Family Therapy Trainees' Perceptions of Divorced Mothers: A Test of Bias in Information Recall

By Schultz, M. Christine; Leslie, Leigh A. | Family Relations, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Family Therapy Trainees' Perceptions of Divorced Mothers: A Test of Bias in Information Recall


Schultz, M. Christine, Leslie, Leigh A., Family Relations


The purpose of this study was to investigate marriage and family therapy (MFT) trainees' perceptions of divorced mothers relative to married mothers. We used a recall design in which participants recalled details from a vignette about either a divorced mother or a married mother. Participants were 74 students currently enrolled in five American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) accredited training programs in MFT. Multivariate analysis of variance revealed that participants receiving the divorced-mother vignette recalled significantly more unfavorable characteristics about her than did those participants receiving the married-mother vignette. Implications for the training of marriage and family therapists and alerting mental health professionals to examine their own assumptions and biases about divorced mothers are included.

Key Words: bias, divorce, family, mother, therapy.

(Family Relations, 2004, 53, 405-411)

Family therapists strive to provide competent and effective therapy to people of all family structures. Someone involved in a helping profession so specifically concerned with families is presumed to be open-minded to all families. Such open-mindedness may be critical to developing rapport with clients and creating a climate of hope and growth within the therapeutic relationship.

Yet, therapists may be influenced by the culture of which they are a part. Several studies demonstrate that the general public holds a negative stereotype or bias about divorced families, particularly the children and mothers in these families (e.g., Amato, 1991; Etaugh & Hoehn, 1995; Ganong & Coleman, 1997; Jackson & Sullivan, 1993). In their study of mother stereotypes, Ganong and Coleman (1995) found that divorced mothers were seen as more deficient than married mothers. Divorced mothers were thought to be more unstable, stressed, irresponsible, rebellious, troubled, unfulfilled, undisciplined, bitter, and depressed. Further, divorced mothers were rated as having low self-esteem, lacking values, and being self-centered. The sole positive characteristic in which divorced mothers were perceived as exceeding married mothers was as an independent decision maker.

On top of these negative stereotypes, there has been increased societal debate about the superiority of marriage over other household arrangements (e.g., Noonan, 1996; Waite, & Gallagher, 2000; Waldman, 1996). A major focus of this debate is whether children with divorced parents would have fared better had their parents stayed together (e.g., McLanahann & Sandefur, 1994; Wilson, 2002). Stimulated by research suggesting that children in single-parent households are at increased risk for negative outcomes, Whitehead (1997) criticized society's tolerance for divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and single-parent households. Along with other scholars (e.g., Doherty, 1993; Popenoe, 1996), she asked that society reconsider its tolerance of divorce and the perceived tendency to fulfill adult needs before children's needs.

Not surprisingly, the professional associations to which many marriage and family therapists belong have spent considerable time addressing the implications of this debate for practice. American Associations of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) devoted an opening plenary session at the 2000 conference to a panel discussion entitled "Till Death Do Us Part? Family Therapy and The Marriage Movement." The National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) dedicated its opening plenary session at the 2002 conference to the question, "Is Strengthening Marriage to Reduce the Divorce Rate a Workable Strategy for Policy and Intervention?"

Given the prevalence of these arguments in the media and the scientific and professional literature, coupled with the efforts to promote marriage in recent welfare reauthorization legislation, it is highly unlikely that family therapists are unaware of this ongoing debate. …

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