The Relationship of Family Structure and Conflict to Levels of Intimacy and Parental Attachment in College Students

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ABSTRACT

Randomly selected college juniors and seniors completed questionnaires concerning marital conflict, parental attachment, and attitudes about love and sex. Results indicated that intimacy was negatively correlated with parental conflict and divorce. Divorce and higher levels of conflict were associated with lower levels of intimacy in students' romantic relationships.

Fifty percent of American marriages end in divorce. Perhaps those most affected are children, with more than one million experiencing the divorce of their parents each year. Parental loss through divorce is a disruption of one of the most significant relationships in a child's life, and it is believed to have negative effects on relationships formed later in life (Hepworth, Ryder, & Dreyer, 1984). For example, adult children of divorced parents are themselves more likely to divorce than are those from intact families or those who suffer parental loss through death (Bumpass & Sweet, 1972; Kinnaird & Gerrard, 1986; Kulka & Weingarten, 1979; Mueller & Pope, 1977).

Many studies have compared children from divorced and intact families (Allen, Stoltenberg, & Rosko, 1990; Hepworth, Ryder, & Dreyer, 1984; Keith & Finlay, 1988; Kinnaird & Gerrard, 1986; Mueller & Pope, 1977; Weiss, 1989). Evidence suggests that hostility within the family has a stronger influence on the child than does family structure (Bishop & Ingersoll, 1989; Long, 1986; Nelson, Hughes, Handal, Katz, & Searight, 1993; Parish & Parish, 1991). Parental conflict has been found to have a negative impact on children's and adults' self-esteem (Bishop & Ingersoll, 1989; Parish & Parish, 1991), educational attainment (Amato, 1988; Forehand, McCombs, Long, Brody, & Fauber, 1988), parent-child relationships (Booth, Brinkerhoff, & White, 1984; Tschann, Johnston, Kline, & Wallerstein, 1990), courtship and marriage experiences (Booth, Brinkerhoff, & White, 1984), and psychological adjustment (Bolgar, Zweig-Frank, & Paris, 1995; Long, 1986; Nelson, Hughes, Handal, Katz, & Searight, 1993). These studies highlight that, for children, parental conflict is detrimental to many areas of development. In fact, children with parents who constantly fight have been found to be worse off than children from families in which divorce brings an end to the quarreling (Weiss, 1989). Thus, the degree of marital conflict may be a more important variable than whether or not the marriage has ended (Booth, Brinkerhoff, & White, 1984; Forehand, McCombs, Long, Brody, & Fauber, 1988; Hoffman & Weiss, 1987; Nelson, Hughes, Handal, Katz, & Searight, 1993).

Research has suggested that the parents' relationship has considerable influence on the child's intimate relationships. Children from divorced families have been found to be sexually active at an earlier age, to have more sexual partners, to be more likely to cohabitate, and to be more apt to marry at an earlier age (Bonkowski, 1989; Booth, Brinkerhoff, & White, 1984; Furstenberg & Teitler, 1994; Gabardi & Rosen, 1992; Hepworth, Ryder, & Dreyer, 1984; Kinnaird & Gerrard, 1986; Wallerstein, 1985). Booth, Brinkerhoff, and White (1984) found that children from divorced families and those from intact but poor quality marriages have similarities in their attitudes toward relationships.

A good relationship with at least one parent seems to offset the negative effects of parental conflict (Amato & Booth, 1991; Forehand, McCombs, Long, Brody, & Fauber, 1988; Tschann, Johnston, Kline, & Wallerstein, 1990). Amato and Booth (1991) found that children who became distant from their parents following divorce exhibited more problems than did those who maintained a close relationship with their parents. In addition, they noted that those who had a close relationship with their parents after the divorce did not differ significantly from children who came from happily intact families in terms of psychological and social adjustment. …