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The legal dissolution of a marriage.

The divorce rate in the United States began rising in the 1960s and continued for more than two decades, with a decline in the trend in the 1990s. In 1960 the divorce rate per 1,000 population was 2.6. By 1980, the rate had reached 5.2 and in 1990 dropped to 4.7. This decline continued to 4.3 in 1997. Based on current societal trends, researchers project that 40 to 50 percent of all first marriages in the United States will end in divorce.

Possible factors for the high incidence of divorce include the enactment of "no-fault" divorce laws that make it easier legally to get divorced; a decline in the number of couples who stay together for religious reasons; the increased financial independence of women; conflicts resulting from the growing number of dual-career marriages; and a greater social acceptance of divorce.

Divorce is generally preceded by a breakdown in communication between the partners. Research indicates that marriages may also breakdown because of the manner in which couples argue and attempt to repair their relationship after quarreling. Other factors leading to divorce include alcoholism and drug abuse, domestic violence, extramarital affairs, and desertion. Divorce generally causes significant stress for all family members. After the death of one's spouse, divorce is considered the single greatest stressor on the Holmes and Rahe Social Readjustment Scale, which assigns point values to a variety of stress-producing life changes. Both partners must make financial adjustments—an area of much bitterness during divorce proceedings. Social relationships with friends and family often change, and the newly divorced person will likely face the challenges and insecurities of dating. Divorced parents have to adjust to raising children on their own, adjust or adapt to noncustodial parenthood. In adults, divorce may cause feelings of guilt over one's share of the responsibility for a failed marriage, anger toward one's spouse, and feelings of social, emotional, and financial insecurity. Also common to divorce are feelings of anxiety, incompetence, depression, and loneliness.

Children—who are involved in 70 percent of American divorces— may be even more severely affected than their parents, although this also depends on such factors as custody arrangements and parental attitudes. Divorce often results in economic stress and disorganization for the family. Divorce is thought to be hardest on young children, who tend to blame themselves, fantasize that their parents will get back together, and worry about being abandoned. Sometimes the effects on younger children do not become apparent until they reach adolescence. Children who are teenagers at the time of the divorce are strongly affected as well. In one study, subjects who were in early adolescence when their parents divorced had trouble forming committed relationships ten years later. The effects of parental divorce on children have also been linked to phenomena as diverse as emotional and behavioral problems, school dropout rates, crime rates, physical and sexual abuse and physical health. However, the effects of divorce must be weighed against the difficulty of continuing to live in a household characterized by conflict and estrangement. Researchers have found evidence that of the two alternatives, divorce can be the less emotionally damaging one. After an initial period of turmoil, stability generally returns to the lives of adults and children. Both may function more competently than they did before the divorce and show improved self-esteem. Most divorced people remarry within three years, but many second marriages have not been found to be successful.

The prevalence of divorce has led to a number of prevention programs to train couples how to prevent divorce. Research indicates a small percentage of couples considering divorce seek counseling, usually six years after problems have developed in the marriage.

Further Reading

Fisher, Helen E. Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

McDonough, Hanna. Putting Children First: A Guide for Parents Breaking Up. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Wallerstein, Judith S. The Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study. New York: Hyperion, 2000.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Kenneth John William Craik Biography to Jami (Mulla Nuruddin ʼAbdurrahman ibn-Ahmad Biography