Young Adults' Relations with Parents: The Influence of Recent Parental Divorce

Article excerpt

The divorce rate in the United States declined in the 1980s after nearly 2 decades of unprecedented growth (National Center for Health Statistics, 1992). This was generally good news, although the level at which rates recently stabilized far exceeds those of the early 1960s. Somewhat overshadowed by these recent, welcomed developments, however, is the continued increase in divorce rates for older couples in long-term marriages. Over 20% of divorces today involve couples married over 15 years (National Center for Health Statistics, 1991). This trend demands new attention to the divorce experience of individuals and families who are older and further along in the family life cycle.

Of major interest in the literature on younger divorcing couples and their families is the impact of marital disruption on parent-child relations. The issue is significant because parent-child relations are a central feature of family functioning, and are predictive of the immediate and long-term psychological and behavioral adjustment of children (see Amato & Keith, 1991; Hess & Camara, 1979), youth (Peterson & Zill, 1986), and adults (Amato & Booth, 1991; Umberson, 1992) from both intact and divorced families. Parent-child affective relations and contact also are mediating factors in the relatively low levels of support divorced parents provide their children once they reach adulthood (White, 1992).

Because of the common practice of awarding sole physical custody of children to one parent, the typical divorce involving a young couple generally is characterized by marked changes in parent-child relations. Such is the case not only for noncustodial parents whose interaction with the child is often disrupted due to physical separation, but also for custodial parents who typically assume the daily responsibilities of childrearing on their own. While the patterns of association and affect that exist between children and divorced parents are well-documented in the literature, what is not clear is whether parent-child relations are similarly affected when parental divorce occurs to adult offspring who are not subject to custody decisions. This issue is the focus of the present study.

BACKGROUND

POSTDIVORCE CONTACT WITH PARENTS

Children's contact with their noncustodial parent is profoundly altered following divorce. Two studies of nationally representative samples of children under age 18 indicate that fewer than one-third of children of divorce have the stereotypical pattern of weekly visitation with their nonresident parent. Rather, a sizeable share--anywhere from 13% to 51% depending on the gender of the noncustodial parent and the particular study--have rare, if any, contact with the absent parent, especially when that parent is the father (Furstenberg, Peterson, Nord, & Zill, 1983; Seltzer & Bianchi, 1988).

Studies of smaller, more localized samples pose more optimistic findings regarding postdivorce intergenerational contact (Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1978; Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1975). Yet, these studies generally focus on children experiencing fairly recent parental divorce, and thereby fail to capture the precipitous decline in interaction with the absent parent that typically occurs over the long term (Furstenberg et al., 1983; Seltzer & Bianchi, 1988). For example, over the 3 years of Maccoby and Mnookin's (1992) California study, the proportion of children not regularly seeing their absent fathers climbed from about 25% to 40%, whereas the same comparison for nonresident mothers actually showed a decline over this period. According to a recent meta-analysis of the divorce literature, reduced paternal contact is one of the most consistent and pronounced effects of divorce on children (Amato & Keith, 1991). Furthermore, data from a large, representative sample of adults also indicate that reduced paternal contact is one of the strongest protracted effects of parental divorce during childhood, especially for daughters, and regardless of which parent maintained custody of the children. …