Effects of Parental Divorce on Adult Relationships
Warren Bowles III
The increasing prevalence of divorce in this country has become a major concern for social scientists. This study attempted to determine what ramifications this trend might have regarding trust for adult children of divorce. A modified version of the Dyadic Trust Scale, originally designed by Larzelere and Huston (1980), asked questions regarding attitudes concerning the probability participants will experience successful relationships or marriage. Other specific questions were included in this study to evaluate the levels of trust between adults whose parents had divorced during childhood and adults from intact families. Survey questions measured attitudes concerning trust in friends, parents, and relationship partners. The results were evaluated to determine if parental divorce had impact on trust in adult relationships. The research showed that participants from divorced families indicated greater fear of being hurt and/or rejected (p = .04). Results also showed that participants in the study who were from divorced backgrounds had less trust towards a variety of intimate relationships.
The increasing prevalence of divorce rates in this country has become a major concern for social scientists. As the divorce rate has reached near 50% in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2002), many researchers have begun to consider the consequences of this trend for future generations. Researchers of children of divorce are beginning to examine the far reaching and unexpected legacy of divorce in our society. Since there is conflicting data in current research regarding relationships of parents and children of divorce, hopefully, this study may help indicate how levels of trust are generalized towards parents and other intimate relationships.
A wide array of emergent problems has been observed in children of divorce. According to many psychological studies, such as those of Zill (1993) and Pfiffner, McBurnett and Lahey, et. al. (1999); children from divorced families have higher incidents of behavioral and learning disorders due to factors such as a lack of parental presence, discipline, and guidance during key developmental stages in life. From a sociological perspective, this may also be in part due to lower education and SES, which limits educational and other financial resources. Children from divorced households have also been found to have poor interaction with their fathers and mothers (Zill, 1993). Family interaction, as a whole, may suffer a permanent deficit of communication, as one parent have to make providing for the family a priority over family interaction.
Children who grow up in divorced homes typically have less contact with the non-custodial parent and as time goes on the parent child-relationship seems to further deteriorate. This leaves a gap in the parental model that serves as the “relationship template” for all future relationships in life. As these children of divorce reach adulthood they have been shown to have problems with psychological well-being and relationships (Franklin, Janoff-Bullman, & Roberts, 1990). Other studies have shown that children who grew up in households with high parental conflict were more likely to perceive their own relationships as being in trouble; a strong explanation for this may be parental modeling (Johnston & Thomas, 1996).
Many psychological theories related to parental modeling such as those set forward by Albert Bandura, (1963, 1977) suggest that parents tend to model nearly all behaviors for their children. Feelings of apprehension towards marriage are due, at least in part, to witnessing parental divorce and remembering the pain that it caused (Johnston & Thomas, 1996). According to the modeling theory, it seems feasible that attitudes of distrust or resentment divorcing parents experience may be transmitted to children and could carry into adulthood.
A positive relationship with one parent has been found to have contributed in a negative fashion to the relationship with the other parent after separation (Hoffman & Ledford, 1995). This may be partially due to one or both parents’ tendency to portray the opposite parent in a negative light. Children may also feel compelled to choose sides during an internal family conflict, while the amount of time spent with one parent has also been shown to contribute in a negative fashion to the relationship with the other parent after separation (Hoffman & Ledford, 1995).
Studies by Zill (1993) and Wallerstein (1997) indicate that, as children, people from divorced parent homes tended to show feelings towards their parents that are more passionate than those of their peers in intact families. These attitudes could be attributed to an increased fear of abandonment and loss caused by parental divorce, which is compensated by increased attachment to the remaining parent or primary custodian. These “passionate feelings” could likely take the form of anger or increased resentment towards the absent parent as well.
Most psychologists will agree that a father is important for the child’s development to instill discipline and other social skills. However, research that evaluated children of divorce showed a more positive relationship with mothers than with their father; in fact, research suggests that often the relationship with the father is endangered (Van Schaick & Stolberg, 2001). Children of divorce also reported less attachment to their fathers and rated them as less caring (Tayler, Parker & Roy, 1995). This can be expected when considering that 89.4% of cases end with physical custody of children being award to the mother (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992).
There are important established gender differences in post divorce environments of children that may explain the differential effects of parental divorce on women and men. Children’s contact with their fathers after divorce is limited, and, consequently, girls and boys have quite different exposure to same-gender modeling and role identification after divorce (Behrens, Sanders, & Halford, 1999).
Fathers’ problematic behavior, and/or their perceived lack of effort, characterized most stories of disengagement. Children who reported difficulties with fathers during the marriage or who had little memory of their father were particularly vulnerable. Some young adults reported relationships with fathers that had faded or disengaged, not because of fathers’ problem behavior or lack of effort, but because fathers had moved away (Arditti & Prouty, 1999). This evidence may suggest that parental involvement may be a more significant factor on the attitudes children develop towards their parents after divorce than divorce alone.
At the same time, too much parental involvement may be psychologically unhealthy. Some researchers have reported that male children become “surrogate spouses” to their mothers, forming unhealthy and dependant relationships of intergenerational enmeshment in the absence of the father. The son too often gets turned into his mother’s confidant, protector, and help-mate. When the mother and son are too involved with and dependent on each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the father and son to remain close (Wallerstein 1991; Warshak, 1992)
Children may be more likely to develop similar problems involving intimacy and relationships modeled through the single mother. Sadly, too many of these sons and daughters end up having trouble dating, establishing intimate relationships, or feeling comfortable with their own sexuality (Nielsen, 1999). Evidence tends to strongly support that parental divorce significantly affects the importance of specific relationship ideals such as affection, passion, and independence (Conway, Christensen, & Herlihy; 2003).
Sons & Daughters
The son is more likely than the daughter to hear hostile, derogatory, comments about his father from his mother- which in turn, often weakens the bond between father and son (Wallerstein 1991; Warshak, 1992). “This in turn can cause harm to the sons gender identification and self esteem… rarely does a boy hold a negative opinion of his father without holding the same opinion of himself” (Warshak, 1992 p.163 &167).
In relationships, men were more likely to withdraw from involvement. A significant number of men avoided relationships altogether. The general overtone for the males was “any relationship I’m in will dissolve” (Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004).
Daughters of divorced parents, on the other hand, have been shown to deal with the absence of a father figure by searching for male companions; they have been shown to exhibit higher levels of promiscuity and have more relationships than males from divorced families. Reduced paternal contact is one of the strongest protracted effects of parental divorce during childhood, especially for daughters (Cooney, 1994).
Long-Term Impact of Divorce
Researchers of children of divorce are beginning to examine the far reaching legacy of divorce in our society. Parental divorce impacts detrimentally on the capacity to love and be loved within a lasting, committed relationship (Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004). Literature regarding the long term effects of divorce on adult children shows that there is a lower sense of well-being and overall quality of life as well as relationship problems for those who experience the divorce of their parents as children (Christensen & Brooks, 2001). Many researchers in the field of marriage and family counseling have found that adults raised in divorced families suffer from a deficit in social skills and had special problems in handling conflicts within their own marriage (Amato, 2000).
According to Zill, Morrison and Coiro (1993), children from divorced families have a higher incident of emotional distress or problem behaviors. It is difficult to determine if this was because of stress placed on the family unit during divorce, distraction from academic school work, or lack of attention and parental involvement was the basis of these disorders.
Evidence is present to demonstrate children who were younger at the time of their parents’ divorce or from families with higher parental conflict were more likely to score lower on measurements of trust and to have high marital conflict themselves (Westervelt & Vandenberg, 1997). Childhood is a key developmental period, thus when parents divorce early in a child’s life the child is likely to miss out on important development models. Furthermore, the younger a child was at the time of his or her parents’ divorce, the more vulnerable a child may be to form distorted beliefs about the nature of his or her parent’s divorce. Many children may tend to manifest feelings of guilt and responsibility for the absence of a parent due to divorce.
Effects on Adult Relationships
Many studies show that family conflict was typically a strong precursor to divorce and lead children from divorced families to rate their relationships as having greater family conflict. Those from intact families reported more cohesion, expressiveness, sociability, and idealization and less conflict than those from divorced families. However, coming from a divorced family did not affect young adults’ self esteem, fear of intimacy, or relationship satisfaction, but it did affect fears and expectations for divorce (Kirk, 2002).
In-depth studies strongly indicate that the attitudes surrounding marriage and success in marriage is transmitted between generations in divorced families. Men and women from divorced families tend to score significantly lower on several measures of psychological well-being and more likely to be divorced themselves (Franklin, Janoff-Bulman, & Roberts; 1990). This trend has the potential to have social impact on our culture because the evidence suggests that adult children of divorce have relationship problems that lead to divorce in their marriages as well, which could lead to a perpetual cycle of this phenomenon.
Perhaps the greatest problem associated with divorce is that it does appear to be a cyclical phenomenon. An estimated 40% to 50% of children born in the U.S. in the 1980’s experienced parental divorce (Fine, Moreland, & Schwebel, 1983). Women who experience parental divorce have a 60% higher divorce rate than their counterparts; while men whose parents divorced have a 35% higher rate of divorce than men whose parents remained married (Glen & Shelton, 1983). It seems clear that people from divorced families are more likely to be divorced themselves and therefore convey the impression that marital dissolution is more acceptable. Amato (1987) states that adult children of divorce feel more pessimistic about their chances of life-long marriage and evaluate divorce less negatively than do other young adults.
Students experiencing post-divorce conflict were more likely to have engaged in premarital sexual intercourse, their satisfaction with their current relationship was lower, and they showed a decline in the parent-child relationship. These adult children of divorce also expressed more difficulty in finding people with whom they could establish relationships (Morris & West, 2001).
Judith Wallerstein (2004) has been one of the leading researchers on the phenomenon of divorce and its impact on adult relationships. Her 25 year longevity study seems to strongly indicate that the attitudes surrounding marriage and success in marriage is transmitted between generations in divorced families. Interestingly, individuals from the Wallerstein study did not indicate feelings of fear of having successful relationships, but felt less optimistic about their chances of having a successful marriage. This study was one of the most in-depth studies ever conducted on adult children of divorce, and illustrates how adult children of divorce have been impacted by the choices of their parents.
The sample consisted of 206 participants, 89 males and 117 females. Of this total, 93 (45%) of the participants were rated as currently being involved in a relationship with a partner (68 females and 46 males). There were 113 (55%) participants that indicated they were not in partner relationship at the time of this study. There were a total of 135 (66.5%) participants from non-divorced family background and 71 (33.5%) participants with divorced parental background. This was very reflective of research that states only about one third of adults from divorced families go on to attend college compared to individuals from two parent homes (Conway, Christensen, & Herlihy, 2003)
The mean age for participants was 20.44 years old. Custodial guardian break down for divorced family participants is as followed; 70% (50) of the divorced family participants lived with their mother, 15% (11) lived with their father, 11% (8) indicated their parents shared joint custody, while only 2% (2) marked some other custody arrangement.
All participants were chosen by randomized availability sampling. Surveys were distributed to various college classes comprised predominately of two or three introductory social sciences classes at a small private Midwestern college.
The survey used for this study was a modified version of the “Dyadic Trust Scale” originally designed by Lazerlere and Huston (1980) This scale has been found to have high reliability when measuring associations to love, self-disclosure and relationship status.
The entire survey was approximately 47 total questions, 4 of which were basic control questions at the end regarding age, race, and gender. The last question was an open ended question that asked how parental divorce had affected the life of participants. This question sought to cover any aspects of the study that may have been overlooked.
The survey took only about 15 minutes to complete, and was easily comprehensible, since most questions were the same dyadic trust questionnaire. But the object of the statement was changed (partner, best friend, parent/s). All other questions were also based on a 5 point Likert scale.
The scale was used in its original format to measure attitudes towards relationships and then subsequently altered by substituting the word “partner” with the words “best friend” and “parent/s” to measure trust to various intimate relationships. These three scales, called the Dyadic Partner scale, the Dyadic Friendship scale and the Dyadic Parent scale were repeated 3 times with the interchanging of the words to measure the same construct of trust as it related to different intimate relationships that were estimated to possibly have been influenced through parental divorce.
The dyadic trust survey was originally measured on a 7 point Likert scale, however, for the purpose of this study the scale was shortened down to a 5 point Likert scale rating system. Answers ranged from never, almost never, occasionally, almost always to always (See Appendix A). The difference between this study and previous studies conducted by researchers such as Wallerstein and her peers was that this study sought to examine the level of trust across various intimate relationships including best friend, and parents, instead of just relationship partners. This study intended to determine how much the effects of parental divorce altered trust in other close relationships. However, despite the overwhelming evidence that parental divorce is detrimental to relationships, many studies seem to indicate that trust and negative attitudes in relationships were not evident until subjects were themselves in a marriage (Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004).
Some questions were specifically designed to measure perceived relationships expectations such as, “How likely are you to have a successful marriage?” and “How likely are you to have a successful relationship?” These attitudes have been consistently documented by Christensen and Brooks, (2001); Franklin, Janoff-Bulman, and Roberts (1990); and Wallerstein and Lewis (2004) to show adult children of divorce do not show significant doubt about the ability to have successful relationships but instead these feelings manifest when the relationship involves marriage. These questions were an attempt to gain insight into beliefs relating to interpersonal relationships
“I fear not ever being in a relationship” is a key concept to the study by Judith Wallerstein, as this statement is the repeated theme or attitude that tends to reflect the overall beliefs of female participants in the Wallerstein study group. Literature also strongly implied that adult children of divorce felt a strong desire for relationships.
The questions pertaining to “Fear of being hurt/rejected keeps me from relationships”, were added to test for significant difference between people from divorced families and intact family counterparts with respect to relationship aversion; since literature strongly supports that adult children of divorce suffer a fear of being hurt and rejected in romantic relationships according to Franklin, Janoff-Bulman, and Roberts, (1990).
The researcher hypothesized that adult children of divorce would have less trust in their close intimate relationships than their intact family counterparts. Hence, if an individual’s parents were divorced then he or she would have less perceived trust towards relationship partners.
This is believed to be the result of having dysfunctional relationship examples set for them. Adult children of divorce, according to available literature, generally seem have lower optimism about having successful relationships and also tend to be more likely to divorce. Parental divorce, for many individuals, still has lingering effect in adulthood that adversely affects opposite sex relationships.
This researcher hypothesized that one of the effects on individuals from parentally divorce families would be decreased trust towards biological parents, who may be seen as responsible for driving one parent away or disrupting the family unit as a whole.
As discussed earlier, many children grow up with an overall feeling of resentment and anger towards one or both parents because of divorce. Divorce often means added responsibility for children, especially if one parent becomes absent in their life. Parents themselves are often bitter towards the opposite parent and too often they discuss these matters to their children who internalize or identify with the transmission of negativity; thus they come to grow closer to the custodial parent, even united in their resentment and anger towards the absent parent.
The experimenter also suspected that gender factors could have some influence on trust regarding parents. Males and females may have different levels of trust towards parental figures because people tend to identify stronger with the parent of the same sex as the primary gender role model throughout life. Because of this fact, the researcher chose to look at how sons and daughters of divorce differed in their attitudes towards parental trust.
It was believed levels of overall trust toward an individual’s best friend would be lower for participants who were from divorced family backgrounds than individuals who were raised in intact families. Due to the idea that children learn most relationships from their parental models, when the relationship ends between a child’s parents they may come to believe that relationships are unstable and thus be apprehensive of relationships even in friendships.
The final hypothesis was that individuals from divorced families would feel that they were less likely to have a successful marriage more than a just a successful relationship. It was believed that they would rate higher on scales such as, “Fear of being hurt and rejected” and “Fear of being hurt rejected keeps me from relationships”. A comparison between “How likely are you to have a successful relationship?” and “How likely are you to have a successful marriage?” might help to further validate previous research that stated adult children of divorce do not show significant doubt about the ability to have successful relationships, but instead these feelings manifest primarily when the relationship involves marriage.
Adult children of divorce, in fact, showed significantly less trust in all three relationship measures. Results for the dyadic partner scale ranged from 8 to 30 (Refer to Table 1). On this scale, participants showed an average lower rating of generalized trust towards their partners of 1.28; with females from divorced families rating the least amount of trust at 1.35 regarding their partners, while males from divorced families rating an average of 1.14 less than their intact family partners. These measurements were shown to be significant at the .016 significance level. (See Table 2)
Table 2. ANOVA
Dyadic Partner Scale and gender
Female Mean N
No 24.91 45
Yes 23.56 23
Male Mean N
No 25.67 31
Yes 24.53 15
Total Mean N
No 25.22 76
Yes 23.94 38
(f= .015, p= .016) Divorce vs. Non-divorced participants
The Dyadic Parent scale ranged from 11 to 28 (Refer to Table 1) and was shown to be significant as well (f= .015, p=.043). Females from divorced backgrounds indicated nearly a 1.88 point scale decrease in their perceived trust regarding their parents than intact their family counterparts. Males from divorced background showed a decrease in trust towards their parents of 3.79 when compared to males from intact families. Overall, people from divorced families show a 2.6 point decrease in trust in relation to generalized trust in their parents (See Table 3).
Table 3. ANOVA
Dyadic Parent Scale and gender
Female Mean N
No 22.14 72
Yes 20.26 45
Male Mean N
No 22.66 117
Yes 18.87 65
Total Mean N
No 22.38 137
Yes 19.78 69
(f= .206, p = .043) Divorced vs. Non-divorced participants
The dyadic friendship scale was also significant in regard to effect of divorce on relationships with friends. Scores ranged form 13 to 28 (Refer to Table 1) for the scale. Females from divorced families showed only a small (.10) reduction in trust levels towards their friends when weighed against females from intact families, while males from divorced families showed a much greater (1.51) decrease in trust levels when compared to males from intact families. As a whole, participants from divorced families showed an average decrease of .49 towards their friend over participants from intact family backgrounds. This was still significant at the .012 level (See Table 4).
Table 4. ANOVA
Dyadic Friendship Scale and gender
Female Mean N
No 22.58 72
Yes 22.48 45
Male Mean N
No 21.80 65
Yes 20.29 24
Total Mean N
No 22.21 137
Yes 21.72 69
(f= 1.28, p = .012) Divorced vs. Non-divorced participants
The researcher was not correct in hypothesizing that participants from divorced backgrounds would estimate their chances of having a successful marriage to be lower than the chance of having a successful relationship. It was found that individuals from divorced parent families felt less likelihood of having a successful relationship by indicating an overall mean score of 2.94 compared to intact family participants who scored an average mean of 3.00. When comparing likelihood of having a successful marriage divorced participant rated a mean of 3.09 while their intact family counterparts rated their likelihood of having a successful relationship with a mean of 3.22, thus being slightly higher than that of divorced background, though this was not found to be significant. In reality, participants from both groups estimated their chance of having a successful marriage to be greater than having a successful relationship.
Using the variable “I have fear of being hurt or rejected” (See Table 5) was shown to be significant between participants from divorced and non-divorced backgrounds. This helps support previous research that suggest adult children of divorce had a significantly higher fear of being hurt or rejected (p=.016) than adults from intact family backgrounds. This is not a surprising statistic considering the previous literature seems to resonate with this underlying theme from individuals that come from divorced backgrounds. An ANOVA was then used to display gender differences between participants. Females from both divorced and non-divorced families showed increased fear of being hurt or rejected.
Table 5. ANOVA
“I have fear of being hurt / rejected”
Female Mean N
No 1.70 72
Yes 2.44 45
Male Mean N
No 1.49 65
Yes 1.25 24
Total Mean N
No 1.61* 137
Yes 2.03* 69
(f= .255, p = .016) Sig. for Divorced vs. Non-Divorced family participants
However, the variable “Fear of being hurt / rejected keeps me from relationships” was not significantly different between the groups. These questions seem to point out that the fear of hurt and rejection alone did not keep adult children of divorce from relationships. It is the researcher’s opinion that this relates to previous research that explains individuals from divorced backgrounds do not have fear manifesting in relationships as much as in marriage. It is also the researcher’s speculation that parental modeling has played a part more so than the emotions of fear and rejection when it comes to the avoidance of relationships.
The study showed significant differences on the levels of trust adult children of divorce feel across a variety of intimate relationships. However, problems with this study are that it is not generalizable to the greater population given the small sample size. The participant group was largely homogeneous, consisting of 93% Caucasians, only 5% African Americans and 3% Hispanic population.
The survey was also given at a private college in the Midwest, where attitudes may be more conservative in regard to religious and cultural values. This is also a cross sectional study that cannot give the depth or show causation of the responses from individuals like a longitudinal study could provide. There is no way to definitively illustrate the causation of attitudes regarding participants’ levels of trust. There may be other spurious factors that could have influenced trust levels of specific relationships.
After the careful evaluation of the research data gathered, the assessment concluded that divorce definitely seemed to have detrimental effects on the attitudes involving most intimate relationships in a young person’s life. This appears to be the result of the parental patterns exhibited by the first and most important models children have in their life. When these models end their own relationships, the child likely internalizes this and feels an emotional reaction that is powerful. This message seems to be “I cannot trust others” or “relationships do not last”. When one parent is absent in a child’s life, as is often the case, or the way a children often perceives it to be, it may be hard for a child to accept any logical explanation for that absence.
It is difficult to establish etiology from this study, but the impact was the same, whether the environment was marked by high pre-divorce or post-divorce conflict or lack of parental presence, children from divorce grew up with feelings that resonate throughout their lives. The result is they feel less generalized trust towards others and they feel more fear of rejection.
This is not to say that these people are doomed or destined to be victims of their parents’ decisions. However, these adult children of divorce may need counseling to deal with parental issues and relationship issues, should problems with trust arise.
This study should have special implications for counselors. Transference issues may become more prevalent in a counseling relationship with the therapist who is working with clients from divorced backgrounds. The therapist may have to work longer on establishing rapport with clients from divorced backgrounds because they have more difficulty with trust. In fact, many times it has been reported that clients from divorced families tend to look for reasons to dissolve the therapeutic relationship once good rapport has been established because they have the attitude that they must escape or leave the relationship before the therapist leaves them (Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004).
It is important to note that in this research, females were found to have more fear of being hurt or rejected. Males, on the other hand, were found to have less generalized trust in relationships. Counselors may want to focus in on these specific areas of difference when working with adult children of divorce. For example, a counselor may focus on helping males trust others and focus on stability or intimacy with females. Counselors must attempt to explore the areas that clients value within relationships and be cognizant that adult children of divorce have likely missed out on some of this in their childhood because of parental divorce. To keep these issues from manifesting within relationships, counselors may want to explore relationship expectations and implement strategies to facilitate open communication in relationships.
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Appendix A. - Dyadic Trust Scale
1) “My partner is primarily interested in his/her own welfare.”
2) “There are times when my partner cannot be trusted.”
3) “My partner is perfectly honest and truthful with me.”
4) “I feel that I can trust my partner completely.”
5) “My partner is truly sincere in his / her promises.”
6) “I feel that my partner does not show me enough consideration.”
7) “My partner treats me unfairly and unjustly.”
8) “I feel that my partner can be counted on to help me.”
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics for Study Variables
Variable Metric Descriptive Statistics
Mean Std. Dev Range
Age (age of respondent) 20.44 2.80 18-39
Race (1=White, 2=African American
3=Hispanic, 4=Other) 1.10 .40 1-4
Gender (0=Female, 1= Male) .43 .49 0-1
Dyadic Parent Scale (11= low trust; 28=high trust) 21.51 3.46 11-28
Dyadic Partner Scale (8= low trust; 30=high trust) 24.79 4.13 8-30
Dyadic Friendship Scale (13= low trust; 28=high trust) 22.08 2.77 3-28
Fear being hurt/rejected (0= Never; 4=Always) 1.75 1.14 0-4
Fear not ever being in
a relationship (0= Never; 4=Always) 1.37 1.24 0-4
Fear being hurt/rejected
keeps me from relationships (0= Never; 4=Always) 1.37 1.01 0-4
Likelihood of having a
successful Relationship (0= Very unlikely; 4=Very likely) 2.98 .87 0-4
Likelihood of having a
successful Marriage (0= Very unlikely; 4=Very likely) 3.17 .94 0-4
Any relationship I’m in
Will Dissolve (0= Strong Disagree; 4= Strong Agree) .88 .82 0-4