Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Divorce and Adult Psychological Well-Being: Clarifying the Role of Gender and Child Age

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Divorce and Adult Psychological Well-Being: Clarifying the Role of Gender and Child Age

Article excerpt

Substantial evidence indicates that marital dissolution has negative consequences for adult well-being. Because most research focuses on the average consequences of divorce, we know very little about factors that moderate this association. The present study tests the hypothesis that the effects of marital dissolution on adult well-being are greatest for those with young children in the home at the time of marital dissolution. Analysis of data from the National Survey of Families and Households (N = 4,811 men and women married at the baseline interview) supports this hypothesis, especially among women. For women without young children, marital dissolution appears to have few negative consequences for psychological well-being. Differential exposure to secondary stressors that accompany marital dissolution partly explains these patterns.

Key Words: depression, divorce, family structure, mental health, National Survey of Families and Households, parenthood.

Divorce is pervasive in American society, and the evidence that divorce undermines adult health and well-being is no less than overwhelming. Hundreds of studies indicate that divorced individuals are more depressed, less happy, and at a greater risk of health problems and psychiatric disorder than their unmarried counterparts (see a review by Amato, 2000). Because divorce is likely to remain a permanent feature of the family landscape, it is important to understand for whom and under what circumstances it most strongly undermines adult mental health and well-being. Although the majority of divorces occur in the early years of marriage, demographic trends suggest mat divorce and separation are increasing among those with longer marital durations and at later stages of the family life course when young children are no longer present in the home (Suhomlinova & O'Rand, 1998; Uhlenberg, Cooney, & Boyd, 1990). Despite these trends, very little research considers whether the consequences of marital dissolution for psychological well-being depend on the presence and age of children in the home.

In the present study, we work from the divorcestress-adjustment perspective to argue that marital dissolution should be particularly detrimental to the mental health of adults with young children in the home. Thus, divorce may have few negative consequences for those at later stages of the family life course who are experiencing the greatest increases in marital dissolution. Further, the moderating role of the presence and age of children on divorce adjustment should be especially evident among women. We use nationally representative longitudinal data from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) to examine the association of a transition into divorce or separation with subsequent wellbeing while controlling for initial differences in the well-being of those who eventually divorce compared to those who stay married. Because positive and negative affects are distinct components of psychological well-being (Bradbum, 1969; Ryff, 1989) and because men and women may express emotional upset in different ways (Horwitz & Davies, 1994), we examine the consequences of marital dissolution for multiple dimensions of psychological well-being: depressive symptoms, alcohol abuse, and global happiness. We also consider whether differential exposure to several secondary chronic stressors explains differences by gender and child age in the mental health consequences of marital dissolution

The Divorce-Stress-Adjustment Perspective

The consequences of marital dissolution for psychological well-being are perhaps best understood within the framework of Ae divorcestress-adjustment perspective. This perspective draws from the central tenets of the social stress model to emphasize the processes through which individuals adjust to marital dissolution and the factors that moderate and mediate the impact of marital dissolution on individual well-being (Amato, 2000). …

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