Factors Associated with Relationship Dissolution of Australian Families with Children

SSRN Electronic Journal 10/2008; DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.1703263


This project investigated the context in which relationship instability occurs, by examining the factors (at the individual, and the couple/family levels) that precede relationship dissolution within Australian families with children.The research considers whether mental health problems, impaired physical functioning, hazardous levels of alcohol consumption and smoking are associated with later divorce or separation. Background:The analysis in this paper is unique in that it considers data from both spouses. Data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey is used to take advantage of the household sampling frame that collects data from multiple household members. The analysis is limited to adult respondents with dependent children, considering couples in both marriage and de facto (common law) relationships.Overall, 1,498 mixed-sex couples were considered, having data available for both spouses and sufficient information across subsequent waves to ascertain if the couples remained together or separated. Having identified intact couples with dependent children at Wave 1, the authors contrast the initial circumstances of those who remain together with those who separate or divorce. Of the 1,498 couples: 1,384 (92.4 per cent) were classified as intact couples over the three waves of data and 114 (7.6 per cent) had separated.• The analysis confirmed marital stability was associated with physical health, mental health, smoking behaviour, relationship dissatisfaction, life dissatisfaction, receipt of income support, labour force status, financial hardship, educational attainment, religiosity, previous marriage-like relationships, parental divorce, cohabitation prior to marriage, being in a de facto relationship, and short relationship duration. • The analysis also found that there was significant spousal concordance or similarity for these characteristics, demonstrating the importance of considering how the characteristics of spouses may combine to influence relationship stability.• Couples in which women reported dissatisfaction with their relationship had a much higher risk of subsequent divorce or separation. The effect of women’s dissatisfaction subsumed the effect of men’s relationship dissatisfaction.• De facto couples had a greater risk of separation than married couples, consistent with the existing literature (Bradbury & Norris 2005b). Similarly, parental divorce remained a strong predictor of subsequent own divorce/separation (Amato 2000).• The analysis of health and health behaviours was a focus of this project. While there was no association between alcohol consumption and relationship instability and the effect of physical functioning was not apparent in the multivariate model, mental health (and life satisfaction which was also considered as an alternative measure of the same general construct) was associated with separation/divorce, though the effects were significantly attenuated in the full model. • The final analysis suggested that the effects of men’s poor mental health and women’s dissatisfaction with life were mediated through relationship satisfaction. • Across all of the analyses, there was a strong relationship between smoking status and marital instability. The final multivariate model showed that couples in which women were smokers (regardless of the male partner’s smoking status) were at increased risk of divorce or separation. The authors consider that this reflects the effectiveness of women’s smoking as a marker of social and economic disadvantage and adversity.• Research shows a strong effect of educational disparity on marital instability. Compared to couples in which partners had similar levels of educational qualifications, those couples in which women reported tertiary qualifications and men reported not completing high school had a ten-fold greater risk of divorce/separation. This may reflect two factors:1) Women’s educational attainment may be a proxy for financial independence and, thus, the opportunity for women to support themselves outside of the marriage. This removes a potential barrier to divorce or separation. 2) These couples may experience greater conflict or dissatisfaction within the relationship, perhaps associated with the fact that they are not fulfilling the traditional gendered roles within marriage. • Couples showing the opposite pattern of educational attainment (men with tertiary qualifications and women not completing high school) did not demonstrate an increased risk of subsequent marital instability and, if anything, showed somewhat greater than average stability.• In summary, the project demonstrated the need to look beyond financial circumstances and employment characteristics when considering factors associated with marital stability. These results demonstrate the nexus between social policy, public health and health policy.

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