The Relationship of Family Structure and Family Conflict to Adjustment in Young Adult College Students

By Nelson, Wendy L.; Hughes, Honore M. et al. | Adolescence, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

The Relationship of Family Structure and Family Conflict to Adjustment in Young Adult College Students


Nelson, Wendy L., Hughes, Honore M., Handal, Paul, Katz, Barry, Searight, H. Russell, Adolescence


The relationship between family structure and child adjustment has been widely studied. The literature on divorce of the past 50 years contains dozens of studies of the relationship between family structure and various measures of child adjustment and psychological health. Some of the more frequently examined constructs include self-concept and self-esteem (Berg & Kelly, 1979; Boyd, Nunn, & Parish, 1983; Johnson & Hutchinson, 1988; Kanoy, Cunningham, White, & Adams, 1984; Landis, 1962; Parish & Dostal, 1980; Parish & Nunn, 1981; Parish & Parish, 1983; Raschke & Raschke, 1979; Saucier & Ambert, 1986; Schnayer & Orr, 1988), academic performance (Dancy & Handal, 1984; Guidubaldi, Cleminshaw, Perry, Nastasi, & Lightel, 1986; Hess & Camara, 1979; Landis, 1962; Saucier & Ambert, 1986), social adjustment (Enos & Handal, 1986; Guidubaldi et al., 1986; Heath & Lynch, 1988; Landis, 1962), ego identity (Grossman, Shea, & Adams, 1980), family concept (Isaacs & Levin, 1984; Rozendal, 1983), and general psychological adjustment and well-being (Cooney, Smyer, Hadestad & Klock, 1986; Dancy & Handal, 1984; Enos & Handal, 1986, 1987; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1985; Kulka & Weingarten, 1979; Lopez, Campbell, & Watkins, 1988; Pett, 1982; Rosen, 1979; Wallerstein, 1985; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1979). In general, the results of these studies have been inconclusive. The discrepant findings of many of these studies may be due to a number of factors: poor study design, study instruments of questionable reliability and validity, differences in the demographics of the study populations, differences in subject recruitment, and different statistical analytic techniques. In addition, because many studies of divorced, single-parent families fail to include a comparison cohort of intact and/or reconstituted families, as well as fail to address the issue of sample size, Type II error is a potential problem.

In 1957, Nye suggested that the crucial factor in child adjustment was the "sociopsychological success or failure of the family" rather than its structural intactness. He observed that adolescents from "broken" homes (i.e., those who did not live with their original parents) "show less psychosomatic illness, less delinquent behavior, and better adjustment to parents than do adolescents from unhappy unbroken homes," and concluded that the traditional view of broken homes needed to be reconsidered. The idea that perceived unhappiness in the family was a potentially important correlate of adjustment was further investigated by Landis (1960, 1962), who found that an unhappy marriage was more disturbing to children than divorce. In a study of college students from divorced families, Landis (1960) reported that of the students who could remember what their home life was like prior to divorce, those who remembered their homes to be happy experienced more trauma than did those who saw their homes as characterized by parental conflict. Building on the work of Nye and Landis, Raschke and Raschke (1979) investigated the possible interactive effects of family structure and perceived family conflict on children's self-concept. One of the major conclusions of their study was that family structure was not associated with self-concept; rather, self-concept appeared to be related to perceived family conflict.

Emery (1982) studied the relationship between marital turmoil and child behavior, and proposed that "interparental conflict, not separation, may be the principal explanation for the association found between divorce and continuing childhood problems." This view was further developed by Dancy and Handal (1984), Enos and Handal (1986), and Slater and Haber (1984), whose work lends support to the psychological-wholeness model. This model views family conflict as the crucial variable affecting child adjustment. In contrast, the physical-wholeness model views divorce and the physical disruption of the intact family unit as the critical variable. …

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