The Effects of Parental Divorce on Young Adults¶ Intimate Relationships: Implications for Counseling

Jane Slomski November 28, 2005

Issue and Application    

Past research has shown that parental divorce creates difficulty for children in their own intimate relationships when they reach adulthood To what extent is this true and what can be done to help couples with concerns about their own marital stability? Application: People who come from religious backgrounds have difficulty seeking help from their spiritual communities Provide awareness and education

Attachment Theory 

Bowlby¶s attachment theory:
Ability to form lasting adult relationships depends on attachment to adults in childhood  Secure attachment = supportive, encouraging parents who set boundaries and realistic expectations  Insecure attachment = overprotective, unrealistic expectations; foster dependence in children; children more likely to be in unhealthy, insecure, dependent relationships 

Divorce and Attachment 


Hayashi & Strickland: Divorce as an Attachment Disruption Hypothesis: Children who experience parental divorce will fare worse because attachment to parental figures is disrupted by trauma of divorce Found that divorce itself not a factor in attachment to parents A healthy relationship with at least one parental figure (not necessarily biological) during divorce allowed for healthy resolution of divorce experience Love & Murdock: Intact and stepfamilies have same need for attachment and stepparents can satisfy need for attachment

Integration of Divorce Experience  

Shulman et. al: ³integration´ occurs when one can look back on experience with insight and acknowledge reality while looking forward to future Children with ³integrated´ perception of parents¶ divorce reported positive experiences, fulfilling relationships and better self esteem than those who were not ³integrated.´ (Inability to remember details, denial; of parents¶ divorce linked to insecurity and lack of trust in relationships)

Divorce & Trust 

Past research has found parental divorce related to general lack of trust in intimate relationships Need for commitment and attachment may lead to unhealthily dependent relationships King: Secure attachment cannot exist without trust Effects of divorce on trust not significant if secure attachment to at least one adult in childhood More likely to form close relationships with mothers

InterInter-Parental Conflict  


Riggio: Adults who report high level of conflict in parents¶ marriages also report lower levels of satisfaction with own intimate relationships Have seen parents¶ marriages fail Bring maladaptive conflict resolution styles to own relationships Feel less anxiety about entering relationship (possibly due to more realistic expectations and recognition of divorce as an option?) (contrary to other research) May be hyper-vigilant about conflict in own hyperrelationship

Divorce During Adolescence  

Richardson & McCabe: children whose parents divorced during their adolescence reported more stress, anxiety, depression, fewer social interactions, and lower self concept than those in intact families ³Spillover´ effect- conflict from parents spills effectover into young adults¶ own relationships Did not have significant effect on opposite sex relations; teenagers may rely more on outside sources for emotional support

Implications for Young Adults¶ Intimate Relationships 

Wolfinger: inter-generational transmission theoryintertheorychildren of divorced parents are more likely to marry other children also from divorced parents Family structure homogamy- we form families similar to homogamythe ones we were raised in Spouses who were both raised in divorced households have increased chances of divorce themselves Bring maladaptive communication skills learned from parents to own marriage Marrying young = not adequate time to develop effective communication skills ACD more likely to marry young; in search of commitment and acceptance

Relationship Ideals   

Conway et al: compared relationship ideals of intimacy and loyalty vs. passion between adult children of divorce and children from intact families ACDACD- rated intimacy/loyalty higher than those from intact families as a whole; affection, stability, commitment, support, acceptance Male ACD rated more ideals higher as a whole than males from intact families

Religion & Divorce 

There is a widespread need for education about and understanding of divorce in religious communities Clergy leaders report feeling inadequately prepared to counsel those having marital difficulties Many religious sects discourage divorce to the point that those having marital problems are ashamed to ask for help People are unaware of the many resources available to them Experience depression, anxiety, isolation, despair Feel rejected by religious community that was previously a source of support Important for counselors to be sensitive the importance of spirituality in the lives of their clients 


Marriage Counseling Steps 

Couples counseling should focus on tackling problems as a team, not on the couple as individuals View problems as separate from the relationship Focus on strengths of each person and how strengths can contribute to solving the problem; emphasize intimacy, trust and teamwork
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

Set common goals/ remove individual blame Realize that the problem is solvable Come up with a solution Make mutual commitment to long term change Enact the solution behavior; solve the problem Maintain the behavior; backtrack if necessary Address how to solve problems in the future

PREP (Preventative Relationship Enhancement Program) 

Works with both secular and religious groups Equal success with both lay and clergy leaders Basic premise: harmful interaction patterns that threaten the security of the spousal relationship can be changed (criticism) Makes people aware of these patterns and how they can avoid and conquer marital problems before they head for divorce Couples who participated in PREP reported fewer negative interactions and more positive interactions than those in other secular marriage counseling programs


Parental divorce does not necessarily mean divorce is inevitable for children High quality attachment to adult figure is correlated with better outcome of divorce for children Trust is correlated with secure attachment InterInter-parental conflict is significant to psychological adjustment but may be lessened by social influences outside the home There is a tendency to form families like those we were raised in; children of divorce tend to marry each other; promote maladaptive behaviors



Communication; discussion PrePre-marital or marital counseling 

Religious organizations can be better prepared to help couples with problems Support those considering divorce in religious communities 

No shame in asking for help Early intervention might cut down on number of divorces