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Parent–Child Relationships in the Context of a Mid to Late-Life Parental Divorce

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Abstract

There has been much research on the influence of parental divorce on children, but less is known about whether and how a later-life parental divorce influences the lives of adult children. Through qualitative interviews with 40 adult children of divorce—those whose parents divorced after they were 18 years of age— parent–adult child relationships were explored to determine if a mid- to late-life parental divorce affects the parent–child relationship. About half of the adult children reported a change to a negative relationship with one or both parents during the initial stages of the divorce. In addition, many discussed how their relationships with their parents evolved over time.
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Parent–Child Relationships in the Context
of a Mid- to Late-Life Parental Divorce
Joleen Loucks Greenwood
a
a
Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Kutztown University of
Pennsylvania, Kutztown, Pennsylvania, USA
To cite this article: Joleen Loucks Greenwood (2012): Parent–Child Relationships in the Context of a
Mid- to Late-Life Parental Divorce, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 53:1, 1-17
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Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 53:1–17, 2012
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ISSN: 1050-2556 print/1540-4811 online
DOI: 10.1080/10502556.2012.635959
Parent–Child Relationships in the Context
of a Mid- to Late-Life Parental Divorce
JOLEEN LOUCKS GREENWOOD
Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania,
Kutztown, Pennsylvania, USA
There has been much research on the influence of parental divorce
on children, but less is known about whether and how a later-life
parental divorce influences the lives of adult children. Through
qualitative interviews with 40 adult children of divor ce—those
whose parents divorced after they were 18 years of age—
parent–adult child relationships were explored to determine if a
mid- to late-life parental divorce affects the parent–child rela-
tionship. About half of the adult children reported a change to
a negative relationship with one or both parents during the ini-
tial stages of the divorce. In addition, many discussed how their
relationships with their parents evolved over time.
KEYWORDS adult children of divorce, intergenerational rela-
tionships, mid- to late-life parental divor ce, parent–child
relationships
Since the early 1990s, there has been an increase in research on the phe-
nomenon of mid- to late-life parental divorce, occurring when children are
18 years or older. Researchers have shown that although there are some
consequences experienced by all children of divorce, the experience is dif-
ferent depending on the age of the children at the time of the divorce.
Previous research has tended to minimize the negative effects of such a
marital dissolution on adult children of divorce (ACD), assuming that con-
sequences are minimal because these children are in the process of leaving
I thank Glenna Spitze for her comments and suggestions on drafts of this article and her
overall assistance with the preparation of this article.
Address correspondence to Joleen Loucks Greenwood, Department of Anthropology and
Sociology, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Old Main 459, P.O. Box 730, Kutztown, PA
19530, USA. E-mail: greenwoo@kutztown.edu
1
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2 J. L. Greenwood
the parental home, completing their education, entering the workforce, and
beginning their own marriages and families. Further, ACD have presumably
achieved a level of ego maturity that enables them to cope satisfactorily
with this change in their family system. However, others argue that it is pre-
cisely because the transition to adulthood for these ACD is such a complex
and challenging time that research in this area is needed (Cooney, 1994;
Pett, Lang, & Gander, 1992). Furthermore, some researchers such as Cooney
(1988, 1994) argue that ACD have a difficult time dealing with their parents’
divorce because of the complexities of this stage in life.
Much of the r esearch on mid- to late-life parental divorce compares the
experience of ACD to children whose parents divorced during childhood or
adolescence, as opposed to adulthood. Although mid- to late-life parental
divorce is a fairly new research topic to the family sociology literature, there
have been a number of studies on this phenomenon both quantitative and
qualitative. Much of the research focuses on issues such as how this family
situation impacts family holidays and rituals, adult children’s own lives, and
help exchange between parents and adult children. An underlying theme
concerning how family life changes after a mid- to late-life parental divorce
is the altered parent–child relationship.
Although there is much research on the effects of parental divorce on
children and on intergenerational relationships, there is a lack of research
that specifically focuses on the processes involved when intergenerational
relationships are altered due to a mid- to late-life parental divorce. The
primary interest of this study was to gain insight into the viewpoint of the
ACD and their perceptions as to how and in what ways the relationship with
their parents has changed. The life course perspective was used to consider
how a mid- to late-life parental divorce might influence the parent–child
relationship throughout their adult life course. Specifically, the focus of this
article is on the ACD’s perception of the parental divorce and i ts influence
on the parent–child relationship, while making connections to other events
that were going on in their adult lives before, during, and after the parental
divorce.
BACKGROUND
Intergenerational relationships are an important part of family life. Much like
any relationship, the relationships one has with his or her parents change
over time. A parental divorce is a family event that can threaten the parent–
child relationship. Previous research has provided evidence that parent–child
relationships are often negatively affected by a parental divorce, regardless
of the age of the children at the time of the divorce (Booth & Amato,
1994; Campbell, 1995; Cooney, 1988). There have been numerous stud-
ies that have looked at the impact of a parental divorce on parent–child
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Parent–Child Relationships and Parental Divorce 3
relationships (Aquilino, 1994a; Booth & Amato, 1994; Cooney & Uhlenberg,
1990; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1982; Rossi & Rossi, 1990). Most of these
studies reach the same conclusion: Both the mother–child and father–child
relationships are negatively affected by a parental divorce; however, the
mother–child bond is more resilient, whereas the father–child bond is more
vulnerable (Booth & Amato, 1994). The explanation given for the gender
difference has to do with custody issues, as mothers usually retain custody.
Based on these findings, researchers studying the impact of a mid- to
late-life parental divorce on adult children were interested in finding out
if the parent–adult child relationships are similarly affected (Arditti, 1999;
Cooney, 1994; Cooney, Smyer, Hagestad, & Klock, 1986; Lang & Pett, 1992;
Pett et al., 1992). Interestingly, the findings are indeed similar, even though
there are no custody issues involved because the children in these stud-
ies are young adults. The exception was Cooney’s first study based on a
sample of college students (Cooney et al., 1986). They found some of the
ACD reported positive changes in the parent–child relationships following
the divorce, such as increased communication, greater understanding and
mutual respect, and a relaxation of the parent–child roles (Cooney et al.,
1986). However, there were still ACD who reported negative changes in
the parent–child relationships, with the father–child bond being most neg-
atively affected and the mother–child bond being most resilient (Cooney
et al., 1986).
The research on the effects of mid- to late-life parental divorce on
young adult children has grown in the past decade. Although the findings
from these studies have contributed greatly to an understanding of how
the parent–young adult child relationship is affected by a mid- to late-life
parental divorce, there are limitations. A majority of the studies that assess
the parent–child relationship are quantitative in nature (Amato & Booth,
1996; Aquilino, 1994a, 1994b; Booth & Amato, 1994; Cooney, 1988, 1994).
Although quantitative methodology has provided statistical evidence to sup-
port the notion that the parent–child relationship is affected by a mid- to
late-life parental divorce, the numbers do not give a complete picture of the
story. For instance, many researchers find that the parent–child relationship
is negatively affected, especially for fathers; however, it is unknown why the
parent–child relationship has changed or in what ways it has changed.
The fewer qualitative studies on the effects of mid- to late-life parental
divorce give a more in-depth understanding of the ways that the parent–
child relationships are affected; however, there are limitations with these
studies as well (Arditti, 1999; Bonkowski, 1989; Fintushel & Hillard, 1991;
Foster, 2006; Pryor, 1999). Many of the qualitative studies do not focus specif-
ically on how the parent–child relationship is affected after a mid- to late-life
parental divorce. Instead, many studies take a broader view, in general ask-
ing respondents in what ways their lives have been affected by the parental
divorce. Thus, the general conclusion from many of the qualitative studies
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4 J. L. Greenwood
is that a mid- to late-life parental divorce changes the relationship, with-
out going into great detail as to how or in what ways the relationship has
changed after the parental divorce.
Like many of the researchers previously mentioned, I was also inter-
ested in understanding how a parent–child relationship is affected by a mid-
to late-life parental divorce (if at all), especially because custody issues are
not involved and the relationship is more voluntary at this stage of life.
Previous research seems to gloss over the details of exactly why or how
the parent–child relationship changes during a parental divorce. In addition,
none of the studies looks at the effect of time since the divorce to determine
if the relationships mend over time. Building on existing qualitative studies,
in this particular study, I focus on how the relationship changes over time—
before, during, and after the parental divorce—as well as the meanings that
the ACD attach to the relationship over time.
METHOD
The primary goal of this exploratory study was to gain insight into the
viewpoint of the ACD and their perceptions as to how and in what
ways the relationships with their parents have changed. Thus, conducting
semistructured in-depth interviews with ACD was necessary to gain the best
understanding of their personal experience. Because I was interested in
learning how the event of a mid- to late-life parental divorce is interpreted
by ACD, this information was obtained by asking to hear stories about ACD’s
perceptions and reactions to the parental divorce. Specifically, my research
questions included the following:
From the perspective of ACD, how (if at all) does the parent–adult child
relationship change after a mid- to late-life parental divorce?
What kinds of meanings and interpretations do ACD give to the experi-
ence?
How are the experiences of ACD similar or different for sons and
daughters?
How does one’s place in early adulthood transition (i.e., whether one is
attending school, has children, or is married or in relationship, etc.) influ-
ence the parent–adult child relationship after a mid- to late-life parental
divorce?
Participants
Convenience sampling was used to obtain a sample of 40 ACD respondents
who were between the ages of 18 and 34 when their parents divorced.
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Parent–Child Relationships and Parental Divorce 5
This age range was used as the cutoff because this is the interval that is
commonly used in family research to denote young adulthood (Aquilino,
1994b). Several different recruitment strategies were used to obtain a sam-
ple of 40 respondents. Advertisements in the form of flyers, newspaper
advertisements, and online advertising were used to locate participants. All
respondents were currently living in or near a metropolitan area in upstate
New York. In addition, the parental divorce had to take place in the past
20 years because this is approximately the time when the number of mid-
to late-life parental divorces started to rise.
The sample was composed of an almost equal number of males and
females, with 18 men and 22 women. About 48% of the individuals reported
a current age between 18 and 23 years, and 52% fell between the ages of
24 and 54. Twenty-five of the ACD had experienced their parents’ divorce
within the past 10 years, whereas more than 10 years had passed since the
parental divorce for 15 of the ACD. A majority of the sample (31 out of
40) had experienced their parents’ divorce between the ages of 18 and 25,
and 9 ACD were older than 25 at the time of their parents’ divorce. Thirty-
six of the ACD were White, 2 were Black, and 2 were multiracial. Social
class was determined by asking about their education level, their current
occupation and employment status, the occupations of their parents, and
education levels of their parents. Twenty-nine of the 40 ACD described back-
grounds that could be characterized as middle-class, and 11 ACD indicated
backgrounds that could be characterized as poor or working class.
Data Collection
Interviews were conducted in a variety of public places including local
public libraries, coffee shops, and restaurants. The interviews ranged from
45 minutes to 2 hours, with a median of 1 hour, 20 minutes. With the
use of an interview guide, the ACD were asked to give a thorough per-
sonal history of each of their relationships with their mother and father.
They were prompted to discuss their relationships from childhood through
the parental divorce, up until their current relationship. By asking for
such a detailed history, I was better able to disentangle any extraneous
factors that might have affected the relationship other than the parental
divorce.
Coding and Data Analysis
The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using a com-
parative method. Coding of the data was aided with the use of QSR
International’s (2006) NVivo 7 software. NVivo is an efficient data-handling
tool for textual data such as transcribed interviews. The software was used
to generate themes that illustrated patterns throughout the interview data.
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6 J. L. Greenwood
RESULTS
About half of the ACD in this study reported a strained relationship during
the parental divorce with one or both parents. Therefore, my results are
consistent with the majority of studies (Arditti, 1999; Cooney, 1994; Lang &
Pett, 1992) that find that the parent–child relationship is negatively affected;
however, my findings are also similar to the research of Cooney et al. (1986)
in that half of the individuals in this study reported positive relationships
with one or both parents following the parental divorce. In this section, I
present the experiences of both groups and offer an explanation for why
these two groups differ.
I begin by presenting examples of ACD whose relationships with one
or both parents were negatively affected. Within this category of ACD, I also
distinguish between ACD whose parent–child relationships were negatively
affected initially but are fine now and ACD whose parent–child relationships
were negatively affected initially and are currently still strained. In addition,
I highlight what appear to be the most important differences between the
two groups of ACD.
Parent–Child Relationship Negatively Affected by Parental Divorce
In my sample, about half of the ACD interviewed reported that their r ela-
tionships with one or both parents had changed since the parental divorce.
There were many reported factors that were responsible for altering the
parent–child relationships during the parental divorce; however, some of
the most common reasons provided by the ACD included the adult children
blaming one parent for “wronging” the other; the ACD being “put in the
middle” or being asked to serve as a mediator between the parents; and the
ACD experiencing role reversal in that now they had to take the responsi-
bility of providing emotional and social support to their parents. In addition,
many of these ACD reported that they went for a period of not speaking to
one or both parents.
Previous research (Cooney, 1994; Lang & Pett, 1992), mostly cross-
sectional in nature, has not taken into account the issue of time since the
parental divorce, so I was interested in exploring how this factor could
play an important role in the evolution of the parent–child relationships.
A key difference between the ACD in this sample whose parent–child rela-
tionship(s) were negatively affected previously, but not currently, and those
ACD who still have strained parent–child relationships is the length of time
that has passed since the parental divorce. ACD whose parents divorced
within the past 5 years are more likely to report having a strained parent–
child relationship currently than ACD whose parents divorced more than
5 years ago. It seems that the old saying, “Time heals,” holds true for the
family relationships in this sample, as hypothesized initially in my research
questions.
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Parent–Child Relationships and Parental Divorce 7
For ACD who have mended their relationships with one or both par-
ents, I asked them to talk about how their relationship issues were resolved.
In some cases, the ACD waited for the parent to take steps to mend the
relationship; in other cases, it was the ACD who took the initiative to deal
with the issue and move forward with their relationship. I was impressed
by the stories of how the ACD struggled during the period of time when
they were not speaking to their parents over the “parental divorce” issues.
Nonetheless, in many cases it was the adult children who took it on them-
selves to make the phone call or take steps to resolve their differences with
their parents and move on with the relationship.
P
ARENTCHILD RELATIONSHIPS NEGATIVELY AFFECTED IN GENERAL
Brittany was a senior in high school when her mother moved out of the
house and filed for a divorce. As a result, her relationships with both of her
parents were strained at times and she was depressed for some time as well.
So it was kind of depressing because I’m like, “Great. Now I’m becoming
one of everybody else.” And then thinking up in your head, “Great. How
are we going to do holidays? How are we going to do this? How are we
going to do graduation?”
Brittany talks about how her relationship with her mom changed following
the parental divorce:
We became more distant because she was part of the reason why—at
first, she walked out. She left. She left us to fend for ourselves with a
depressed father who just wasn’t getting any better. ... Iusedtosayit
was very selfish and unfair of her all the time. ... The relationship with
my mother right now is that I’m the mother and she’s the daughter. ...
She’s my mother. I’m never going to get another one. She’s quirky as
hell, but I just hope to God I don’t turn into her.
Heather’s relationship with her father has also changed as a result of the
divorce. She explained that she had always been very close with her father
and turned to him for support, so it was difficult for her to understand why
he had changed. She talked about how her relationship with her father has
changed since before the divorce:
We were always close. He was my dad. I always respected him. I always
could talk to him about anything. ... Now I’m really upset with him
because of the divorce because he had an affair and it all came out. But
to this day, he’ll sit there and deny it even though we caught him. And
that just bothers me because through our whole life, even if you did
something wrong, be honest about it, straightforward with it, and we’ll
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8 J. L. Greenwood
deal with it. And now he’s not. So I feel like I’m the parent and I’m trying
to tell him what he always told me when I was little.
As the aforementioned examples demonstrate, some of the ACD in this
study revealed that their relationships with their mother, father, or both
changed in the aftermath of the parental divorce. Many of the ACD dis-
cussed how they distanced themselves emotionally, at least briefly during
their parents’ divorce. Whereas some were able to pinpoint a precise event
or situation that led to the distancing, others realized that the r elationships
had been negatively affected only when they reflected on how their rela-
tionships had changed since the divorce. The following are examples of
specific aspects of the divorce that were cited as reasons for the parent–child
relationship changing.
ACD
PUT IN THE MIDDLE
When I asked the ACD to talk about the most challenging part of dealing
with their parents’ divorce, the most frequent response centered around the
idea of being “put in the middle” between the parents and being asked to
take sides or to be the mediator between the two. Many ACD reported this
as being a stressful experience that led to strained parent–child relationships
or even emotional and psychological stress for the ACD. Similar results were
found in previous studies assessing the impact of a mid- to late-life parental
divorce on parent–child relationships (Cooney, 1994; Lang & Pett, 1992). The
following is an example of how one ACD, Tim, believed he was affected by
being put in this position.
I was always making sure everyone else was happy and I sort of lost
myself there ... I took the brunt of it all. It felt really good, you know.
But at the same time—And it was really hard, too. I would stay up until
four in the morning sometimes with either my siblings or my mom but
then like after 15 minutes after talking about my problems, they’d be
like, “Oh, everything’s going to be okay.”
For many of the ACD in this sample who reported being put in the
middle by their parents, they were also likely to have experienced a strained
relationship with one or both parents. I am unable to make a causal connec-
tion, but the two factors seem to occur together based on the data. Because
these young adults were involved in the process of the parental divorce,
these individuals were confronted with a source of stress, which resulted in
the ACD reporting an overall negative experience of their parents’ divorce.
It seems that being put in the middle has the potential to negatively affect
not only the parent–child relationship, but also their interpretation of how
they were affected overall by their parents’ divorce. Some of the ACD who
reported a strained parent–child relationship went for some time without
speaking to a parent.
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Parent–Child Relationships and Parental Divorce 9
PERIOD OF NOT SPEAKING
As a result of having a strained relationship with one or both parents after
the divorce, there were ACD who went through a period of not speaking
to one or both of their parents. There were many reasons cited for this,
including the following: ACD blamed one parent for “wronging” the other,
ACD being blamed for their parents’ divorce, and ACD being overwhelmed
with being put in the middle.
Melissa’s parents divorced over 10 years ago and in general, she has
adjusted quite well after having a “tough time” dealing with her parents’
divorce initially. However, Melissa’s relationship with her mother has been
strained since the divorce. Currently, Melissa is not speaking with her mom,
but she wants things to be different. She describes how her relationship with
her mother has been rocky over the past year.
Prior to 3 months ago, we would talk probably once a week. But, again,
it’s been inconsistent, so I can tell you June [i.e., 3 months ago] was
the last time we spoke. She wrote me a letter, but I haven’t responded.
It was a nasty letter. I just refused to respond to it. And then before—
from June to December—we spoke. But around the holidays, we had
another falling out last Christmas. So, it’s really sporadic.
When I asked Melissa if there was anything she would like to add regarding
her relationship with her mother, she quickly added:
It’s just I wish things were different ... I’m like a dumb dog. I keep
going back and getting treated the same way and then I realize it. Like
I’m sure I will speak to her again, but I just wish it wasn’t (such a cycle)
but it is.
The time when they were not speaking was a significant period during
and after the process of the parental divorce, as reported by the ACD. Many
ACD gave great detail as to how this situation came about in the first place
as well as details concerning the time of reconciliation. This period of not
speaking is important for a few reasons. First, due to the voluntary nature
of the parent–child relationship in the context of a mid- to late-life parental
divorce, the ACD bring a level of bargaining power to the relationship.
As young adults, most are no longer financially dependent on their parents
and are likely to be living independently; therefore, if they have a fight with
their parents, coresidential living arrangements do not dictate the terms of
the relationship. For those ACD who went through a stage of not speaking
to one or both parents, it seems that the ACD had much control over the
parent–child relationship after it was initially strained. In fact, in many cases,
it was the ACD who decided to stop communicating in the first place. They
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10 J. L. Greenwood
were also the ones to set the terms of the relationship during the “mending”
stages. In effect, the power dynamics between the parent and child had
shifted due to the voluntary nature of the relationship at this stage of life.
Connected to the idea of the voluntary nature of the ACD–parent rela-
tionship is the fact that many of the ACD wanted to mend the strained
relationship. At the time of the interviews, most of the ACD who reported
going through a period of not speaking with one or both parents had
resolved any issues or were in the process of doing so. One interpreta-
tion of this finding is that the ACD valued the relationship and thought that
was worth “fixing.” An important factor is the length of time that has been
invested in the relationship. The ACD and the parents have shared a rela-
tionship for at least 18 years. The fact the ACD were willing to resolve the
issues that led to the period of not speaking is testimony to the importance
of the parent–child bond.
Based on previous studies (Arditti, 1999; Cooney, 1994; Cooney et al.,
1986; Lang & Pett, 1992; Pett et al., 1992), the general conclusion is that a
parental divorce has the potential to negatively affect parent–child relation-
ships. However, based on the results of this study, most of the ACD whose
parent–child relationships were strained, even to the point of not speaking
for a period of time, chose to reconcile and to make amends. Nonetheless,
it is important to caution that other ACD might have different experiences in
regard to mending or salvaging a strained parent–child relationship. In fact,
it is plausible that ACD who have not salvaged strained relationships with
their parents were in a sense, “selected out” of my sample if they preferred
not to discuss this painful situation.
Because I asked each of the ACD to talk in detail about each of their
parent–child relationships over time, I was able to capture the evolution of
the relationships. Whereas other studies are cross-sectional in nature, asking
about current parent–child relationships, for instance, this study is able to
account for change in the relationship. By asking about the parent–child
relationship before, during, and after the divorce, the period of not speaking
is seen as a stage in the relationship. Connected to the idea that relationships
evolve over time, relationships take work, especially when strained. Based
on the stories reported by the ACD, mending the strained relationships was
something they worked on over time. In addition, as mentioned earlier,
as young adults, they brought much bargaining power to the parent–child
relationships. That is, as young adults, they chose to resolve or renegotiate
their relationship with their parent.
In my initial research questions, I was interested in whether or not
strained parent–child relationships change over time. Based on previous
research that concluded that the parent–child relationship was poorer for a
majority of ACD following a parental divorce, I wanted to see if the outcome
lasted for many years. The findings from this study indicate that for many
ACD, a strained parent–child relationship does not necessarily last forever.
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Parent–Child Relationships and Parental Divorce 11
That is, even if there is some strain during the initial stages of a parental
divorce, the problems tend to be resolved over time. I now tur n to a dis-
cussion of ACD whose parent–child relationships were not affected by the
parental divorce.
Parent–Child Relationship Not Affected by Parental Divorce
There were a few ACD who talked about how their parents turned to them
for support, but their relationships were not affected by the parental divorce
at all. Cooney, Hutchinson, and Leather (1995) found that involvement in
the divorce process was generally associated with lower levels of parent–
child intimacy. This conclusion held true for the individuals in this study
as well, with some exceptions. Even though most ACD talked about how
being put in the middle was a negative stressor in their life, some ACD
were not bothered when their parents would sometimes turn to them for
support. Perhaps these individuals were better able to set boundaries than
the other group of ACD, or it might be that the emotional and social depen-
dency was of a lesser degree. Nonetheless, the following are the experiences
of ACD whose parent–child relationships were unaffected by the parental
divorce.
Kurt’s mom would vent to him, the oldest son, at times about the
divorce, but Kurt would listen and it did not affect him negatively.
Yeah, she vented to me. ... I was always the one she’d talk to more
just because I don’t know ... She couldn’t understand why everything
happened ... And “I, I, I ... And just talk in general about anything
really ... I listened ... because I heard it every day. I eventually just
“yes-ed” her to death. She had some points where she was blowing
some things out of proportion.
ACD AND PARENTS HAVE ALWAYS HAD CLOSE RELATIONSHIP
Of the half of ACD whose parent–child relationships were not affected by the
parental divorce, many of the individuals explained that they have always
been close with their parents. As such, during the parental divorce, both
the parents and children were able to keep the parent–child relationship
and the spousal relationship separate. In other words, the family members
appeared to have healthier family dynamics in the sense that they did not let
any negativity from the divorce spill over into the parent–child relationships.
The following are examples of parent–child relationships that did not change
over the course of the parental divorce.
Brenton has always had a good relationship with both parents and feels
very close to his mom.
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12 J. L. Greenwood
I don’t see her [mother] as much as I’d like to. We talk probably on the
phone—I mean both my parents once a week. I don’t know if that’s
healthy or not because my girlfriend talks to her mom about four times
a day. But every time I’m home I see her—I’m home like maybe once
a month and I see her a few times. I think we have a really healthy
relationship.
Of his dad, he says:
I talk to him about once a week, like I talk to my mom. I probably see
him—over the course of the last 5 years, I probably saw him—definitely
saw him more than my mom just because whenever I was home I saw
him. I’d come home to him and I’d have to make plans to see my mom.
It wasn’t totally lopsided or anything. I don’t favor my dad to my mom
or vice versa.
PARENTCHILD RELATIONSHIP NOT CLOSE; NEVER WAS CLOSE
One might assume that if a parent–child relationship was not negatively
affected by a parental divorce then it must be a good relationship; however,
this was not the case. In addition to parent–child relationships that remained
close before and after the divorce, there were also some that r emained
unchanged, in the sense that the ACD described the relationship as being
poor prior to the divorce and after the divorce.
Richard never characterized his relationship with his mother as “close,”
but he respected his mom for being a good role model. He talked about
why he respects her today even if he does not consider their relationship to
be a close one.
Even though I can’t tolerate her, I love her and have a tremendous
amount of respect. ... She always said what she meant and meant what
she said. I respected that. ... So when I go to visit ... Istopintosay
“Hi. How you doing? Do I have any mail there?” ... I just try to keep
it brief and simple just to show my respects and ask her if she needs
anything.
I included the experiences of ACD who reportedly were never close
with one or both of their parents for one main reason. Just because the ACD
are not close with their parent currently does not mean that this is a result of
the parental divorce. I specifically asked about the history and stages of the
parent–child relationship so that erroneous conclusions could be avoided.
In addition, although their relationships with their mother or father might
not be the best right now, this does not mean that they will not improve
in the future. Many parent–child relationships evolve as children go through
young adulthood. I now discuss these relationships at greater length.
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Parent–Child Relationships and Parental Divorce 13
PARENTCHILD RELATIONSHIP EVOLVES OVER TIME
Much like any long-term relationship, the parent–child relationship tends to
change over time. Thornton, Orbuch, and Axinn (1995) found that there was
an improvement in parent–child relationships during the young adulthood
years of the children as children become more like peers or equals with their
parents. Although the research of Thornton et al. did not focus on how the
role of a parental divorce affects the quality of the parent–child relationship,
one would assume that most parent–child relationships evolve even if there
are factors, such as a parental divorce, that might alter the parent–child
relationship. In this study, the ACD talked about how their relationships
with their parents have changed as they have gotten older and become
adults. This was true for ACD whose relationships with their parents were
strained due to the divorce as well as for those ACD whose relationships
were unaf fected by the parental divorce.
ACD
AND PARENTS BECOME MORE EQUALS OR FRIENDS
A common theme as expressed by the ACD is that they have become closer
to their parents as they reached young adulthood because they are more like
friends or equals. In this sample, I found that sons were just as likely to refer
to their father as a best friend as daughters were to refer to their mother as
a best friend. In addition, there were many ACD who became closer to their
opposite-sex parent as they got older. The following are some examples of
parent–child relationships that have evolved over time.
I think my relationship with my dad really started to strengthen when I
went to college. And then when the divorce began, I saw a different side
of my dad. I saw his vulnerability. It was the first time in a long time that
I’d seen him cry ... I got to know him as a person and not just as my
dad. ... We’re very close. We talk a lot about a lot of things. ... So, we
have a very good relationship now. (Sonya)
Other ACD talked about how they have become closer to their parents
since they are now adults.
I’m very close to my father. He’s been the most help with my own
relationship issues. He’s very supportive and we have a lot in common.
We have very similar views politically and things like that. I don’t see
him very often though; however, we speak much more often than I do
with my mother. We weren’t [always] as close, but now we’re very close.
(Levi)
So what accounts for the improvement or “evolution”? One reason might
be that over time, parents might depend on ACD less as they learn healthier
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14 J. L. Greenwood
ways to deal with the parental divorce. In addition, parents are less likely
to be venting about the divorce 2, 5, or even 10 years later than when they
are in the initial stages of the divorce; thus, parents are not as dependent
on the ACD for emotional and social support. Another factor would include
whether or not the “dependent” parent has found a new partner. If a parent
is dating, cohabitating, or has remarried, then he or she might not depend
on their ACD for as much support.
DISCUSSION
This particular study is part of a larger study of the experience of ACD,
exploring the overall interpretations of a mid- to late-life parental divorce
from the perspective of ACD, as well as family relationships during the con-
text of a mid- to late-life parental divorce. Thus, it is important to note
that although there are other important issues to consider with a mid- to
late-life parental divorce, the focus here is on the parent–child relationship.
Based on the results of this study, ACD who reported that a parent–child
relationship was strained due to the parental divorce also discussed the
important role of the following factors. Some of the main factors included
the degree to which they were involved in the parental divorce; specifi-
cally whether or not they were put in the middle, whether they experienced
role reversal, whether they blamed one parent for the divorce, and whether
or not they took sides. Some ACD reportedly went for a period of time
without speaking to one or both parents, depending on the circumstances,
but a strained relationship was temporary in many cases. However, it is
important to note that causal conclusions cannot be made; instead, it seems
that many of these issues cooccur. I would argue such results are testi-
mony to the great importance of the intergenerational relationship, despite
struggles and obstacles such as a parental divorce during the course of
family life. In addition, this is also evidence of the process of how inter-
generational relationships evolve over time with adult children becoming
more “equal” with their parents and being able to communicate on a dif-
ferent and more mature level than when they were children or adolescents.
In addition, based on the results of this study, gender did not seem to be an
important factor in terms of which ACD are more likely to report a strained
relationship.
As mentioned previously, only about half of the ACD in this study
reported that a parent–child relationship was negatively affected by the
parental divorce. Most qualitative studies focusing on the impact of a
mid- to late-life parental divorce on parent–child relationships (Cain, 1989;
Campbell, 1995; Cooney, 1988) conclude that the parent–child relationship
is negatively affected, suggesting that the majority of ACD experienced a
strained parent–child relationship. However, a limitation of these previous
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Parent–Child Relationships and Parental Divorce 15
studies is that they failed to explain in great detail why the relationships
were negatively affected.
Applying the life course perspective, I was interested in determining
how one’s place in the early adulthood transition influenced the parent–
child relationship after the parental divorce. Specifically, I had expected that
ACD who were more settled in their adult lives with perhaps a career and
family at the time of the parental divorce (more likely to be older ACD)
would be less likely to report having experienced a strained parent–child
relationship. Based on the results of this study, age at the time of the parental
divorce did not seem to influence whether or not the parent–child relation-
ship was affected. In fact, it was difficult to pinpoint the exact factors that
determined whether or not the parent–child relationships would be neg-
atively af fected. However, the results suggested that certain factors made
it less likely that the relationship would be negatively impacted includ-
ing the following: parents did not force the ACD to take sides, the ACD
was not put in the middle, the ACD did not blame one parent over the
other, and the parents tried to make the process a smooth transition for the
ACD. The aforementioned is not an exhaustive list of important factors; there
appears to be much variation between families as well as among individual
family members. Future research is thus needed to try to more effectively
determine why some parent–child relationships are affected, whereas oth-
ers are unaffected, perhaps by interviewing both the parents and ACD.
Nonetheless, the life course perspective sheds light on the finding that
adult children’s parent–child relationships are just as likely to be affected
by a parental divorce despite the age of the children at the time of the
separation.
Although the results of this study make important contributions to the
literature on the effects of divorce on adult children and family relationships
in general, this study is not without its limitations; however, these limitations
point to potential areas for future research. Most important, the fact that the
sample for the current qualitative study was a convenience sample is a major
limitation; thus the results of this study are nongeneralizable.
Other limitations of the sample of this study include little variation in
terms of race or ethnicity and social class. The lack of diversity in terms
of race or ethnicity and social class is a serious concern in terms of sam-
pling bias. Although I strived to obtain a diverse sample, this proved to be
a difficult task considering the small population of ACD. As a result, the
results of this study are based on mostly a White, middle-class sample of
ACD. Future research that obtains a more diverse sample in terms of race
or ethnicity and social class composition would be more generalizable to
the larger population of families experiencing a parental divorce. One could
speculate that Black or Hispanic families, for instance, might be less likely
to report negatively altered parent–child relationships, given their stronger
extended family ties compared to White families. Similarly, those of lower
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16 J. L. Greenwood
social class backgrounds might be less likely to allow a parental divorce to
affect their family relationships because they are more likely to rely on fam-
ily members for financial and social support. Thus, it is possible that with a
larger, more diverse sample, race and ethnicity, as well as social class, might
be more salient variables to consider.
In addition to the aforementioned limitations, an important issue to
consider is that with this study of ACD, I am only capturing one side of the
story—that of the ACD. A more complete understanding of the parent–child
relationships in the context of a parental divorce would include perceptions
both of the parents and the adult child. It would be interesting to be able to
compare the parent’s perception of the period of not speaking with that of
the ACD. Perhaps the parents struggled just as much as the ACD, but felt that
their son or daughter did not want to resolve the issue; perhaps for some
parents, they were angry with the child for taking sides. Unfortunately, we
do not know.
Lastly, another limitation of this study has to do with the composition
of the sample and the idea of self-selection. It is important to consider the
possibility that the volunteers for this study are not representative of the
average population of ACD. Because participation was voluntary, it is possi-
ble that those ACD who were having a difficult time or whose parent–child
relationships were currently troubled or affected by the parental divorce
self-selected out of this study. This study was able to take a closer look at
how and why the parent–child relationship changes during the context of
the parental divorce. The most important point from this study is that not
all ACD report having their parent–child relationships negatively af fected; in
fact, some of the relationships improved over time and since the divorce.
Although this study is not without its limitations, the findings from this
study suggest many avenues for future research on mid- to late-life parental
divorce and intergenerational relationships.
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Thesis
Full-text available
The effect of marital education on marital and sexual satisfaction.
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The impact of late-life divorce on family rituals has not been systematically explored. The purpose of this study was to examine the perceived changes in specific family celebrations, traditions, important life cycle events, and day-to-day family contact that occurred for a group of 115 adult children (73 females and 42 males) whose parents had divorced after a long-term marriage. A strong positive correlation was found between perceived disruptiveness of the parental divorce and changes in family rituals, particularly at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The role of women as kinkeepers, sibling differences, and the implications of evolving family ritual activities for theory development, research, assessment, and intervention are explored.
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This study addresses the influence of recent parental divorce on contact and affective relations between 485 white young adults, ages 18 to 23, and their parents. Although custody was not a factor in most of these cases, findings similar to those revealed in studies of young children with maternal custody emerged. Young adults from divorced families had less contact with their fathers, and daughters of divorce reported less intimacy in relation to their fathers than did their intact-family peers. Relations with mothers did not vary between the two groups. In addition feelings about a given parent were strongly correlated with contact with that parent in divorced but not in intact families, suggesting that parental divorce is associated with weakened obligation, and that family relationships may become more voluntary after divorce.