And even though most divorced persons remarry, Bumpass has shown that the average duration of marital separation experienced by children under age 18 was 6.3 years and 7.5 years for whites and blacks respectively. In fact 38 percent of white and 73 percent of black children are still in a single parent family 10 years after the marital disruption— a reflection of blacks’ lower propensity to remarry and their longer intervals between divorce and remarriage (1984). The role of divorce in the formation of single-parent families differs by race. Among all single-parent white families, 25 percent are maintained by never-married mothers, 47 percent by divorced (or separated) mothers, 7 percent by never-married men, and 13 percent by divorced or separated men. Among black single-parent families, 59 percent are maintained by never-married women, 28 percent by divorced or separated women, 4 percent by never-married men, and only 3 percent by divorced or separated men. Divorce is the primary route to single-parenthood for white mothers, whereas out-of-wedlock childbearing is for black mothers (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998c, Table 11; 1998d).

Families headed by single women with children are the poorest of all major demographic groups regardless of how poverty is measured. Combined with frequent changes in residence and in employment following divorce, children and mothers in such households experience significant instabilities—a fact reflected in the higher rates of mental health problems among such women (Garfinkel and McLanahan 1986, pp. 11–17).


High rates of remarriage following divorce clearly indicate that marital disruption does not signify a rejection of marriage. There is no evidence of widespread abandonment of conjugal life by Americans. Admittedly, marriage rates have dropped in recent years. However, such changes are best seen to be the result of higher educational attainments, occupational commitments, and lower fertility expectations; not a rejection of marriage per se. Rather, increasing divorce rates reflect the fact that marriage is increasingly evaluated as an entirely emotional relationship between two persons. Marital breakdown, or the failure of marriage to fulfill emotional expectations, has come increasingly to be a cause for divorce. Since the 1970s, our laws have explicitly recognized this as justification for terminating a marriage—the best evidence we have that love and emotional closeness are the sine qua non of modern American marriage. Contemporary divorce rates thus signal a growing unwillingness to tolerate an unsatisfying emotional conjugal relationship.

The consequences of divorce for children are difficult to disentangle from the predictable changes in household structure. Whether the long-term consequences are produced by the single-parent situation typically experienced for five to ten years, or from the other circumstances surrounding divorce is not clear. It is quite apparent, however, that divorce occasions significant instabilities in children’s and mothers’ lives.

Our knowledge about the consequences of divorce for individuals is limited at this time by the absence of controlled studies that compare the divorced to the nondivorced. Virtually all research done to date follows the lives of divorced individuals without comparing them to a comparable group of individuals who have not divorced. A related concern is whether the consequences of divorce reflect the experience itself, or whether they reflect various selection effects. That is, are people who divorce different from others to begin with? Are their experiences the results of their divorce, or of antecedent factors?

When almost half of all marriages are predicted to end in divorce, it is clear that marital disruption is a conspicuous feature of our family and kinship system. Divorce creates new varieties of kin not traditionally incorporated in our dominant institutions. The rights and obligations attached to such kinship positions as spouse of the noncustodial father are ambiguous—itself a source of problems. The social institution of the family is redefined as a consequence of divorce. Entering marriage, for example, is less commonly the beginning of adult responsibilities. Ending marriage is less commonly the consequence of death. Parents are not necessarily co-residents with their children. And new categories of ‘‘quasi’’ kin are invented to accommodate the complex connections among previously married spouses and their new spouses and children. In many ways, divorce itself has become a dominant institution in American society. It is, however, significantly less structured by consensual normative beliefs than the family institutions to which it is allied.

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