In sociological studies of the family, the occurrence of divorce is inextricably linked to marriage practices in a given culture or society. As a case in point, this article focuses on social-psychological aspects of divorce in Western culture, examining two issues related to divorce in the United States: perceptions and social interaction. This article outlines three primary social institutions influencing how societies characterize divorce and how these characterizations influence perceptions of divorced persons: religious doctrine, civil law, and societal norms. Four major settings are discussed, in which the social interactions of family members are affected by divorce. Social institutions, and the effect of social-systemic feedback to these institutions via individual attitudes and behaviors, are examined briefly. Questions are raised about similar processes in non-Western cultures.
Keywords Civil Law; Divorce; Marriage; No-Fault Divorce; Nuclear Family; Social Interaction; Society; Stress
Only relatively recently has marriage come to be examined in terms of component factors that constitute differing patterns of behavior in marital relationships. Historically, little differentiation was made between religious, civil, and normative factors in divorce, as social agreements concerning marital bonds were less complex than today. Marital bonds, family ties, and the social norms surrounding marriage and family have become more complex as societies began to differentiate between religious and civil codes of social behavior. Here, we will focus on contemporary aspects of divorce, that is, the dissolution of marital bonds, in a culture and segment of society which is well-known and for which we have the most complete data: Western culture in middle-class U.S. Society.
When spouses divorce, a host of changes affect family ties and interpersonal relationships. To varying degrees, these changes may alter the social, psychological, physical, spiritual, and economic well-being of each family member. These changes may also affect relationships with individuals outside the nuclear family, such as relatives and in-laws, friends, co-workers, teachers, and classmates.
Although the social, psychological, physical, spiritual, and economic factors of divorce often overlap, this article will focus on two questions that primarily fall within the parameters of the field of sociological investigation. First, how do social groups perceive divorced persons? Second, how does divorce affect the social interactions of family members?
These two issues are important because they may contribute to the well-being of individuals in that social perception of divorced persons can overshadow a divorced person's self-esteem and degree of success in personal and professional endeavors. Moreover, the preservation of effective social interactions may be crucial to maintaining satisfactory and productive relationships to help a person navigate through life.
Sociological Aspects of Divorce in the United States
In this section, we will explore two questions related to the sociological aspects of divorce in the United States: (1) how does society perceive divorced persons? and (2) How does divorce affect the social interactions of nuclear family members?
For purposes of a discussion about how divorce affects the social interactions of family members, we will consider a family to be one of the following two nuclear family structures: a mother, a father, and one or more biological or adopted children, or a female spouse and a male spouse without children.
Of course, other types of family structures exist. A family might contain two same-sex spouses, for instance. Other family structures that involve divorced heads of household include persons raising their grandchildren or nieces and nephews. The divorced spouses in these families will often experience many of the same societal perceptions and social interaction issues as female-male marriage partners. However, the history of same-sex marriage is short, and literature and statistics on divorced same-sex or non-parental heads of households are scant. Therefore, these types of family units are beyond the scope of this article.
Society perceives divorced persons through a complex lens that is influenced by a number of factors, including religious beliefs, cultural heritage, and networks of interpersonal relationships.
Whether the segment of society is a broad group or a smaller, more intimate group, the degree of negativity or acceptance toward divorced persons by individuals within a group will often be influenced by one or more of the following three social institutions:
- Religious doctrine or dogma
- Civil divorce law
- Social norms
The following outlines how these three institutions influence some common perceptions of divorce and divorced persons and their family members.
Religious institutions are perhaps the most visible examples of social structures heavily influenced by doctrine or dogma.
Religions differ greatly in their perceptions and treatment of divorced persons. These specific perceptions are determined by the doctrine of a given religion. For example, Roman Catholic doctrine specifies that the marriage contract cannot be dissolved and forbids divorce except in certain, legally necessary cases (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.d.).
The clergy of a specific church or house of worship may exhibit negative perceptions of divorced persons. For example, Deal (2007) describes the experience of a married couple who joined a new church (p. 31). After they confided to the minister that theirs was a second marriage for both of them, he told them to leave his church so they would not "infect" everyone else in the congregation. Eventually, though, the couple did find a congregation that welcomed them (p. 33). Deal, himself a longtime minister to remarried couples and families, explained that ministries that cater to the special situation of remarried couples are a necessary and growing movement within churches that wish to attract or retain divorced members.
The second factor that influences how society perceives divorce and divorced persons is civil divorce law.
In their study of divorce reform, Adams and Coltrane (2006) reviewed media coverage of three newspapers from 1968 to 2005 because newspapers both "reflect and inform public opinion" (p. 28). They noted that during the colonial period of America, divorce resulted because one spouse failed to meet marriage and family obligations and was therefore considered to be a disappointment to the community.
In 1969–1970, California became the first state to institute so-called no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce law eliminated the legal requirement that one spouse in a divorce must assign blame for the marriage breakdown to the other spouse, a requirement that often led to accusations, revelations, and post-divorce bitterness (Adams & Coltrane, 2006, p. 20). By 1985, every state had instituted no-fault divorce legislation (Singer, 1992). We might assume that the widespread institution of no-fault divorce would remove much of the stigma of divorce. However, Adams and Coltrane found that the divorce reform movement that arose from no-fault divorce legislation evolved into marriage reform ("healthy marriage") and that this shift has implications for marriage and family counselors, who are forced into either pro-marriage or pro-divorce positions. And, since media coverage began to focus heavily on the idealization of marriage, it potentially stigmatizes those who are divorced (Adams & Coltrane, 2006, p. 31).
Social norms also influence social perception of divorce and divorced persons. Social norms can be defined as patterns or traits that are considered to be typical in the behavior of a social group, or a widespread, usual practice or procedure.
Hill (2007) contended that originally, marriage was based on religious and economic needs (p. 293). Now, however, she noted, marriage is widely regarded as a loving union between equal partners; when marriages don't continue to provide love and emotional fulfillment to both partners, they fail. The fact that the basis for marriage has changed suggests that the social norms for divorce have changed. Since marriage is no longer predicated on religious and economic factors, divorce need not be limited to those factors either.
Social norms can influence personal beliefs and often incorporate factors such as religious doctrine or personal experience into divorce. In general, most people would probably view marriage as a more positive concept than divorce. However, personal beliefs may favor divorce as a more acceptable status if certain undesirable characteristics such as alcohol, drug, or physical abuse are present in a marriage.
The Effect of Divorce on the Social Interactions of Nuclear Families
Divorce affects the social interactions of nuclear family members in various types of social groups, but particularly in four specific, major settings:
- The family
- Religious organizations
- Work environment
- School environment
The first major setting in which divorce affects the social interactions of nuclear family members is the family. For the purpose of this overview, the family will be considered to consist of members of the nuclear family—which may include the parent's biological or adopted children, step children resulting from blended families, and all other relatives.
The social interaction...
Divorce: The Effect on the Children Divorce, once uncommon in our society, is now becoming more and more frequent, disrupting our children’s state of well-being. Some children of divorced families have long-term behavior problems such as depression, low self-esteem, poor school performance, acting out, and difficulties with intimate relationships. Children with divorced or divorcing parents often have a sense of abandonment, because their parents become too preoccupied with their own psychological, social, and economic distress that they forget about their kids’ needs (Lamb and Sternberg, 1997). In 1988, Professor Jeanne Dise-Lewis conducted a survey of 700 middle school students. The students were asked to rate certain events as to the stress they causes. The death of a parent or close family member was the only thing that outranked divorce (Zinsmeister, 1996). A divorce in the family creates a major life change for most children. Loss of contact with friends, schoolmates, neighbors, teachers, and sometimes moving to a new location may bring a lot of psychosocial stress upon the children, and that stress can be very harmful. Since the divorce boom started in the 1960’s, father-mother divorces have increased at an alarming rate. Today more than 1,000,000 kids experience a divorce in the family every year in the United States alone (U.S.A. Today, p. 8). As a result of the divorce, many children live in single-parent homes. This usually results in a drop in income for the family. Remarriage creates step families. Children often have a hard time adjusting to this new situation. Many of the remarriages end in divorce. As children see these marriages end, they may become more likely to accept divorce as they enter marriage. It seems that the old saying, “staying together for the sake of the kids” is becoming a fairy tale. Parental Actions: Custodial and Nonresidential Children’s behavior, development, and adjustment to divorce is affected closely by the actions of both of their parents. In a typical divorce situation, one parent has custody of the children and the other is considered to be the nonresidential parent. Children whose nonresidential parents continue to support them financially, whose custodial parents are psychologically healthy, and those who can maintain a meaningful relationship with the nonresidential parent tend to be affected less by the divorce (Lamb and Sternberg, 1997). The nonresidential parent who supports the children economically through child support also tends to spend more time with the children. The situation is improved when there is no conflict between the two parents. Divorces do not always have to be bad; in some cases a divorce can offer members of dysfunctional families the chance to escape from family related stress and conflict (Zinsmeister, 1996). When ex-husbands and wives can work through their problems and go on with their lives, divorces can be considered successful. Personal Experience In the United States, about 45% of all first marriages are now dissolved, and in the United Kingdom, 41% divorce within 14 years (Lamb and Sternberg, 1997). Divorces are happening all around us. Most of us can relate directly, or have some friends that have been affected by divorces. Two of my closest friends now belong to divorced families. The divorces of my two friends’ parents was painful for me as well as them. I spent days upon days helping them cope with the divorce related stressors. Today we still have bad memories of those several months surrounding the divorces, and occasionally one of them will have a break-down. Custody and Support In most divorce situations, the mother has custody of the minor children. The children receive support from the nonresident parent. Historically, the amount of support does not cover half the cost of raising a child. In addition, many of the support payers do not pay the full amount of support awarded by the courts (Lamb and Sternberg, 1997). Wage garnishment and stronger support enforcement laws are possible solutions to this problem. Joint custody is allowed in some states. While the idea sounds positive, children of joint-custody agreements often feel that they are constantly leaving one house to go to the other. The child does not feel a stable home exists. When the parents do not have a good post-divorce relationship, often the children will play one parent against another. This can result in unhappy relationships between the child and both parents. Stages of Divorce Paul Bohannon (1970), in (Doob, 1997, p. 142), wrote that a divorce is especially difficult because it encompasses six different dimensions simultaneously and because American society does not yet possess effective means of helping people cope with these experiences. These “six stations of divorce” include: 1. The emotional divorce. The spouses withhold emotion from each other--they grow apart--because their trust in and attraction for each other has ended. 2. The economic divorce. When the household is broken up, and economic settlement is necessary, separating the shared assets into two portions. 3. The legal divorce. In the courts the formal termination of the marriage takes place, along with bestowal of the right to remarry. 4. The coparental divorce. Decisions are made about such issues as the custody of the children, visitation rights, each parent’s financial and childbearing responsibilities, and so forth. 5. The community divorce. Changes occur in the way friends and acquaintances react to the former couple when they learn about the divorce. Like property, friends, too, are often divided, becoming “her friends” or “his friends.” 6. The psychic divorce. When marriage partners break up, an uncoupling occurs, and the sense of self alters. Each spouse must fully realize that he or she is no longer part of a couple. Once again the person is single, and for many this is a shock. These six stations of divorce are the reasons why most parents involved in a divorce forget about their child’s needs, and why a divorce is so hard on a child. There may be situations where a parent or child is in physical danger and a divorce is the best answer. However, it should not be the easy way out for the parents. “Divorce is now the single largest cause of childhood depression. Marital disruption, quite clearly, can wound children for years” (Zinsmeister, 1996). References Doob, Christopher Bates, Sociology, and Introduction, 5th ed. (Fort Worth: Hartcourt Brace College Publishers, 1997), p 142. Driedger, Sharon Doyle. (1998) After Divorce [On-Line] Available: http://gw3.epnet. com/ehost.asp?key=xwBRPG6&site=ehost Lamb, Michael E. and Sternberg, Kathleen J. (1997) The Effects of Divorce and Custody Arrangements on Children’s Behavior, Development and Adjustment [On-Line]. Available: http://gw3.epnet.com/ehost.asp?key=xwBRPG6&site=ehost “Minimizing the Effects of Divorce on Kids,” U.S.A. Today May 1996: 8. Zinsmeister, Karl. (1996) Divorce’s Toll on Children [On-Line] Available: http://gw3.epnet.com/ehost.asp?key=xwBRPG6&site=ehost
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