Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Divorce and Intergenerational Support: Comparing the Perceptions of Divorced Adults and Their Parents

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Divorce and Intergenerational Support: Comparing the Perceptions of Divorced Adults and Their Parents

Article excerpt

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With changing marriage, birth, and parenthood patterns and increasing life expectancies, the multigenerational family has become ever more influential in supporting the family (Bengston, 2001; Pillemer and Luescher, 2004). As many studies have highlighted, intergenerational support may be required when adults separate or divorce (Finch, 1989; Smart; 2004; Thompson, 1999). The purpose of this article is to explore a central issue of intergenerational relations within families: comparing perceptions of intergenerational support when an adult child divorces between the "younger" generation (i.e., the couple going through the divorce) and the "older" generation (their parents).


Two theoretical perspectives have dominated the study of intergenerational relations, hence yielding what Pillemer and Luescher (2004:3) have described as a "dualistic" approach to the subject. Early research on intergenerational relationships was dominated by the solidarity perspective (Bengston, 2001). This structural-functionalist perspective emphasised the idea of a common value system across generations, a normative obligation to provide help, and asserted that individuals seek to maintain unity in the family system (Luescher and Pillemer, 1998). The second major theoretical perspective explored aspects of intergenerational relations with a focus on, inter alia, family problems, conflict and caregiver stress. Such theorists were unwilling to accept that intergenerational relationships were characterised solely by a common value system and argued that intergenerational relations were also orientated by conflict (Connidis, 2001). This would suggest that while parents give some level of support at the time of their adult child's divorce, support is sometimes provided with reservations on the parents' side. In other words, parents may want to assist their adult children at this time, but they may also want to retain a certain distance. The phrase "intimacy at a distance," coined by Rosenmayr (1968:677), refers to this desire to maintain close family relations while retaining some distance. Lye (1994: 81) outlines other theoretical contributions to our understanding of intergenerational relations, but research until recently focused predominantly on the solidarity and conflict perspectives.

While the majority of parents and adult children report their relationships to be supportive, some relationships are a significant source of stress for both generations (Pillemer et al., 2007:776). Pillemer et al. (2007) argue that, rather than operating solely on the basis of solidarity, or under threat of conflict, intergenerational relations among adults revolve around ambivalence. The concept of intergenerational ambivalence was first proposed by Kurt Luescher and Karl Pillemer (1998) as a theoretical approach for explaining intergenerational relations that moves away from the dichotomy of emphasising either positive (solidarity) or negative (intergenerational conflict) aspects of intergenerational relations. In contrast to intergenerational solidarity/conflict, intergenerational ambivalence acknowledges the coexistence of positive and negative sentiments in kinship relationships. Thus, intergenerational ambivalence can be defined as contradictions in intergenerational relationships that cannot be reconciled. Luescher and Pillemer (2004) suggest that "the social dynamics of intergenerational relationship among adults revolve around sociological and psychological contradictions or dilemmas and their management in day-to-day life."


Research has demonstrated that life course transitions such as divorce, experienced by members of one generation, will have consequences for members of other generations (Kaufinan and Uhlenberg, 1998). A number of studies have examined the effects of the adult child's marital status on intergenerational relationships (Gerstel, 1988; Kaufman and Uhlenberg, 1998; Leahy Johnson, 1988; Lye, 1994; Spitze et al. …

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