Divorce and Adult Children's Perceptions of Family Obligations

Article excerpt


Family members are an important source of informal support to each other (Brandt, Haberkern and Szydlik, 2009; Grundy, 2008). Many parents continue to play a supportive role in the lives of their adult children after they have left the parental home and started families themselves. Conversely, many adult children provide a degree of care and assistance to their ageing parents (Grundy and Henretta, 2006). At the same time, family relationships have become increasingly complex due to rising divorce rates and subsequent (step)family formation, potentially threatening intergenerational exchange of family support (De Graaf and Kalmijn, 2006).

On the one hand, research has indicated that divorce, either in the parent or the adult child generation, tends to weaken ties between adult children and their parents affecting the exchange of support. That is, support between generations seems to be increasingly defined by particular individual circumstances and dependant on the quality of the relationship (Coleman, Ganong and Cable, 1997; Ganong and Coleman, 2006; Hilton and Kopera-Frye, 2007; Lye, 1996; Pezzin and Steinberg Schone, 1999; Van Gaalen and Dykstra, 2006). On the other hand, scholars have suggested that some family connections may represent a latent kind of social support network that may remain inactive over long stretches of time when all is going well but that may be activated when a family crisis occurs (Bengtson 2001). Seen from this perspective, divorce may put the nuclear family under pressure while at the same time activating wider intergenerational family relations.

This paper focuses on attitudes about family obligations after divorce rather than on actual transfers of support within families. Most research to date has focused on the demography of intergenerational relationships or on behaviours like exchange of resources. Normative and attitudinal dimensions of intergenerational relations merit equal scholarly attention, however (Rossi and Rossi, 1990; Bengtson 2001), for several reasons. Studying attitudes and norms underpinning intergenerational support can give important insights into behaviour and may also help to explain how feelings of mutual responsibility are distributed within families (Ganong and Coleman, 1999; Ikkink, van Tilburg and Knipscheer, 1999). The distribution of such feelings will affect which nodes in the latent matrix of kin connections (Bengtson 2001) may be activated in times of family crisis. From a policy perspective, studying attitudes will give insight into the extent to which policy measures do or do not match expectations in the population. It may give clues about how to connect policy measures with stated preferences: the relationship between attitudes and expectations on the one hand and the actual state of affairs on the other hand will affect to what extent people will feel satisfied with proposed policy measures (Van Bavel et al., 2010).

Using the Netherlands Kinship Panel Study (Dykstra et al., 2005) we examine the relationship between attitudes about family obligations and divorce and re-partnering in either the parent or adult child generation from the adult child's perspective. How are the parents' or adult child's divorce and re-partnering related to the adult child's attitudes towards family obligations? Does the association, if any, between divorce and re-partnering on the one hand and family obligations on the other hand persist after controlling for the quality of the relationship and the degree of support exchanged between parents and their adult children?


Family obligations are culturally prescribed normative expectations based on kinship (Gans and Silverstein, 2006; Ganong and Colman, 1999; Ganong and Coleman, 2005; Lye, 1996; Rossi and Rossi, 1990; Stein et al., 1998). Most research on the effect of divorce and remarriage on family support and obligations draws on exchange theory. …


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