University of Central Florida Undergraduate Research Journal - Positive Outcomes of Divorce: A Multi-Method Study on the Effects of Parental Divorce on Children
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Literature Review

Effects of Parental Divorce on Relationship Formation and Maintenance

Most research on parental divorce focuses on the negative effects of divorce on children, teenagers, and young adults. Previous research has shown that children of divorce often experience a change in their views towards intimate relationships (boyfriend, girlfriend, romantic partner, etc.), which in turn may cause them to become either more nervous or wary of these relationships and unsure of their ability to successfully manage one (Cartwright 2008). Previous research has found that children of divorce experience pessimistic outlooks/ feelings (towards themselves and future intimate relationships) and low reports of self-esteem as well as outcomes on areas such as academic performance, familial relationships, and performance in everyday functioning (Carlson 2006; Cartwright 2008; Scabini and Cigoli 2008; Sever, Guttmann, and Lazar 2008). Qualitative studies have depicted children of divorce as experiencing painful emotional states (i.e. anger, suspicion, jealousy, etc.) as well as observing significant decreases in their levels of self-worth, trust, and communication with their peers (Cartwright 2008; Scabini and Cigoli 2008). Scabini and Cigoli (2008), for example, found that males from divorced families would often develop a fear of being unable to maintain a healthy relationship with their spouse and future children. Likewise, in Cartwright's (2008) study, the majority of her 40 participants, young adults from New Zealand aged 19-29, reported having negative beliefs about themselves and their outlook on life:

Some of the potentially negative beliefs they expressed were: no one stays around forever; you are on your own in life; relationships are short-lived; everyone goes their own way sooner or later; no one is going to be there for you; relationships are a struggle; men only want sex; no one loves me; I'm going to end up divorced; I am not up to scratch; I've got problems; I am too emotional; I get sick of guys easily; I don't want to start something if it's going to be a waste of time; I'm like my father (who was abusive); I wouldn't be able to sustain being nice (Cartwright 2008:140).

Despite these findings, however, some studies report positive outcomes as well. Sever et al. (2008), in their study of 158 Israeli young adults whose parents divorced while they were adolescents, explored the possibility of post-divorce growth by examining separate aspects of divorce (family atmosphere before the divorce, the divorce process) via interviews and questionnaires in order to search for possible positive outcomes of parental divorce among Israeli young adults and organize them based on the type and strength of their relationships amongst each other. Their findings indicated that while many of the participants experienced negative outcomes, nearly half reported that their method of coping with their parents' divorce resulted in more positive than negative outcomes. Of the coping styles used by the participants, reciprocal support, or the act of establishing a two-way support system between offspring and parents, yielded the best results in terms of positive long-term outcomes. By implementing a give-and-take structure, the participants were able to communicate their needs and insecurities properly, as well as effectively determine reliable sources of support while at the same time becoming more aware of the needs of others (not just including their parents) and obtain the skills necessary to provide such support. This support coping style was found to be strongly correlated to three factors, each representing a central theme of positive outcomes: empowerment (defined as a subjective sense of growth, strength, and maturity), empathy (an increased feeling of compassion for the pain of others), and relationshipsavviness (acknowledging the complexity of intimate relationships and having realistic expectations of them). Participants who reported primarily using the support coping style experienced a greater sense of responsibility, maturity, self-confidence, and inner strength, as well as a higher acceptance of their parents' choices, weaknesses, and strengths. These ultimately contributed to the participants' understanding of intimate relationships, helping them to make peace with their parents' divorce as well as giving them an increased sense of commitment for their own relationships (Sever et al. 2008).

Many instances of previous parental divorce research based their findings of negative effects on crude correlations between the parents' marital status (divorced versus married) and indicators of children's wellbeing (i.e. self-esteem, academic performance, etc.). However, researchers have examined these relationships using new methods and have found that variation in such indicators exists independent of the parents' marital status (Bernstein 2012). In Bernstein's survey of 45 university students, she reports that there is no causal relationship between parental divorce and attachment insecurity, depression, or low self-esteem; rather, the problematic beliefs surrounding parental divorce, particularly fear of abandonment, had a higher likelihood of increasing risk for insecure romantic attachment in children of divorce. This finding suggests that it is the individual's experience and interpretation of the divorce, rather than the divorce itself, that influences outcomes with regards to romantic attachment. Additionally, Bernstein (2012) also found that young adults of divorce possess more sympathy (possibly as part of a supportive coping mechanism), enthusiasm (believed to be a result of motivation encouraged by the stressful experience of the divorce), awe (experiencing a greater sense of gratitude and appreciation towards relationships), and perspective taking than did young adults with continuously married parents.

Additional Factors Affecting Outcomes

In 2003, Kim Leon published an extensive review of the existing literature on parental divorce and early childhood development in order to determine how parental divorce affects young children's developmental outcomes, risk and protective factors influencing adaptation, and how early parental divorce affects later adjustment. Upon examining the methods and results of several articles, Leon concluded that these findings were not grounded in adequate interpretations:

Although several studies report negative long- term effects of parental divorce on children, the results should be interpreted cautiously for several reasons. First, the role of other family factors such as parenting quality has not been examined in much of the research on the long-term effects of parental divorce. Second, it is possible that the children whose parents divorced would have experienced the same negative outcomes, or more problems, had their parents remained married. Although many of the studies reviewed here are longitudinal studies, they rely on correlational methods rather than experimental methods, so it is not possible to infer a causal relationship between early parental divorce and later outcomes (Leon 2003:267).

In other words, the effects of divorce depend on factors external to the divorce itself. In addition to coping styles and attitude, mentioned earlier, studies on the effects of parental divorce on children report that young adults may experience and internalize their parents' divorce differently depending on their gender (Scabini and Cigoli 2008). For instance, young men tended to view an absent father as an absent role model while females perceived him more as the absent partner of their mother. This, in turn, developed in the male mind as a fear of turning into their father, which could mean becoming abusive or negligent towards their spouses and children. Males identified with the parent of the same gender and, without a proper role model, became fearful that such undesirable traits were innate. Young women, on the other hand, were more likely to focus on the importance of finding a reliable partner. For them, the excessive maternal presence reinforced the need for stability and unity in a familial setting (Scabini and Cigoli 2008).

Amato et al. (2011) found that young adults and children displayed the fewest behavioral problems as well as the closest relationship with their fathers, who usually are the nonresidential parent, when their parents maintained a cooperative relationship following the divorce. Using data on the relationship between children and their biological fathers from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Carlson (2006) revealed several findings pertaining to paternal involvement. First, father involvement, independent of other examined mediating factors (such as maternal involvement and mental health, number of siblings, and economic status), reduced the size and significance of family structure effects (i.e. single parents, children born outside the marriage) on adolescent behavioral outcomes. Second, despite the implications of gender socialization theory, which suggest that a father's involvement would have a greater impact on the son's life than the daughter's, the benefits of high-quality father involvement mentioned above apply equally to both boys and girls. Third, while continual nonresidential father involvement is important and beneficial, it is more important that the residential father (in the event that the mother remarries, cohabits, etc.) be actively involved in the children's lives as it promotes the social capital of the family necessary to maintaining a safe and nurturing environment. Granted, this last point only applies to a select group of divorced families, as does the success of nonresidential father involvement, since only about 10- 18 percent of nonresident fathers devote a significant amount of time to their children (Carlson 2006).

In sum, phenomena surrounding the effects of parental divorce on children are complex and have been obscured or overloaded by those who see this issue only in black and white terms. The current study answers the call of recent researchers who argue that the studies of parental divorce and its effects on children ought to be reevaluated in order to examine it from different angles (Sever et al. 2008). Amato and colleagues (2011) believe that a reevaluation of divorce studies using more current data (most studies use data from the 1990s) would provide more evidence in favor of the positive outcomes on children, given that divorce has become increasingly destigmatized. The present study uses current data (2013) to explore how young adults perceive the effects of their parents' divorces, taking into account factors such as gender and parental relationships.

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