Parental Divorce and Interpersonal Trust in Adult Offspring

Article excerpt

It has been proposed that recent increases in parental divorce have inhibited the development of trust among offspring. This proposition is tested by examining whether parental divorce is associated with offspring trust in parents, intimate partners, and others. Data come from the Marital Instability Over the Life Course Study. Results reveal that although parental divorce is negatively associated with trust, these effects largely disappear once the quality of the past parent-teen relationship is taken into account. The one exception is trust in fathers where children of divorce remain at higher risk of mistrust. Trust in parents, intimates, and others is strongly linked to positive parent-teen relationships regardless of parental divorce. Contemporary relationship experiences also influence trusting intimates and others.

Key Words: divorce, fathers, parent-child relationship, trust

Recent decades have been a period of rapid family change. Divorce rates are high as is growth in the number of stepfamilies, single parent families, and nonmarital births. For some youth, these changes are related to low psychological and economic well-being as well as depressed social capital and educational achievement. It has been hypothesized that the rapid family changes witnessed in recent decades, such as the increase in parental divorce, have also inhibited the development of trust among offspring (e.g., Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989), although evidence for this link is limited. This study of parental divorce and interpersonal trust addresses four central questions: (a) Is parental divorce associated with lower interpersonal trust among offspring? (b) If so, are some aspects of interpersonal trust affected more than others? (c) Is any link between divorce and interpersonal trust spurious (e.g., reflect a third variable such as socioeconomic status)? (d) What circumstances before and after divorce mediate or moderate the influence of parental divorce on interpersonal trust?

Recent concern over the possible inhibition of trust attributable to parental divorce stems from recognition of the fundamental importance of trust for both individual and societal well-being. Trust is essential for stable social relationships (Barber, 1983; Lewis & Weigert, 1985). In terms of individual well-being, trust is necessary in forming healthy relationships and the lack of trust interferes with effective interpersonal functioning. Individuals low on interpersonal trust, for example, have been found to be more isolated and unhappy, to be less satisfied with relationships, and to have a negative self-concept (Mitchell, 1990).


Although there is no generally agreed upon definition of trust, one common approach adopted here views trust as an individual's expectations and beliefs about the reliability of others (Hardin, 2001). Individuals can make assessments of the trustworthiness of specific individuals, such as parents, as well as of generalized others (Paxton, 1999). Furthermore, an individual can be very trusting of some people (e.g., parents) but distrust others (e.g., intimate partners). Although trust is relationship specific, it is also likely to be partly dispositional (Hardin, 2001). Individuals who have positive early experiences with others may tend to be more trusting than those who have more negative early experiences when interacting with new people. This readiness to trust, however, will change in response to experiences indicating that such trust is not warranted (Hardin, 1993; Holmes & Rempel, 1989). How much generalized tendencies toward trust contribute to the development of trust in specific relationships, and vice versa, has not been directly established and Holmes (1991) cautions against assuming any simple rule of correspondence.


A number of theories, including Bowlby's (1979) theory of attachment and Erikson's (1963) stage theory of development, focus on the importance of the infant-caregiver relationship in the development of a child's basic sense of trust (Holmes, 1991). …