Divorce is the legal dissolution of a marriage, as initiated by one or both partners. The social acceptability of divorce has varied widely across historical periods, religious faiths, and cultures. Whereas the United States has allowed divorce, under certain conditions, since the establishment of the nation, Chile legalized divorce in 2004, and a handful of other countries still prohibit the practice. Because sociological theory traditionally views the family as a basic building block of society, social scientists are interested in many aspects of divorce. Some scholars view the right to divorce as an indicator of women’s rights, whereas others attempt to explain the social and cultural causes and consequences of rising divorce rates in the United States and elsewhere. Still other researchers examine families’ internal dynamics preceding or following divorce. Accompanying the rise in divorce rates since the mid-20th century have been other changes in family forms, including the rise of single-parent households, an increase in age at first marriage, lower fertility rates and fewer children in families, the rise of cohabitation, and the formation of gay and lesbian families.
Accurately estimating the incidence of divorce is difficult because of the varying lengths of marriages, the related challenge of tracking individual marriages over time, and confusion over how to define a couple who divorces and then remarries. Recent U.S. statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics show that there were 7.5 new marriages per 1,000 people and 3.6 divorces per 1,000 people in 2005, giving rise to the conventional wisdom that “half of all marriages end in divorce.” These rates have remained relatively constant since the 1960s.
Divorce reform was a major concern of the U.S. women’s movement of the mid-20th century, commonly referred to as the “second wave” of feminism. Prior to major reforms undertaken by individual states since the 1970s, U.S. laws followed the British legal tradition of finding one partner at fault for the breakup of a marriage. The advent of no-fault divorce laws made divorce a simpler process by allowing reasons such as “irreconcilable differences” as grounds for divorce.
Advocates of women’s rights pursued expanding the availability of divorce, based on an understanding of marriage as an institution based on gender inequality, in which the woman is the weaker partner and at risk of exploitation, domination, or violence by her husband. Many feminists view marriage as an inherently unequal social institution in which the man has more power than the female because of greater social status, higher income, or greater physical strength. Women have traditionally been responsible for care of the home and children, increasingly in addition to paid work outside the home. Because of these disadvantages, women are more likely than in past generations to seek a divorce or separation. Thus the legal right to break marital bonds emerged as key to women’s autonomy and independence.
Consequently, divorce has become more socially acceptable in the United States since the women’s movement in the 1960s. Before that time, a social stigma was attached to divorced families, especially to divorced women and their children, rather than to the men. Divorced families constituted “broken homes,” a phrase still in use today. Illustrating the normalization of divorce are not only higher divorce rates but also the often positive or sympathetic portrayal in popular culture of divorced men and women.
Regardless of the causes of divorce, its social and economic consequences are a source of concern for both conservative and liberal politicians, policymakers, and intellectuals. Whereas some studies show strong negative effects on children, other studies argue that differences between children of divorced parents and children of continually married parents are overestimated. Most experts agree that children of divorce tend to have more negative outcomes in terms of educational achievement, delinquency and crime, psychological well-being, teenage pregnancy, and behavior when compared with children of “intact families.” In addition, children who experienced parental divorce have higher divorce rates than those whose parents remained married. Experts debate about whether there are gender differences in these long-term effects. Moderating the risks for children from divorced families can be attentive and supportive parenting and low levels of conflict between divorced parents. Despite these protective factors, the period immediately following divorce is stressful for children and can lead to anxiety and depression that typically fade within 2 years. The long-term outcomes of children from divorced families are partially caused by the decrease in standard of living and socioeconomic status after divorce. Households composed of never-married or divorced women and their children are much more likely than two-parent households to live in poverty, a trend sociologists refer to as the “feminization of poverty.”
The debate over whether the negative outcomes of children of divorce stem from family structure (i.e., living in a home with one rather than two parents) or poverty is far from settled. Some scholars argue that poverty leads to divorce as well as increasing the likelihood of negative outcomes for children. Others claim that it is the absence of a father in the home that leads to both poverty and children’s problems. Still other scholars of family life state that it is increasingly difficult for men, especially working-class and minority men, to fulfill the socially expected role of breadwinner. Lack of economic opportunities may thus cause men to leave marriages to which they feel they are not contributing financially. In terms of the effects of divorce, both popular and academic discussions tend to emphasize either culture or economics.
Aside from the question of the economic effects of divorce, the termination of a legal marriage generally involves some process of negotiation over the married couple’s finances. Interactions between husbands and wives can become conflictual about dividing up the couple’s assets and determining whether spousal support (referred to as alimony in the past) or child support will be required. Due to assumptions about gender roles and the actual gendered division of labor among married couples, the husband has typically been the partner required to pay alimony and child support to compensate for the family’s expected drop in income after divorce. With many women employed and possibly the higher-earning partner, the granting of spousal support (alimony) does not always occur and is not always in the direction of husband to wife, although this is still a common occurrence. Child support enforcement varies from state to state. Failure of divorced fathers to pay child support is one of the reasons for high poverty rates in families composed of divorced women and their children.
Custody of children is often another point of conflict during the process of divorce. As with alimony and child support, assumptions about gender roles have been inherent in judges’ decisions over which partner legally becomes the primary parent after a divorce. Because most cultures recognize the woman as the primary parent who takes on most of the parenting responsibilities (caring for children’s emotional and physical needs), the courts typically favor mothers as custodial parents. The famous Oscar-winning film Kramer vs. Kramer of 1979 dramatized this tendency: In the film, the mother was awarded full custody although the father had shown himself to be an exemplary and caring father. Although mothers are more likely to obtain custody, U.S. courts also favor fathers’ involvement in children’s lives and will generally allow fathers the right to visit and interact with their child or children on a regular basis. Despite the rights of fathers to visit their children, only about one quarter of fathers have regular contact with their children after divorce.
One result of the increase in divorce rates is the increase in the rates of formation of stepfamilies. A stepfamily is made up of a married couple with one or both partners having children from a previous marriage or relationship. Although stepfamilies can form after the death of one partner’s spouse, most stepfamilies are the result of a previous divorce. Also, the mother with custody of her children generally remarries, meaning that most step-parents living with stepchildren are men (stepfathers). Step-parents not residing with children tend to be stepmothers. Stepfamilies are more likely to end in divorce than are first marriages, which means that the children in these families may experience multiple divorces in their lives, an experience that some scholars argue can affect their educational and social outcomes. In most states, step-parents who do not legally adopt their stepchildren do not have special rights, privileges, or responsibilities toward the children. Adoption of stepchildren is only possible if the nonresident parent has died or given up his or her parental rights. Despite this fact, stepchildren are often eligible for Social Security or military benefits through their step-parents.
- Hackstaff, Karla B. 1999. Marriage in a Culture of Divorce. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Mason, Mary Ann and Steven Sugarman, eds. 2003. All Our Families: New Policies for a New Century. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Popenoe, David, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and David Blankenhorn, eds. 1996. Promises to Keep: Decline and Renewal of Marriage in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Yalom, Margaret and Laura L. Cartensen. 2002. Inside the American Couple: New Thinking/New Challenges. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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