Intimate Pathways: Changing Patterns in Close Personal Relationships across Time*

By Hetherington, E. Mavis | Family Relations, October 2003 | Go to article overview
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Intimate Pathways: Changing Patterns in Close Personal Relationships across Time*


Hetherington, E. Mavis, Family Relations


This paper presents findings from the Virginia Longitudinal Study of Divorce and Remarriage (VLSDR) describing diverse patterns of intimate relationships and personal adjustment in marriage and following divorce. Both a conflictual, unsatisfying marriage and a divorce were associated with diminished psychological, social, and physical well-being. However, it was the diversity rather than the inevitability of outcomes following divorce that was striking, with most people able to adapt constructively to their new life situation within 2-3 years following divorce, a minority being defeated by the marital breakup, and a substantial group of women being enhanced. Although both marital conflict and divorce in the family of origin elevated the risk of marital instability in young adult offspring, the effect was greater for divorce. Marriage to a supportive, well-adjusted partner by youths from divorced families eliminated the difference in marital instability found for these youths and those from nondivorced families.

Key Words: adjustment, children, divorce, family, remarriage.

Intimate relationships are the most important guiding forces in human development. Throughout the life course the quality of close personal relationships can promote or undermine our psychological and physical health; our security, well-being, and competencies; and the way we view ourselves-whether we see ourselves as valued and worthwhile or as deficient and unworthy.

The family plays a unique role in forming and sustaining intimate relationships; however, there have been notable changes in the family in the past 50 years. As marriages are being delayed, birth rates are decreasing, and maternal employment, divorce, cohabitation, and births to single mothers are increasing, the course of intimate relationships is becoming more diverse and less stable and predictable (Teachman, Tedrow, & Crowder, 2000; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998).

This paper describes intimate pathways through marriage and divorce and its aftermath and how some of these pathways lead to unhappiness and despair and others to fulfillment and often enhancement. It also will describe how marital transitions in the parents' generation effect the intimate relations of their offspring when they become young adults and marry. The focus will be on adult couple relationships and the factors that contribute to their success or failure.

In this paper I address four general questions:

1. What types of marriage are at greatest or least risk for marital instability?

2. What are the responses of men and women to divorce and how do their adaptive patterns shift over time?

3. What are the major factors that contribute to marital instability?

4. What factors contribute to or protect against the intergenerational transmission of divorce?

Virginia Longitudinal Study of Divorce and Remarriage

Because this paper was originally presented as the 2001 Burgess Award Address, it summarizes a wide array of findings and does not present the methodological detail customary in a research paper. All findings, unless otherwise noted, were significant at p < .05, and publications with more methodological detail are referenced throughout.

The content is based on data from the Virginia Longitudinal Study of Divorce and Remarriage (VLSDR; Hetherington, 1993; 1999a, 1999b; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002). The VLSDR was initially designed as a 2-year study of divorce during which the families would be seen three times, because 2-3 years was viewed as the period required for parents and children to adjust to divorce. However, 2 years after divorce many divorce-related changes were still occurring in our families, and family members were showing diverse patterns in coping with divorce. To examine these postdivorce pathways, it became obvious that our research efforts needed to follow the families for a longer period and to enlarge our sample.

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Intimate Pathways: Changing Patterns in Close Personal Relationships across Time*
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