Later Life Parental Divorce and Widowhood: Impact on Young Adults' Assessment of Parent-Child Relations

Article excerpt

Most research on the long-term effects of parental marital dissolution has focused on divorce that occurs when children are under age 18. This article explores the intergenerational consequences of parental marital dissolution that occurs after children have reached adulthood. The focus is on young adult children who grew up in intact families, but who experienced parental separation, divorce, or the death of a parent after they left home to be on their own. Analyses assess the impact of later life family disruption on the child's global assessment of relationship quality with parents, frequency of parent-child contact, geographic proximity to parents, help exchange, financial transfers between parent and child, and perceived kinship obligations.


The parent-child relationship provides a unique source of support and identity to children over the life span (Umberson, 1992; White, 1993). Relationships with parents remain "defining characteristics of identity" (White, 1993, p.4) for adult children due to the distinctive history of the parent-child relationship, and because children have spent so much of their early existence dependent on parents (Rossi & Rossi, 1990; Umberson, 1992). Parents often remain a critical source of support to young adults as they make the transition to residential independence (DaVanzo & Goldscheider, 1990), or pursue postsecondary education (Steelman & Powell, 1991). They provide guidance, emotional support, and a "safe haven" for young adults in times of need (Aquilino, in press; Johnson, 1988). Strained relationships with parents result in greater psychological distress among adult children (Umberson, 1992). The loss of a close relationship with a parent after divorce has been linked to higher depression among college students (Drill, 1986). In short, the parent-child relationship is of central importance to the psychological and material well-being of young adults (Barnett, Marshall, & Pleck, 1992; Cooney, 1994). Thus, it is critical to understand, from the young adult's perspective, the factors that harm or enhance parent-child closeness and support. Recent research (Cooney, 1994; Pett, Lang, & Gander, 1992) suggests that parents' later life marital dissolution may play a major role in shaping adult intergenerational relations.


This study flows from a life course perspective on parent-child relationships during young adulthood. The family life course approach emphasizes the interdependence of family members' life histories (Bengtson & Allen, 1993; Elder, 1984), and how the life course transitions of individual family members bring about change in the network of family relationships (Elder, Caspi, & Burton, 1988; Elder, Caspi, & Downey, 1986). Family relationships are changed by the behavior and developmental courses of individual family members. This framework can be extended to hypothesize that dyadic relationships in the family of origin remain linked over the life course of parent and child. Change in the marital dyad will impact parent-child dyads; change in the parent-child dyad will influence parents' marital relations. Parental divorce represents a cataclysmic change in the marital dyad. Divorce pits one parent against the other. The divorce process may bring to light many areas of marital conflict previously unknown to the children. It may be difficult for adult children to avoid taking sides in parental disputes and conflicts that occur during or after the divorce or separation. The emotional turmoil and interparental hostility involved in many divorces will be felt by all family members, including nonresident adult children. This perspective suggests that later life parental divorce will have negative effects on parent-adult relations.

The death of a parent would likely have different (and less severe) effects on children's relations with the surviving parent than would parental divorce. The interpersonal hostility often evident in divorce would likely not be encountered after parental death. …