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Divorce has become one of the realities of marriage. Whereas divorce was quite uncommon in the early to mid-20th century, the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s increased the acceptability of leaving a marriage in which one or both partners were no longer happy or satisfied. In short, the phrase “till death do us part” lost much of its meaning among many married couples. Arguably, a concern over “till divorce do us part” has contributed to the growing popularity of cohabitation today.
The long-term effects of divorce on adult children likely were originally unanticipated but subsequently have been studied extensively. There is clearly a great deal of variability in terms of how adult children of divorce are affected. Some adult children are devastated and left with long-term scars, relationship problems, and career instability; others seem to have built their lives with few apparent effects. Recent research, however, suggests that even without apparent effects, adult children can report long-term subclinical scars of longings and feelings of missed opportunities for paternal relationships.
A number of research studies have identified individual differences among adult children, and in the circumstances surrounding the parents’ divorce, that predict how adult children will adjust to divorce in the long term. These factors have to do with how the divorce comes about, the relationships between the parents (and between each parent and the child) both prior to and after divorce, and how old the children were when the divorce occurred, among other factors.
Types of Divorce: Their Effects on Adjustment
Divorce is not an event. It is part of a larger process that culminates in the dissolution of the parents’ marriage and in the aftereffects of this dissolution. In some cases, parents who have been arguing and fighting for years may finally end their volatile relationship by divorcing, whereas in other cases the divorce may “come out of nowhere” when parents who did not seem to be at odds with each other suddenly decide to go their separate ways. In still other cases, divorce results from dishonesty on the part of one or both parents—in the form of an extramarital affair, an addiction, undisclosed business associations, or other activities that were deliberately hidden from the other spouse but that are ultimately admitted or discovered.
When the parents are in conflict or abusive toward each other or the children, divorce can come as a relief. The yelling and fighting stop, and there is more peace and predictability in the home. The long-term emotional damage that children experience in these situations is more likely to be caused by poor or strained relationships with one or both parents than by the divorce itself. For example, a child who was abused by his or her mother or father may harbor resentment toward that parent, and although the divorce may bring relief (especially if that child did not reside primarily with the abusive parent after the divorce), the troubled relationship with the abusive parent is likely to exert long-term negative effects on the adult child’s well-being.
Cases in which the divorce seemingly comes out of nowhere are especially likely to be hurtful and traumatic for children in the long term. The adult child may come to believe that the sense of normality experienced prior to the sudden divorce was a lie, and children from these types of divorcing families may have trouble trusting people throughout their lives. Children wonder how they could have missed the problem that led their parents to divorce and may also wonder if it was their fault.
Betrayal also may emerge as a primary theme when a parent’s dishonesty leads to divorce. If a parent was involved in an extramarital affair that led to the divorce, a child may blame that parent—even years later—for breaking up the family.
Children may ask themselves questions such as “Why did they have to do this? Didn’t they love us enough to keep our family together? Why did they spend so much time with their drinking buddies and so little time at home with us?”
Each of these divorce scenarios is likely to have different effects on children’s relational, academic, and career outcomes as they pass through adolescence and enter adulthood. Research by Paul Amato and his colleagues has revealed that, compared to people from intact families, individuals from divorced families often earn less in the workforce and are more likely to get divorced themselves and experience other negative psychosocial outcomes. Additional research suggests that children from divorced families are more likely than their peers from intact families to enter nonmarital cohabiting relationships as adults—assumably because they either fear the commitments of marriage or do not want to make the same mistakes that their parents made. Many people from divorced families carry regrets about not having more time with their fathers. However, the question remains: What causes these effects, and why is it that not all children of divorce experience these negative consequences?
Relationships Between Parents
The relationship between the parents—before, during, and after the divorce—has a strong effect on adult children’s long-term adjustment. When parents agree to cooperate with each other for the sake of the children, children tend to experience fewer negative long-term consequences of divorce. In childhood and adolescence, the transition from time with mom to time with dad, and vice versa, is easier when the parents agree to get along. Holidays, birthdays, graduations, weddings, and other important occasions are much more enjoyable for adult children when their parents both attend without creating friction, tension, and discomfort.
On the opposite end of the continuum is the divorce after which parents continue their disagreements through their children. One parent may disparage the other parent in front of the child or may even ask the child to participate in the disagreement. In these situations, children are triangulated into their parents’ arguments. Research on triangulation—situations in which a third person (often a child) is brought into a disagreement— indicates that the person being triangulated often becomes upset, having been forced to get caught between two people whom she or he loves. The child becomes the conduit between the two arguing parents and is placed in the impossible position of having to defend each parent against attacks by the other. Being triangulated into parents’ disagreements may be especially harmful for adult children’s romantic relationships, as they may bring the burdens that they experienced with their parents into their own partnerships—and may eventually choose partners who will lead them to feel similarly distressed.
Remarriages by one or both parents can also complicate children’s long-term adjustment. A large body of research indicates that stepparent-stepchild relationships are often less warm and close than relationships with other nonbiological parent figures (for example, adoptive parents or stepparents who have adopted the child). However, relationships with stepparents become more important as the biological parent’s involvement decreases. For example, when the biological father was not actively involved in the child’s life or has died, a stepfather may have been thrust into the fathering role; a similar situation may occur with stepmothers and absent mothers. Adult children in such situations may not even characterize their families as divorced, especially if the biological parent’s active involvement ended early in the child’s life. The adult child may refer to the custodial parent and stepparent as “my parents.” In these situations, provided that the adult child enjoyed warm and close relationships with the residential parent and stepparent, the long-term effects of the divorce and of the separation from the other biological parent may be attenuated.
Relationships Between Parents and Children
The child’s relationship with her or his mother and father will often help to determine the effects of divorce on that child’s long-term adjustment. A child who is close to both parents may continue to be close to them following the parents’ divorce and into adulthood (to the extent permitted by court-ordered or court-approved arrangements), whereas a child who has a poor relationship with one parent may continue to have a poor relationship with that parent following divorce—and perhaps into adulthood. Especially in cases where the parent with whom the child has a poor relationship leaves the child’s household after divorce, the parent–child relationship may be especially likely to be marginalized or severed. In these cases, the poor relationship between parent and child may be compounded by feelings of abandonment, and long-term negative effects on the child’s academic achievements, career, and relationships may occur.
Perhaps more difficult for children to understand or process, however, are situations in which a previously warm and close parent–child relationship is damaged or severed following divorce. The parent who receives primary physical custody— often the mother—may in some cases function as a gatekeeper between the other parent and the children. To contact or see the children, the nonresidential parent must “go through” the parent who has primary physical custody. If the relationship between the two parents is strained for any reason, the nonresidential parent may find contact with the residential parent to be aversive and may begin to withdraw from the children as a result. Children, who in most cases do not understand (or care about) the dynamics within their parents’ marriage, may blame themselves for the increasing distance between themselves and their nonresidential parent. In adulthood, this sense of self-blame and perceived responsibility for the poor relationship with the nonresidential parent may carry over into the adult child’s romantic relationships and career trajectory, with negative self-concepts and thinking patterns such as “I do not know why Dad stopped calling—maybe I’m just not worth his time” or “Mom must have known I was a bad person when she stopped wanting to spend time with me.”
With the introduction of text messaging and of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, parents and children may be able to keep in touch with each other outside the purview of the parent who has primary physical custody—and these communications may help to maintain the parent–child relationship and to offset the effects of divorce on long-term adult outcomes. However, because these technologies are fairly new, their role in the maintenance of parent–child relationships following divorce is not fully understood. We do know, however, that unanticipated changes in children’s relationships with their parents can be quite damaging to children’s long-term sense of self-worth, romantic relationships, and career aspirations and achievements.
Divorce is no longer exclusively a domestic phenomenon. The drastic increase in immigration over the past 20 to 30 years has increased the number of internationally severed parent–child relationships. In some cases, one parent brings the child to the United States and leaves the other parent behind in the country of origin. In some of these cases, the parents were already living apart before the migration, whereas in other cases, the second parent promised to rejoin the family in the United States but never did. In still other cases, a parent may leave his or her family behind in the country of origin and start a new family in the United States. Regardless of whether an official divorce ever occurred, the child is separated from a parent. In all of these cases, the common dominator for the child is that she or he is likely to feel abandoned, and this sense of abandonment may carry forward into the child’s adult relationships and career pursuits. If a parent is left behind and later rejoins the family, the child may still carry feelings of abandonment. Research has found that, when a child was reunited with a parent after a lengthy immigration-related separation, the child may express anger toward the parent for abandoning her or him—even if the separation was not the parent’s fault. Because the child’s perceptions are more predictive of her or his outcomes than is objective reality, the parent’s prolonged absence may lead to compromised long-term psychosocial and relational outcomes.
Age of the Child at the Time of Divorce
The timing of the divorce within the child’s life also can have an impact on the child into adulthood. Generally speaking, the longer that a parent is physically present in a child’s life, the more time that parent has to bond with the child and to fulfill important instrumental functions (such as discipline, monitoring schoolwork, and mentoring) that are more difficult to fulfill from outside the child’s home. If a divorce occurs very early in the child’s life, the child may have few or no memories of living with both parents, and growing up in a divorced family may become a takenfor-granted reality. If a divorce occurs when the child is old enough to understand what is happening and has already bonded with both parents, the child is more likely to be adversely affected. Again, it must be kept in mind that the most important factor is not necessarily the divorce alone but also the child’s relationships with both parents both before and after the divorce, which determine how well the child will adjust—both in the short term and into adulthood.
Some couples decide that, although their marriage is not going well, they will stay together for the children’s sake. These couples remain married until the last child leaves the family home, and then they divorce. Although well intentioned, these empty-nest divorces are often very hurtful for adult children, who wonder why they did not see the divorce coming and may even be shocked that their parents, married for decades, are separating and thus undermining their children’s model of a stable, long-term marriage. Although the children are already grown, the unanticipated parental divorce may lead them to believe that their whole family life was a lie and that they cannot trust their own perceptions and feelings. Similar to unexpected parental divorces that occur earlier in children’s lives, empty-nest divorces may lead to problems in emerging adults’ romantic relationships.
It is important to keep in mind that divorce is not a single, monolithic event. Events preceding and following the legal divorce have a powerful impact on how the end of a marriage affects children’s long-term emotional, career, and relational outcomes. Many types of adult outcomes may be compromised by parental divorce and by the relational conflicts associated with it, notably but not limited to romantic relationships and careers. Divorce also tends to reproduce itself: Children from divorced families are more likely to enter marriages (or marriage-like cohabitations) that dissolve.
In sum, divorce has both short- and long-term effects, but to understand these effects, one needs to understand how, why, and when the divorce occurred and the relationships between and among the parties involved (parents and children) before and after divorce. Only then can the “long reach of divorce” be fully understood.
- Amato, Paul R. and A. Booth. A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
- Finley, Gordon E. and Seth J. Schwartz. “The Divided World of the Child: Divorce and Long-Term Psychosocial Adjustment.” Family Court Review, v.48/3 (2010).
- Kelly, Joan B. “Children’s Living Arrangements Following Separation and Divorce: Insights From Empirical and Clinical Research.” Family Process, v.46/1 (2007).
- Schwartz, Seth J., Byron L. Zamboanga, Russell D. Ravert, Su Yeong Kim, Robert S. Weisskirch, Michelle K. Williams, and Gordon E. Finley. “Perceived Parental Relationships and Health Risk Behaviors in College-Attending Emerging Adults.” Journal of Marriage and Family, v.71/3 (2009).