Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Adult Children's Divorce and Intergenerational Relationships

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Adult Children's Divorce and Intergenerational Relationships

Article excerpt

Among the most dramatic changes in the structure of family life in the past few decades has been the increase in divorce. Marital disruption is more common today than at any time in the past; nearly two-thirds of recent first marriages will end if current levels persist (Bumpass, 1990; Martin & Bumpass, 1989; Norton & Moorman, 1987). While no data have, to our knowledge, been published on how likely it is for middle-aged and elderly parents to experience a child's divorce, the high incidence of divorce implies that it is a common experience.

The impact of marital disruption on divorcees, their children, and divorcees' relations with their children is well-documented (Demo & Acock, 1991; Kitson & Morgan, 1991; Spanier & Thompson, 1984). One might hypothesize that adult children's marital disruption would affect their relationship with parents as well (Cicirelli, 1983a; Duffy, 1982; Johnson & Vinick, 1982), but this impact has received less attention (Treas, 1977). Most of the existing research has used small, nonprobability samples, has lacked non-divorced control groups, and has focused on one dimension of that relationship, such as contact or help given to aging parents. As separation, divorce, and remarriage become more common, it becomes increasingly important to understand their effects on the extended family.

This study uses a probability sample of middle-aged and elderly respondents to examine the effects of divorce on several dimensions of the relationship between the divorcee and his or her parents. We identify effects on feelings of closeness, patterns of contact, and instrumental help both to and from children, both for daughters and sons. We expect gender of the divorcee to play a large role in the amount of contact with or help given to or received from parents, due in part to the fact that women typically have custody of their children. In the next section we will discuss literature that suggests mechanisms through which one might expect an adult child's divorce to have an impact on this relationship.


The predominant view in the empirical and theoretical literature on divorce and intergenerational relations can be characterized as the resource perspective. Researchers expect that divorcing adult children, especially daughters, experience decreasing levels of available time and energy, due to financial constraints leading to higher employment levels, and due to single parenthood. They are assumed to need more help from parents (financial, household, child care, and emotional support) and to be less capable of providing parents with the help parents may need (Cicirelli, 1983b; Gerstel, 1988; Johnson, 1988a; Johnson & Vinick, 1982; Smyer & Hofland, 1982; Spanier & Hanson, 1982). If interaction and emotional support to parents require time and energy (Cicirelli, 1983b; Smyer & Hofland, 1982), this also would imply decreasing contact and feelings of closeness to parents following an adult child's divorce. Some scholars (e.g., Smyer & Hofland, 1982) have projected current divorce rates into the future and expressed worries about the unmet needs of future elderly persons (especially mothers) due to the divorced state of many of their children (especially daughters) who are expected to provide the bulk of support (Stoller, 1983).

While this perspective is consistent with much that has been written on adult children's divorce, there are also reasons to expect no discernible effects due to such divorces. First, while this argument would imply increases in help to children (especially daughters) and decreases in help to parents, it would not necessarily imply any change in contact levels or feelings of emotional intimacy. Help in either direction might increase closeness or create strain, and the net effect on closeness or contact may be null. Second, to the extent that helping patterns are often reciprocal and arising out of interaction (e. …

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