Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments

Article excerpt

Research on divorce during the past decade has focused on a range of topics, including the predictors of divorce, associations between divorce and the well-being of children and former spouses, and interventions for divorcing couples. Methodological advances during the past decade include a greater reliance on nationally representative longitudinal samples, genetically informed designs, and statistical models that control for time-invariant sources of unobserved heterogeneity. Emerging perspectives, such as a focus on the number of family transitions rather than on divorce as a single event, are promising. Nevertheless, gaps remain in the research literature, and the review concludes with suggestions for new studies.

Key Words: adult outcomes, child/adolescent outcomes, demography, divorce, family policy.

Divorce continues to be a major topic of scholarly interest. A search using the ISI Web of Science bibliographic database in August 2009 revealed a total of 1,980 articles published in social science journals since (and including) 2000 that listed divorce as a key topic. Given the large amount of published material, many high-quality studies conducted during the last decade do not appear in this review. In addition, I omitted studies of "informal divorces" among unmarried cohabiting parents. Although a large proportion of cohabiting unions end in disruption, this topic is beyond the scope of the current review. Readers should note that the majority of marital separations end relatively quickly in reconciliation or dissolution. For this reason, most of the research described herein does not distinguish between separation and divorce. This article begins with an update on the demography of divorce. I then discuss topics that have received the most attention from researchers during the last decade: predictors of divorce, associations between divorce and the well-being of children and former spouses, and interventions for divorcing families. The final section provides suggestions for future studies.


Determining how common divorce is would seem to be a straightforward task. Unfortunately, several states do not submit vital statistics on divorce to the federal government on a regular basis. For example, in 2004, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, and Louisiana did not report this information. For this reason, we do not have a complete count of how many divorces occur in the United States annually. Nor do we have an official estimate of the number of children affected by divorce every year.

Despite this limitation, the U.S. Census Bureau uses data from participating states to publish an annual crude divorce rate, which is the number of divorces per 1 ,000 people in the population. This measure is less than optimal because it is affected by the age structure of the population as well as the proportion of married adults. A better measure - the refined divorce rate - is the number of divorces per 1,000 married women. Nevertheless, the correlation between the crude divorce rate and the refined divorce rate between 1960 and 1996 is over .90 (author's calculations), so the crude rate is a useful proxy for the refined rate. The crude divorce rate rose from 2.2 in 1960 to 5.2 in 1980 - a 136% increase. This rate then dropped gradually to 3.6 in 2006- a 31% decline (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008, Table 77). A study by Heaton (2002) found that the rise in age at first marriage since the 1980s and, to a lesser extent, increased education appear to be responsible for this decline.

An alternative approach is to estimate the probability that members of different birth cohorts end their marriages in divorce. Although more difficult to calculate, this statistic has the advantage of being easier to understand than the crude divorce rate. Schoen and CanudasRomo (2006) estimated that the probability of a marriage ending in divorce for women increased linearly since 1910 and then reached a plateau between 1990 and 2000, the final year for which the authors provided estimates. …