With an Eye on the Children: The Effects of Divorce on Society
Patrick F. Fagan
When parents divorce, at least one of them profoundly rejects the other. Though this rejection is normally aimed at the other spouse and not at the children, the whole family — including the children — is seriously affected.
Among social scientific studies on the effects of non-intact family life on children, research on the effects of divorce is the widest and deepest. Because the children of the divorce revolution are now a significant portion of the American population, a review of these effects tells much about the personal and social characteristics of a large fraction of today’s adult citizens of the United States. The effects of the divorce of their parents are experienced in all the basic aspects of life: family, faith, education, income, health, and citizenship expressed in taking care of the common good. Research shows that divorce is neither a positive cultural phenomenon nor a strengthening experience for adults or children. While the following findings do not describe every child’s experience and every relationship, they do hold in the aggregate at the national level.
Divorce weakens relationships: between mother and child, father and child, and children and their grandparents.
Divorce affects children’s education. Compared to peers in intact families, younger children of divorced parents tend to perform more poorly in reading, spelling, and math, and they are more likely to repeat a grade and miss classes more frequently. They are also more likely to have lower expectations of going to or completing college; on average, they enjoy significantly lower odds of attending college and, if they do attend, of graduating.
Due to its intergenerationally weakening effect, one of the most debilitating effects of divorce appears in sexual relationships: Children of divorce are, on average, more approving of premarital sex, cohabitation, and divorce, and are more likely to say they would consider having a child outside of marriage, while they are less positive towards marriage compared to their peers in intact families. These attitudes can translate to behavior, as individuals from divorced families are more likely to initiate sexual intercourse earlier and to have a child out of wedlock. It is safe to say that the present-day phenomenon of almost 50 percent of first births being outside marriage is related to the divorce revolution of more than a generation ago.
Children of divorce are more likely to face challenges in romantic relationships, in which they tend to have less trust and more ambivalence. They have, on average, less positive attitudes towards marriage and more positive attitudes towards divorce.
Children in divorced families, on average, receive less emotional support, financial assistance, and practical help from their parents. The support they receive tends to be much lower than that received by their peers from intact homes. These diminished supports become more pronounced as they advance into high school and college.
Children of divorce, on average, experience more physical and sexual abuse. They are also more likely to experience neglect.
Divorce may also lead to more conflict between children and their parents following the breakup, especially if the children live with their opposite-sex parent (boys with their mothers or girls with their fathers). Later, as adults, these children of divorce tend to show less capacity to handle conflict.
At the aggregate level, “externalizing” problem behaviors — stealing, skipping school, repeating a grade, weapons-carrying, fighting, substance abuse, and binge drinking — tend to be more frequent among children of divorce. Delinquency is also more common.
Even health may be affected. For instance, children of divorce are more prone to asthma. As young adults they are more likely to be hospitalized, and their life expectancy is shorter by four to five years.
At the societal level, divorce and its analogues — not marrying after conceiving a child and splitting up after cohabiting for some time — are now affecting more than half of the nation’s children. Rejection between parents is hollowing out the body politic. It is weakening America as a nation and as a people. The data speak loudly and profoundly of divorce’s effects on children and adults.
— Patrick F. Fagan is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute at the Family Research Council.
Next Up in the Index:
- This commentary is condensed from the research literature reported in detail in two synthesis papers: Patrick F. Fagan and Robert Rector, “The Effects of Divorce on America,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1373, June 5, 2000, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2000/06/the-effects-of-divorce-on-america?ac=1, and Patrick F. Fagan and Aaron Churchill, “The Effects of Divorce on Children,” Family Research Council, June 12, 2011, http://downloads.frc.org/ef/ef12a22.pdf (accessed June 15, 2015).
- Patrick F. Fagan and Christina Hadford, “The Fifth Annual Index of Family Belonging and Rejection,” Marriage and Religion Research Institute, Washington, DC, 2015, http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF15B28.pdf (accessed May 20, 2015).
© 2015 by The Heritage Foundation. All Rights Reserved.