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“Were They Ever Really Happy the Way That I Remember?”: Exploring Sources of Uncertainty for Adult Children of Divorce



This study relies on interviews of adult children of divorce (ACOD) and the lens of uncertainty management theory to understand how ACOD construct and negotiate the uncertainty they face. Through our inductive analysis, we identified 4 major sources of uncertainty faced by ACOD: length of parental unhappiness, taking on new roles, navigating holidays and family events, and being caught in the middle. Exploring how this uncertainty is talked about and managed offers a theoretically and practically insightful glimpse into the meaning and sense-making processes as these individuals cope with one of the most prevalent and challenging events faced by families.
Journal of Divorce & Remarriage
ISSN: 1050-2556 (Print) 1540-4811 (Online) Journal homepage:
“Were They Ever Really Happy the Way That I
Remember?”: Exploring Sources of Uncertainty for
Adult Children of Divorce
Jenna Abetz & Tiffany R. Wang
To cite this article: Jenna Abetz & Tiffany R. Wang (2017): “Were They Ever Really Happy the
Way That I Remember?”: Exploring Sources of Uncertainty for Adult Children of Divorce, Journal of
Divorce & Remarriage, DOI: 10.1080/10502556.2017.1301158
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Published online: 03 Apr 2017.
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Were They Ever Really Happy the Way That I Remember?:
Exploring Sources of Uncertainty for Adult Children of
Jenna Abetz and Tiffany R. Wang
Department of Communication, College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina, USA; Department of
Communication, University of Montevallo, Montevallo, Alabama, USA
This study relies on interviews of adult children of divorce
(ACOD) and the lens of uncertainty management theory to
understand how ACOD construct and negotiate the uncer-
tainty they face. Through our inductive analysis, we identified
4 major sources of uncertainty faced by ACOD: length of
parental unhappiness, taking on new roles, navigating holidays
and family events, and being caught in the middle. Exploring
how this uncertainty is talked about and managed offers a
theoretically and practically insightful glimpse into the mean-
ing and sense-making processes as these individuals cope with
one of the most prevalent and challenging events faced by
Adult children of divorce;
divorce; uncertainty;
uncertainty management
Divorce is widely regarded as one of the most stressful and challenging events
families face. As families adjust to the changes in their family structure, they
might also face financial tension, torn loyalties, and a lack of stability and
trust (Stambaugh, Hector, & Carr, 2011). An abundant amount of scholar-
ship has examined divorce among younger adults, and although increasingly
common, divorce in later life has been largely unexplored (Sweeney, 2010).
Between 1990 and 2010, the divorce rate doubled for those 50 years old or
older; in 2010, nearly 25% of divorces involved an adult in this cohort
(Brown & Lin, 2012). Over half of these gray divorces or silver splitters
involved couples married for more than 20 years (Brown & Lin, 2012). The
incidence of later life divorces can be attributed to multiple factors, including
wider cultural shifts in the acceptance of divorce, changing divorce laws, and
womens increased economic independence as a result of labor force parti-
cipation (Wu & Schimmele, 2007). Because people are now living longer and
healthier lives, the potential to terminate unfulfilling or stressful marriages
becomes a more realistic option (Wu & Penning, 1997). Moreover, with the
journey of having children at home coming to a close, parents are also
transitioning and reevaluating their life goals (Carter & McGoldrick, 2005).
CONTACT Jenna Abetz, PhD Department of Communication, College of Charleston, 66
George St., Charleston, SC 29424, USA.
© 2017 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
The impact of parental divorce on children, particularly within the areas of
behavior, academic performance, and psychological adjustment, has been
studied at length, yet much of the research on mid- to late-life parental
divorce compares the experience of adult children of divorce (ACOD) to
children whose parents divorced during childhood or adolescence. For
example Uphold-Carrier and Utz (2012) used a middle-aged sample to
analyze whether children of parental divorce had elevated depression risks
or decreased connection with family members depending on when they
experienced the divorce. Although divorce is a well-established stressor on
children (Baker & Ben-Ami, 2011), examining the ways in which adult
children talk about their parentsdivorce represents an understudied yet
important lens to understand how individuals construct and negotiate this
life challenge. The effects of divorce are not isolated to young children and as
midlife divorce increases, so will the number of adult children experiencing
this phenomenon.
In the postdivorce time period, families experience unique stressors
including managing finances, parental conflict, and coping with the loss of
the family unit (Amato, 2010). Because families are interdependent units, the
processes of coping are not only individual, but also communal and rela-
tional (Afifi, Hutchinson, & Krouse, 2006). Although parents of young
children or adolescents might reveal too much information about finances
or communicate damaging views of their spouse to their child (Lehman &
Koerner, 2002), adult children might face the unique challenge of managing
parents in different households, the need to provide social or financial
support, or taking on roles for which they are unprepared, such as that of
confidante or friend. In the process of coping with their parentsdivorce,
they might also have the added external stressors of transitioning to life away
at college, beginning careers, or raising families of their own. Moreover
ACOD might be met with cultural and relational assumptions that they are
unaffected by the divorce because they are mature enough to handle it. These
challenges could place individuals who experience parental divorce as an
adult in a uniquely uncertain position as they navigate family relationships.
Although the lions share of research conducted on divorce has been
quantitative, we take up Stambaugh et al.s(2011) call for more work that
examines the underexplored aspects of divorce from a qualitative perspective.
Qualitative research is a broad methodological approach that allows for in-
depth study of human behavior. Rather than being generalizable, the strength
of qualitative approaches is located in the thick, rich, and complex under-
standing they provide about specific phenomena. We adopted a qualitative
approach because it is well-suited to understanding how individuals and
families experience and negotiate their relational lives (Baxter & Babbie,
2004). Even though they have left the parental home, adultssense of con-
nection to their roots could remain strong and parental divorce severs the tie
to the childhood and family they grew up knowing, making the experience of
divorce as an adult a uniquely uncertain time. Not only might adults have to
take on new roles as they navigate the parentchild relationship, but they
might also be faced with deeper questions of their parentsmarriage and their
family identity. Thus this study relies on interviews of adults who experi-
enced the divorce of their parents after moving out of their home and the
lens of uncertainty management theory (UMT; Brashers, 2001) to understand
how these individuals construct and negotiate the uncertainty they face when
navigating parental divorce as an adult. Exploring how this uncertainty is
talked about and managed offers a theoretically and practically insightful
glimpse into the meaning and sense-making processes as these individuals
cope with one of the most prevalent and challenging events faced by families.
Theoretical perspective
This study adopted the theoretical perspective of UMT (Brashers, 2001)that
posits uncertainty arises whenever individuals cannot describe or explain
behavior, when faced with times of ambiguity, or when confronting incon-
sistent information (Brashers, 2001; Brashers, Goldsmith, & Hsieh, 2002).
When facing parental divorce as an adult, uncertainty might be a salient
aspect of individualsexperiences as the family system they have always
known undergoes significant change. Although a large amount of work has
focused on uncertainty within the context of health (Miller, 2014), research-
ers have also explored multiple sources of uncertainty in interpersonal con-
texts as well (Knobloch & Solomon, 1999). Exploring uncertainty holds great
potential for family scholars seeking to understand the context of divorce.
Importantly, parental divorce raises questions not only about the future of
the family, but about the past. As adult children of divorce, individuals might
be uncertain because they perceive a need for more information about their
parentsmarriage, but uncertainty could also stem from too much informa-
tion (Brashers, 2001). Thus, too much disclosure from one or both parents
might leave adult children uncertain about how to feel or behave in these
family relationships. Using UMT as a theoretical lens, this investigation
aimed to explore ACODs experiences through the following research ques-
tion: What are the sources of uncertainty for children who experience
parental divorce as an adult?
Research positionality
As communication scholars, we share personal and professional interests in
understanding the role of communication in discourse-dependent families.
Studying divorce, particularly from the perspective of individuals who experi-
enced it as an adult, is an important context to explore how individuals
construct and make sense of their family identity during a significant period
of relational transition. Studying this unique period of family challenge also
aligns with our broader goal of pursuing socially meaningful, translational
work that has practical applications for family relationships. From a personal
perspective, divorce has affected the first authors family relationships.
Although I am not a child of divorce, my grandparents divorced when my
father was 18 and I have grown up hearing the history of their divorce and
my grandfathers subsequent remarriage. Additionally, after over 30 years of
marriage, my in-laws recently divorced. Experiencing this time of change and
challenge as a daughter-in-law, wife, and mother has also inspired my
personal connection to the topic.
We centered this study in the interpretive paradigm to understand the
perspectives and language choices of the individuals being studied from
the natives point of view’” (Baxter & Braithwaite, 2010,p.8).Weasked
participants about their relationships with their parents, the challenges
they faced, and their family communication, but the interview protocol
did not include specific questions surrounding uncertainty. Despite this
process, uncertainty about how to navigate parental divorce as an adult
naturally emerged as an overwhelming concern in participantsresponses.
Thus, the theoretical framework inductively surfaced, similar to other
studies (e.g., Romo, 2015). We contextualized and interpreted possible
meanings from the ACODs perspective by examining their interpretations
of events, stories, and conversations to develop an in-depth understanding
that rendered these communicative actions intelligible (Baxter & Babbie,
2004;Baxter&Braithwaite,2010; Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Rubin & Rubin,
2005). This examination allows interpretive researchers to determine what
shared meaning people in a particular group share through an interpreta-
tion that reflects the interpretive researchersunderstandings as well as the
Rubin, 2005). To understand the ACODs perspective and derive shared
meaning, we conducted semistructured interviews with ACOD and asked
them to describe their experiences following the time their parents com-
municated the divorce to them.
To address our research question, we chose participants who had experi-
enced the phenomenon of interest so that we could gain a detailed under-
standing of each participants experiences (Baxter & Babbie, 2004; Corbin &
Strauss, 2008; Creswell, 2007). Thus, we chose participants who were 18 years
of age or older and had moved out of the home at the time their parents
communicated the divorce to them.
To fully represent ACODs experiences, we located participants through
convenience sampling and snowballing techniques (e-mail announcements,
campus and community bulletin board postings, message board postings)
approved by our universitiesinstitutional review boards. Participants signed
informed consent forms verifying that they (a) were at least 18 years of age,
and (b) had moved out of their parentshome by the time that their parents
communicated the divorce to them. Informed consent was secured by ensur-
ing that participants understood that they were free to decide not to parti-
cipate in this study or to withdraw at any time.
Rather than seeking a specific number of interviews, we collected data
until we reached the point in analysis, theoretical saturation, when all
categories are well developed and further data collection and analysis
adds little new to the existing conceptualization (Corbin & Strauss,
2008). Although theoretical saturation was achieved within the first 11
interviews, we conducted 8 more interviews to further develop and test the
analysis, ensure that we did not overlook new information that might have
emerged from later interviews, develop a credible data set, and ensure we
had the most descriptive exemplars. Our participants included 19 ACOD
(16 women and 3 men) whose mean age was 38 years of age, ranging from
23 to 59 years of age. All participants described their race as White.
Participants reported their marital status as married (13), divorced (3),
and single (3) and had an average of 1.5 children (range = 04 children).
Participants reported their class background as upper middle class (9),
middle class (6), and lower class (4). The ACODs average age at the time
of their parentsdivorce was 23 years of age, ranging from 18 to 37 years
of age.
Data collection
To answer the proposed research question, we conducted 19 semistructured
interviews (Rubin & Rubin, 2005) with ACOD. During these interviews we
used a detailed interview protocol that included open-ended questions to
allow ACOD the control and flexibility they needed to express their experi-
ences however they chose (McCracken, 1988). A sample of these questions
included the following:
Tell me the story of your parentsdivorce.
How would you describe your parentsmarriage when you were a child?
Whats the biggest question, if any, you have about your parents
What, if anything, has been challenging during the divorce process?
Through these open-ended questions, we prompted each ACOD to explain
their experiences following the time their parents communicated the divorce
and sought to elicit rich detail so that we could gain an in-depth under-
standing of how these ACOD understood and interpreted their experiences
(Baxter & Braithwaite, 2010; McCracken, 1988; Rubin & Rubin, 2005). All
interviews were conducted in private research offices at a Southern public
liberal arts university and a Southern public sea-grant and space-grant uni-
versity. To maintain confidentiality, we assigned pseudonyms rather than
using the real names of the participants. Following each interview, we
transcribed each digital recording verbatim, resulting in 376 double-spaced
pages of transcripts.
Data analysis
We used the interview transcripts as the raw data for this study. To explore
the communication that occurred following the time that the ACODs
parents communicated the divorce to them, we employed an idiographic
approachby thoroughly observing each transcript before moving to the next
transcript (Smith, 1995, p. 19). Our primary task was developing a typology
of ACODs experiences. Using UMT as a sensitizing framework, we con-
ducted a thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). We focused on recurring
and repetitive patterns surrounding participantsconstruction and negotia-
tion of uncertainty, specifically focusing on uncertainty markers such as
unsure,”“I dont know,”“questioning,”“worried,”“unconfident,and
unclear(Babrow & Kline, 2000, p. 1813). Although we approached our
data analysis with ACODs experiences as a sensitizing concept to guide our
data analysis (Bulmer, 1979), we also remained open to other possible
important findings that emerged in these data.
Using Smiths(1995) guidelines for a qualitative thematic analysis, we
read the transcripts twice. The first time we gained a holistic perspective
and the second time we noted emerging themes by typing key words in
the transcript margins. As we derived our themes, we used Owens(1984)
method of interpretation to ensure each theme met these criteria: recur-
rence defined as an instance when at least two parts of [the transcripts]
had the same thread of meaning, even though different wording indicated
such a meaning,repetition defined as an explicated repeated use of the
same sound wording,and forcefulness defined as vocal inflection,
volume,ordramaticpausesto stress and subordinate some utterances
from other locutions(p. 275). As we read through the transcripts, we
created themes using analytic induction (Bulmer, 1979). We began the
analytic induction process with the first unit of analysis. This unit com-
prised an initial theme. After we had created the initial theme, we created
a tentative label that captured the theme. Starting with the second unit
and continuing with all subsequent units, we compared the unit to the
existing themes. When a unit was similar to an existing theme, we
grouped it with the existing theme. When a unit was different from all
existing themes, we created a new theme for that unit until we reached
theoretical saturation.
After we reached theoretical saturation, we produced an initial list of
ACOD themes in response to the research question. After we produced
this list, we refined the initial themes, clustered together themes to address
our research question, and identified what subthemes emerged from the
themes. After we had completed this analysis, we made sure that the themes
reflected the latent content of the participantsexperiences and produced a
final list of themes. After the themes were finalized, we further developed the
themes and subthemes by pairing each theme and subtheme with an exem-
plar statement (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). In the final step of analysis, we
compared our themes and subthemes to existing literature and when possible
we used labels that reflected existing literature.
Data Validation
To meet interpretive paradigmatic conventions, we employed four com-
mon validation strategies. First, we recorded and fully transcribed each
interview. Second, we continued interviewing and analyzing data beyond
theoretical saturation to create a credible data set. Third, we engaged in
member checking by e-mailing all six participants summaries of the
findings and a list of preliminary themes to ensure that the findings
accurately reflected their experiences (Creswell, 2007). Four participants
reviewed and agreed with the themes we identified. Finally, we provided
evidence for our findings through the use of detailed participant exemplar
Throughout our inductive analysis, we identified four major sources of
uncertainty participants faced as they talked about the process of coping
with their parentsdivorce as an adult. In what follows, we present and
discuss each source and the way participants managed this uncertainty.
Inever saw the signs: uncertainty surrounding the length of
parental unhappiness
Many participants questioned the length and source of their parentsunhap-
piness. Nearly every participant described a happy childhood and recounted
memories of love and familial connection. As Adam reported:
I would say it was the perfect marriage. I mean he would go to work. He was
involved in our Little League; he was everything. And so if you could say the white
picket fence, it was a white picket fence family and marriage.
Adam, like many participants, referenced his childhood through the lens
of a white picket fencewith close and positive family and no indication of
unhappiness. Participants reported that they rarely witnessed their parents
fighting or believed the conflict they witnessed was never a sign of impending
divorce. This left many participants blindsided by the news and grappling
with questions of whether they had had been naive or somehow missed the
signs of tension in their parentsmarriages. Allison reflected:
I still dont have any answers as to like what exactly went wrong in their relation-
ship aside from just interesting comments of, you know we dated for so long it was
either get married or not. Yeah, almost like maybe they shouldnt have gotten
married in the first place, which is kind of awkward to hear that. You know, I
know its a weird question, but was it ever a good marriage? And that question
would have never been asked I think until now Im in my own marriage and kind
of understanding what it takes for a marriage. And from their perspectives now
that theyre also removed by many years, was it ever a good marriage or was it
always just something that they settled for?
Other participants received news of the parentsdivorce when they were
several years into their own marriage and raising young children. As Matt
questioned the happiness of his parents30-year marriage, he gave voice to
the nuances and complexities of truth,something with which numerous
participants struggled:
I would have considered them pretty solidnot somebody you would have
thought who would have gotten divorced. I mean they had arguments and you
know what I would have considered the normal course of a relationship, but
nothing that was ever in my opinion to that level that would have led to that
[divorce]. Its tough, you know Im constantly telling people that I get the same
story, the loose facts are the same usually on both sides but the perspective is
totally different: the person to blame and who is the instigator and all that stuff is
different. So its very hard to try to figure out whats the real truth. I mean the real
truth is somewhere in the middle but you kind of have to figure out for yourself.
There really is no probably right answer you know what the real truth is.
Importantly, throughout the process of trying to understand the length of
their parentsunhappiness, participants were simultaneously faced with dee-
per questions about the character of parents they thought they knew. After
finding out about her fathers infidelity after nearly 25 years of marriage,
Sarah stated, Obviously there was a lot of hard feelings, resentments,
particularly towards my dad. I didnt think my dad was that type of person
clearlyI thought wrong.As participants coped with their parentsdivorce,
they simultaneously found themselves restorying childhood senses of family
and memory they had previously never questioned. This uncertainty of
whether and how to see their memories through a new lens was difficult and,
at times, unsettling for participants. Sarah reflected:
If I think back to times that I felt were happy times, you know like I can see the
pictures and I can see the video like if I think back to like a nice picture of like me
and my dad and my mom and like we all look happy. But I think about my mother
when she says now, I never loved him. The only reason I was with him was to give you
a good life. That pains me and it makes me feel bad for him because you know that
was what like 16 years of his life that he dedicated to a woman who he thought loved
him and didnt. So now I think if I look back at a photo where I thought that was a
happy moment all I see is like this woman whos faking it for her kid because shes
trying to like give her a good life and this poor man who kind of got hooked into it.
Sarahs description of the happy times she experienced as a child are now
fraught with new meanings after her mothers disclosure that she never loved
Sarahs father. Overall, participants spent large amounts of time recounting
family memories questioning the authenticity of the happiness that filled
their childhoods and adolescences.
How do i support everyone?: uncertainty surrounding new roles
Because they experienced the divorce of their parents as an adult, many
participants reported that they took on new roles of providing emotional or
financial support to one or both parents. Importantly, this support was often
long-lasting and not always something participants wanted to take on will-
ingly. They often felt stuck between a love for their parents and feeling that
their new role placed heavy burdens on their time and relationships. Some
participants explained that one or both parents did not remarry, leaving them
to take on new roles of support. For example, Caroline explained:
I wish dad had married again you have to take, like essentially you take
responsibility for the parent who doesnt have anybody else, especially, you
know, for me in my fathers case hes an only child, both his parents are deceased.
He doesnt have a significant other. So when he was in the hospital last week and
about to go in for surgery I knew that if something had happened I am his
advanced directive, which makes me responsible for his life basically if a decision
has to be made. And thats a lot for anyone to handle.
Although Caroline described the challenges when a parent does not
remarry, other participants discussed how they were the people their parents
called when they wanted to talk, needed financial advice, or wanted to rehash
the past. Cody, whose parents divorced nearly 35 years ago, described how
well over a decade after the divorce, his mom was consumed with questions
about her ex-husbands relationship:
For the longest time my mother even up until like 20 years after she was always
constantly riddled with self-doubt and stuff. Like, what do you think caused it? It
was like 20 years later, you know and it was like at some point I think all the kids
kind of said, We dont know and dont careits over with you know!Because
for the longest time she wanted to talk about Marty [dads new wife].
Heather, whose mother relocated to her neighborhood after the divorce,
reported that she still played a day-to-day role in her life.
I mean she went through a really, really bad phase where, you know, like she
wasnt eating, she was crying all the time. She lost a lot of weight in a very short
period of time. She just really wasnt healthy. We would sit and talk for a long, long
time and she would tell me things that I just, you know, I feel like maybe she
would have shared with a friend or someone else but not really with her daughter
things about their marriage. Shes very codependent, you know, she doesnt really
like to make decisions on her own so she needs somebody else just for simple
things. Where should I hang this picture in my house? Like, you choose you know,
no, she wants someone elses input so she really relies on other people around her.
Despite feeling that her mothers disclosures were inappropriate for a
motherdaughter relationship, Heather shouldered the emotional labor of
listening while also supporting her mother through giving advice and aiding
in decision making of mundane tasks. Participants overwhelmingly described
how their postdivorce relationship with their parents could no longer be
characterized as a parentchild relationship, but rather as confidante, friend,
or therapist. Participants communicated that they often felt unprepared for
how to help their parents cope while coping with the changing family
dynamics themselves. As they grappled with their new roles, some partici-
pants admitted that it was not their responsibility to fulfill the support role.
As Jillian reported:
I dont feel as though its appropriate for the child to be the sole support of the
parents, especially in this situation. Im not equipped; its not mine to help her
sort out. She should confide with friends or counselors or peers, not her
child. Ive tried to rebuild my relationship with my dad. I think to work
through a divorce you have to be able to process more deeply your relationship
that happened in a way that I cant be helpful to because I only see my
perspective, not the whole picture that developed [during] their 30 plus year
When the role of supporter weighted too heavily on the shoulders of
participants, they described turning points when they reached out to other
family members. For example, three participants experienced suicide
attempts by their mothers in the postdivorce time period. Juliane, who had
to take her mother to the hospital after her suicide attempt, described this
moment as a breaking point:
Well, a lot of the conversations just really entailed her talking and crying and me just
listening and that was the end of the conversation. A lot of times I didnt say much at
all other than, are you okay? It all happened right before winter break and I played
basketball in college so I had to go back early for training and everything. And I
almost didnt go back that second semester because I was so stressed about that and
leaving her and you know I felt guilty. I did have to put my foot down and I kind of
circumvented everything by reaching out to my aunt and kind of saying, you need to
talk to her. I shouldnt have been her outlet. This is when we really hit rock bottom.
My mom actually tried to kill herself that semester when I went back to school. So I
hadtobethereforthatandthats when I think I sort of removed myself completely
from both of them for a little bit. Because it was just too much for a 21-year-old.
Juliane described the heavy weight of attempting to support her mother
while managing her responsibilities as a student athlete, eventually reaching
out to another family member when the stress became too great.
How is this going to work?: uncertainty surrounding navigating
holidays and family events
As participants adjusted to news of their parentsdivorce, they simulta-
neously questioned how to manage upcoming holidays and events (e.g.,
birthday parties, graduations, and weddings). Because participants were
adults when their parents had divorced, they had experienced more than
18 years of family rituals and events that now had to be renegotiated. They
asked questions like these: How is this going to work? Am I going to have to
deal with like three separate meals when I come home for Thanksgiving?
Many felt that the parentsissues became the focus, rather than the event
itself. For example, Heather described how her parentsconflict oversha-
dowed celebrating her daughters first birthday.
It wasnt about Emma, you know, my mom was tearful and she was talking to
other people about her relationship problems. And it wasnt just putting aside your
differences and focusing on your granddaughter. Yeah, I didnt bring it up to them;
you know I kind of ignored it. And to be honest mostly I was focused on Emma
and I didnt pay attention to what anybody else was doing or saying.
To reduce the possibility of parental conflict, some participants decided to
create a neutral site or territory that did not belong to either parent. This
allowed the participant to set ground rules on who was and was not welcome
during the holidays. Adam described the creation of this neutral site or
territory this way:
Christmas, if we want to have a family gathering, well we have to have a neutral
site. Whenever they were both living in Texas we had to find neutral territory,
which meant my sisters house or my house to host Christmas. That was the
biggest challenge. Thats the big neutrality; its not your home; this is my home.
Welcome to it. I dont care if you dont like each other. My dad wouldnt bring
his live-in at that time if it were at one of our homes. He might go to my moms
house or wed have to have one in her house, one at his house, but most of the time
we said, Were too busy, were doing it neutral. Bring your spouses.
In some cases, despite the childs efforts to create a neutral site or territory, a
parent would choose to stop attending family events because he or she was not
happy with the ground rules of who was and was not welcome. This led to a
greater level of distance between that parent and his or her child. Cody
described this experience this way: He [father] never went to anything again.
She [fathers new wife] just presented a wedge between my father and his kids.
Participants who chose to celebrate the holidays with each parent sepa-
rately rather than creating a neutral site or territory for both parents often
described the challenges of negotiating both sides so that both parents felt
appreciated and valued. This often meant repeating the same family ritual
with each parent each holiday and doubling the time spent celebrating each
holiday. Matt reported:
I think the biggest challenge is just trying to negotiate both sides and just trying to
make sure that, you know, both parents feel like they have the attention and the
relationship that they want, you know. Obviously when they were together that
was a lot easier because you could, you know youd go to visit, youd visit both of
them at the same time. Now it kind of doubles everything and just creates this
negotiation that you have to do, you know like for anything, family events and that
sort of thing, Christmases and everything like that.
Some participants, like Juliane, decided that it was best to divide the time
spent over the holidays between their parents rather than doubling the time
spent celebrating the holiday. Despite participantsattempts to ensure that
the time spent with each parent was equal, participants did experience
challenges when one parent believed that the time spent was unequal.
This year at Christmas was the first time that I really felt we didnt do a good job at
like splitting the time well. We were home for 2 weeks and the last couple of
days that we were home we tried purposely to spend more time with my dad. And
then my mom made a comment, she was like, Well, youre spending so much
time with your dad this week I never get to see you.And so like this year was
actually the first year that I had felt conflicted about time. And so she brought it up
and I was like, Hey, you were the one that had the affair and got divorced.Part of
the divorce is we have to split our time.
Overall, participants remarked that holidays and family events represented
times that were more challenging and complicated to negotiate after their
parents divorced, because they had to be more cognizant about how they
chose to spend their time with each parent.
In hindsight, i was only hearing one side of the story.: uncertainty
surrounding being caught in the middle
This theme emerged as participants talked about being caught in the middle
often between angry parents who disclosed information about the other
parent. This theme was less a question of how participants could support
their parents and more how to manage one parent bad-mouthing the other
and the subsequent change in feelings toward that parent as a result. Many
participants questioned how to manage loyalty during these uncomfortable
parental disclosures. For example, Matt described how his dad tried to act
buddy-buddybut how his mom moved closer to him in the postdivorce
time period. He reported, Ive tried to do my best to keep an equal, you
know equality in the relationship. How I communicate what I know about
the other parent is the hard part.
Some participants worked to maintain equality in the relationship by
seeing both parents and choosing not to talk about the uncomfortable
disclosures they had heard from the other parent. Laurens description of
her conversations with her parents reflects this approach:
Because my mom was trying to like bad mouth my dad like just saying how
awful my dad is and how can I talk to him and how can I associate with him.
My dad was bad mouthing my mom and I was kind of like, Well Im going to see
both of you and just not talk about it.
Lauren contrasted her desire to continue seeing both parents with the
actions of her brother, who chose one parents side over the other as he
became closer to his mom and more distant from his dad.
My brother was very heavily influenced by my mom. He was in high school living
there so he pretty much just cut my dad out of his life and didntseemydadatall.So
I think it affected my relationship with my mom even more because I wasntwilling
to like choose her over my dad but I felt kind of like thats not appropriate to do.
Similar to Laurens brother, some participants like Michelle were heavily
influenced by one parent. Often, participants found the increased disclosures
from one parent to be upsetting and emotional because they believed that
they should not be receiving these disclosures.
My mom is a very emotional person so she called and basically spilled all the
information, more than I needed to know at the time. And, like I said it made me
very resentful towards him and in hindsight I was only hearing one side of the
story. But him and I had a very rough relationship for a few years and I was the
closest to home so I was the most in the middle of everything; my mom told me
everything. There were times when I was angry and upset and emotional
because I felt like she was involving me too much and trying to get me to be on
her side, which I felt was unfair. I mean she has six sisters so I didnt know why I
had to be that person, because it obviously created a lot of emotions and trust
issues in me towards other people.
In some cases, increased disclosures meant that children were thrust into
an advisor or confidante role they were ill equipped to fill. This often
occurred when the participant was the most geographically proximal to the
parent like Susan:
I was stuck in the middle of my mom and dads divorce. Because I was the only
child that was close by who didnt work, didnt have other stuff going on in my life.
And so my mom is my best friend and I thinkI sort of blamed myself because I
feel like I gave my mom advice as a friend would rather than as a daughter
would. If the situation were different I would probably say, maybe you need
to talk to someone else. But because my mom didnt have anyone else I talked
to her.
Although children who were in an advisor or confidante role to a parent
were often very close with that parent, this often led to resentment toward
other family members who did not have to cope with the stress and emo-
tional toll that came from managing loyalty during these uncomfortable
parental disclosures. Susan continued:
I was really angry for a while becausebecause I was stuck in the middle of my
parents dealing with their divorce. It affected me more so than the rest of my
siblings so I had a lot of anger. I felt like they were doing this not just to
themselves; they were doing it more so to me. And then I ended up resenting my
siblings because of it, because I had to help my parents deal with their divorce.
Overall, participants remarked that being caught in the middle had a long-
term negative effect on their emotional well being as their parents asked
them to choose sides, leaving participants unsure about their loyalty and their
perceptions of their parents.
The focus of this study was to understand how individuals who experience
parental divorce as an adult talk about their experiences. Through our
inductive analysis, we identified four major sources of uncertainty faced by
ACOD: length of parental unhappiness, taking on new roles, navigating
holidays and family events, and being caught in the middle. Extant literature
has been dedicated to understanding the impact of parental divorce on
children, but the focus has often been on younger children. Given that
divorce rates for couples married 15 years or more, particularly those mar-
ried 25 years or more, continue to increase (Kreider & Ellis, 2011), the lived
experiences of ACOD merit greater scholarly attention.
With adult eyes and from the perspectives of their own marriages, parti-
cipants often found themselves questioning what went wrong in their par-
entsmarriages. Did they miss the signs? Were their parents ever happy? The
questions on which they fixated have important implications for family
identity, memory, and authenticity. Many participants asserted that they
never imagined it would happen to them, particularly after the stress of
raising young children was over. The majority of participants described
parents who prioritized family dinners and vacations and coached their
sports teams. These happy childhoods replayed in participantsminds as
they digested news of parental divorce. Parents who remain in unsatisfying
marriages for the sake of their children risk damaging the sense of family
their adult children knew. Participants who found out that staying together
until they left for college was the focus were often left with profound senses
of guilt and betrayal.
The shock or grief participants expressed might be expected, but in the
process of receiving the news, they simultaneously encountered the expecta-
tion that their age made them more resilient or equipped to handle the
situation. Indeed, participants sometimes voiced that those seeking to sup-
port them often indicated that at least it didnt happen when they were
younger. Regardless of the fact that they were adults, participants came to
the realization that they were now children of divorce despite experiencing
divorce as an adult. This was an identity category they thought they had
escaped as they moved away from their parentshomes.
Although much research argues for the challenges of experiencing divorce
on younger children, ACOD face different challenges along with the expecta-
tion that their maturity means they will not be affected by the divorce. The
desire to shield and protect younger children from their parentsconflict
(Van Lawick & Visser, 2015) was noticeably absent in the voices of these
ACOD. Rather, they overwhelmingly became active participants, placed in
new, and often uncomfortable roles, of providing social and emotional
support, giving advice, and listening as a confidante or friend to their
parents. Participants still needed to cope and heal and often found there
was little time for that because they had to take on adult roles with their
parents. Researchers assert that shifts or reversals in parentchild roles are
common among ACODs, but they are still inappropriate and challenging for
children. For these participants, balancing the secrets and disclosures they
received became uncomfortable. Researchers have explored how younger
children perceive being caught in the middle(Braithwaite, Toller, Daas,
Durham, & Jones, 2008) between their divorced parents, but our participants
voices suggest that keeping children out of the details of parental conflict
should not be limited by the childs age. Indeed, the role shifts participants
described not only changed the relationship they had with the parent doing
the disclosing, but it often changed their perception of the other parent.
Many aspects of participantsexperiences surprised us as they recounted
the story of their parentsdivorce. First, we were not expecting the notable
amount of resilience participants showed in the face of navigating their new
roles of support while trying to make sense of their parentsunhappiness.
They commonly resisted the idea that their parentsdivorce must define their
relationship with them even while coping with the role reversal of being a
confidante for one or both parents. Second, participants made sense of their
parentsmarriage through their own adult relationships, but rarely expressed
fear that they would end up like their parents. In other words, they did not
obsess over following in the footsteps of their parents and instead expressed a
noticeable level of trust and confidence in their own relationships.
Limitations and future research
Although this study provides insight into the ways individuals talk about the
uncertainty of experiencing parental divorce as an adult, limitations must be
noted. One limitation to the study concerned the lack of diversity of parti-
cipants, particularly with regard to race. Second, although this study was able
to identify central themes in ACODs talk, qualitative methods are not able to
assess between-group differences. Researchers could extend this study by
quantitatively studying differences between men and women or differences
between younger and older ACOD.
This study also points to important questions to be investigated in future
research. With a stronger knowledge of why couples divorce after decades of
marriage, researchers might explore the long-term impact of divorce on adult
children over time. One avenue that would foster this would be the use of
diary studies. Second, most of our participants were women and they
described the parental expectation to take on roles of social and emotional
support throughout the divorce process. It would be useful to investigate how
a largely male sample would talk about the roles of support. Third, conduct-
ing interviews with parents would be a fruitful way to investigate parents
perceptions of their relationships with their adult children in the postdivorce
time period. Finally, interviewing parents and adult children together would
lend rich insight into how parents and adult children collaboratively make
sense of the circumstances surrounding the divorce. The opportunity to take
one anothers perspectives in the divorce process might be a strong predictor
of family adaptability and family functioning.
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... This can happen when a family undergoes parental separation or divorce (Freedman & Knupp, 2003;Mikucki-Enyart et al., 2018). During this delicate transitional period, which affects the entire family, family relationships and the entire range of family dynamics are challenged (Abetz & Wang, 2017;Brown & Lin, 2012;Stambaugh et al., 2011). It is during this time that forgiveness gains paramount importance because it can help the family cope with the challenging aspects of divorce (Baumeister et al., 1998;Exline et al., 2003). ...
... It also requires a reorganization of the entire family to "rescue" family relationships (Scabini & Cigoli, 2000). Rescuing parent-child relationships is important, especially for the benefit of children because, as several studies have demonstrated, parental conflict and resentment can have several negative long-term effects on children's mental health (e.g., Abetz & Wang, 2017;Amato, 2010;Baker & Ben-Ami, 2011;Cookston & Remy, 2014). For example, in their longitudinal study based on the National Survey of Children, Zill et al. (1993) found that 65% and 30% of young adults from divorced families shared poor relationships with their fathers and mothers, respectively. ...
... Thus, forgiveness may confer its greatest benefits during this period (Enright, 1994). A deterioration in the quality of post-divorce relationships within the family can adversely affect a child's ability to forgive his/her parents (and even him/herself or the situation; Abetz & Wang, 2017;Bonach & Sales, 2002). If parents are unable to resolve their relationship problems, these conflicts are likely to be transmitted to children (Scabini & Galimberti, 1995). ...
Forgiveness is a response strategy capable of countering the escalation of conflicts and it represents therefore a valuable resource for managing critical individual and family transitions. Among others, parental divorce is a stressful event that requires the reorganization of the entire family. This study, which involved 95 Italian young adults with divorced or married parents, analyzed the relationship between family functioning and forgiveness. Results showed significant associations between variables in divorced families, but not in the intact ones. Specifically, in the divorce context forgiveness was positively associated with family cohesion and flexibility and negatively with family disengagement and chaos.
... The dissolution of a family unit understandably generates a multitude of relational questions as children confront concerns about the redefinition of family roles and boundaries (e.g., Hetherington, 1999). Although the negative effects of parental divorce are generally weak for adult children (Amato & Keith, 1991), recent research has revealed myriad uncertainties ACOD experience after parental divorce (Abetz & Wang, 2017;Mikucki-Enyart et al., 2017), such as concerns about the parent-child relationship, the parent as an individual, the future of the family system, and the divorce itself. Similar to adolescents, ACOD wrestle with "feeling caught" (Afifi & Schrodt, 2003) and renegotiating family rituals (Abetz & Wang, 2017;Mikucki-Enyart et al., 2017). ...
... Although the negative effects of parental divorce are generally weak for adult children (Amato & Keith, 1991), recent research has revealed myriad uncertainties ACOD experience after parental divorce (Abetz & Wang, 2017;Mikucki-Enyart et al., 2017), such as concerns about the parent-child relationship, the parent as an individual, the future of the family system, and the divorce itself. Similar to adolescents, ACOD wrestle with "feeling caught" (Afifi & Schrodt, 2003) and renegotiating family rituals (Abetz & Wang, 2017;Mikucki-Enyart et al., 2017). However, other uncertainties reflect nuance of the ACOD context, such as uncertainty regarding family and individual identity (Mikucki-Enyart et al., 2017). ...
... As previously noted, adult children often are seen as peers by their divorcing parents, resulting in emotional parentification. Unfortunately, these types of disclosures lead to adult children feeling caught (e.g., Abetz & Wang, 2017;Greenwood, 2012). ACOD experiencing loyalty conflicts tend to withdraw from the parent-adult child relationship. ...
Utilizing uncertainty management theory (UMT) and a multiple goals theory of personal relationships (MGPR) the present study examined how adult children of divorce (ACOD) manage relational uncertainty following parental divorce. In-depth, semi-structured interviews with 25 adult children who had experienced parental divorce when they were 18 years of age or older revealed two, broad types of information acquisition strategies: deliberate (i.e. information-seeking and information-avoiding) and incidental (i.e. incidental information acquisition). Deliberate information acquisition strategies were animated by several goals, including reducing and maintaining uncertainty, avoiding feeling caught, and protection. Alongside goals, various constraints (e.g. target efficacy, coping efficacy) played a role in ACOD’s relational uncertainty management. We discuss these results in relation to their theoretical and practical applications.
... Like general divorce research, studies of grey divorce have investigated both reasons for and consequences of late-life divorce. Research has focused on the consequences of grey divorce for wellbeing (Hammond and Muller, 1992;Bair, 2007;Bowen and Jensen, 2017;Carr et al., 2019;Lin and Brown, 2020), personal economy (Crowley, 2018;Lin and Brown, 2021), and the relationship to adult children and grandchildren (Aquilino, 1994;King, 2003;Shapiro, 2003;Greenwood, 2012;Abetz and Wang, 2017;Crowley, 2018). Studies have also focused on predictors and motives for late-life divorce. ...
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Late-life divorce is increasingly common in many Western countries, however, studies on this transition remain scarce. The purpose of this article is to study attributed reasons for late-life divorce, and if any life phase-typical aspects can be identified in these attributions. Qualitative interviews were carried out with Swedish men and women aged 62–82, who after the age of 60 had divorced from a cross-gender marital or non-marital co-habiting union (N = 37). The results, analysed using principles from Grounded Theory, revealed four different types of narratives: (a) incompatible goals for the third age, (b) personality change caused by age-related disease, (c) a last chance for romance, and (d) enough of inequality and abuse. A central insight and an original contribution generated by the study was the importance grey divorcees attributed to the existential conditions of later life in their divorce decisions. The results are discussed in relation to theories of late modern intimacy and the third age.
... Acquiring the appropriate information to make informed decisions helps us choose the path forward as we navigate difficult life events. People may want to reduce the uncertainty they experience about many things: chronic and acute illnesses (Babrow et al., 1998); unclear disease screening results (Sah et al., 2013); or interpersonal contexts, such as divorce (Abetz & Wang, 2017) or motherhood (Abetz, 2019). The meaning and experience of uncertainty varies across contexts, but it is complex and often multilayered as it can be about the self (e.g., one's own capabilities, behavior, beliefs), others, relationships, and others cultural aspects such as social norms and procedures. ...
i>This study adopts the lens of uncertainty management theory to understand how mothers of children with dyslexia construct and negotiate the uncertainty they face. Dyslexia is academically, mentally, financially, and emotionally challenging for families, but the voices of parents are often missing from the conversation. Interpretive thematic analysis of a large online support group for parents illustrated four major sources of uncertainty: the future, advocacy, communicating about the diagnosis, and the financial cost. Exploring the uncertainty of mothers themselves offers a more textured understanding of the meaning and sense-making processes of families as they navigate a common yet widely misunderstood learning disability. </i
... Immediate family members might also attempt to reduce their uncertainty by choosing a side when they feel caught between two conflicting family members (Abetz & Wang, 2017). Despite not sharing a common definition, scholars generally conceptualize feeling caught as a loyalty conflict that manifests after two or more individuals form alliances against another person (see Ganong & Coleman, 1994). ...
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Framed by family systems theory and social constructionism, the present study is the first to illuminate the experiences of immediate family members of estranged parent–child dyads. A thematic analysis of 27 immediate family members (13 siblings, 6 children, 4 spouses, and 4 parents of estranged parent–child dyads) revealed (a) 4 ways they discussed taking sides, (b) 3 messages that contributed to them feeling caught, and (c) 6 practices they engaged in to manage feeling caught. Findings suggest that immediate family members do not report feeling particularly agentic in the process and actively attempt to extract themselves from the parent–child conflict. Both theoretical implications and practical applications are discussed.
... When thinking about distance in this way, it is easier to see how other fundamental distancing processes might comprise a significant portion of family life. For example, there is a robust amount of research on divorce (Abetz & Wang, 2017;Amato & Booth, 2001), the process of (open) adoption (Baxter, Scharp, Asbury, Jannusch, & Norwood, 2012;Colaner & Scharp, 2016;Hays, Horstman, Colaner, & Nelson, 2016;Suter, 2008), foster care (Baxter, Suter, Thomas, & Seurer, 2015;Nelson & Horstman, 2017;Thomas, 2014) (Bergen, 2014), and the transition to college (Dorrance Hall & Scharp, 2018;Kelly, Duran, & Miller-Ott, 2017;Wang & Nuru, 2017). These examples, in particular, illustrate a variety of processes that ebb and flow; often including recalibration periods and boundary negotiations such as the open relationship between an adoptive family and birthmother, military members who reintegrate into family life after returning from deployment, or children who enter and leave the foster care system. ...
The purpose of this essay is to illustrate the opportunity communication scholars have in defining and illuminating the process of family distancing. With this in mind, we begin by challenging three common misconceptions about the enduring quality of family relationships before forwarding an initial model of family distancing based on existing literature. Finally, we call for new research that addresses family distancing in multiple contexts.
Objective Investigating what contributes to perceptions of ambiguity in stepfamily relationships among adolescents, and which strategies adolescents use to deal with ambiguity. Background Relational losses or acquisitions marked by ambiguity (i.e., ambiguous losses and gains) are taxing as they often evade resolution. The frequent assumption that family relationships in postdivorce stepfamilies are per se ambiguous has only received limited empirical foundation. Little is known about how adolescents experience ambiguity, how and why ambiguity emerges, and what strategies adolescents develop to deal with ambiguity. Method Semi‐structured interviews with 30 Dutch adolescents (aged 16–20) living in diverse postdivorce stepfamilies were conducted. The data were analyzed using open, axial, and selective coding. Results Relationships with stepparents, stepsiblings, and biological parents were especially likely to be experienced as ambiguous. Two key categories of reasons emerged that helped to explain the emergence of ambiguity: information (i.e., incomplete or contradictory knowledge about family relationships), and relationality (i.e., the ways in which family relationships were assessed and compared to each other). Results point towards potential chains of ambiguity in stepfamilies, and show that respondents compared their relations with constructed archetypes of stepparents. Respondents used three strategies to deal with ambiguity: (a) improving relationships, (b) accepting ambiguity, and (c) creating distance. Conclusion Ambiguity was common in postdivorce stepfamilies, yet mostly confined to relationships between adolescents and stepparents, stepsiblings, and biological parents. This suggests that, in stepfamilies, ambiguous gain might occur more frequently than ambiguous loss. The negative feelings associated with ambiguity might explain why many adolescents perceive living in stepfamilies as burdensome.
L'articolo propone una rassegna della letteratura relativa agli effetti a breve e lungo termine del divorzio coniugale sui figli adulti e giovani adulti. La ricerca internazionale relativa alle conseguenze del divorzio sul benessere psicologico dei figli ha spesso trascurato l'impatto che l'evento separativo e i cambiamenti ad esso connessi possono avere sulla vita e sulle scelte dei figli adulti. Il vissuto del sentirsi "intrappolati" nel conflitto coniugale sembra avere esiti a lungo termine e influenzare differentemente la relazione con il padre e con la madre. L'articolo, attraverso un'esemplificazione clinica, si concentra anche sulle conseguenze del divorzio sulla qualità delle relazioni di coppia dei figli adulti e propone alcune tipologie di intervento.
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This article contains a description of the context, development and delivery of No kids in the middle, a group approach for divorced fighting parents and their children. After addressing the social and legal context of high conflict divorces, we describe the main characteristics of this destructive dynamic. We describe some aspects of the approach and give examples. Key principles for the project include: keeping the child in mind; working in groups; stopping legal processes; making free space for interactions; creative presentation ceremonies; and reaching out to the network. The outcomes are promising. Research on the project has started.
The chances of experiencing a disruptive marital transition in late life are increasing through population aging, and growing numbers of individuals will experience a major transition in familial life during their old age. In this article, the authors discuss the principal trends related to uncoupling in late life and the main reasons for and consequences of it. Primarily, the discussion is focused on uncoupling through martial dissolution.
The Long Interview provides a systematic guide to the theory and methods of the long qualitative interview or intensive interviewing. It gives a clear explanation of one of the most powerful tools of the qualitative researcher. The volume begins with a general overview of the character and purpose of qualitative inquiry and a review of key issues. The author outlines the four steps of the long qualitative interview and how to judge quality. He then offers practical advice for those who commission and administer this research, including sample questionnaires and budgets to help readers design their own. The author introduces key theoretical and methodological issues, various research strategies, and a simple four-stage model of inquiry, from the design of an open-ended questionnaire to the write up of results.
Money is critical for financial and relational well-being, yet financial communication is often considered taboo, and most Americans receive little financial guidance. Not surprisingly, romantic couples experience financial uncertainty, which has been negatively correlated with satisfaction and trust. Through in-depth, semi-structured interviews of 40 individuals in married or cohabitating relationships and the lens of Uncertainty Management Theory (UMT), this investigation examines how people are (un)able to manage financial uncertainty. The study uncovers tangible ways individuals can negotiate financial uncertainty via uncertainty reduction, maintenance, and adaption, as well as information, communication, time-management, and/or sociocultural barriers that can impede uncertainty management. The investigation suggests the extension of UMT to consider the role of the dyad and offers practical implications for financial literacy and communication efforts.
This analysis uses a middle-aged sample (age 35–84, N = 2,496) to document the long-term effects of parental divorce on the child's depressive affect and familial solidarity. Those who experienced parental divorce as a child (OR: 1.77, p < .05) or as an adult (OR: 1.82, p < .05) had a higher risk of depression compared to those whose parents are still married. Similar results were found for family solidarity, suggesting that parental divorce was associated with long-lasting effects on the children who experienced it. However, the pathways through which parental divorce potentially affects the well-being of children differ, based on whether the child experienced parental divorce as a child or as an adult.
Uncertainty reduction theory suggests that the self, the partner, and the relationship constitute three sources of uncertainty within interpersonal relationships; however, existing operationaliza‐tions of uncertainty focus predominately on partner issues. More recent extensions of the uncertainty construct to developed relationships call for a measure that both captures the range of uncertainty as originally conceptualized and attends to the uncertainty issues relevant in ongoing associations. We conducted a study of individuals in dating relationships to develop a measure that assesses the sources and content of relational uncertainty. Results identified three content issues for uncertainty focused on either the self or the partner: desire for the relationship, evaluation of the relationship, and goals for the relationship. Uncertainty about the relationship encompassed four content issues: behavioral norms for the relationship, mutuality of feelings between the partners, current definition of the relationship, and future of the relationship. A second‐order factor analysis demonstrated that whereas uncertainty about self versus partner were empirically distinct, items assessing relationship uncertainty cross‐loaded on both the self and partner uncertainty factors. The discussion highlights how a more nuanced conceptualization of relational uncertainty can inform future investigations.
Research on divorce during the past decade has focused on a range of topics, including the predictors of divorce, associations between divorce and the well-being of children and former spouses, and interventions for divorcing couples. Methodological advances during the past decade include a greater reliance on nationally representative longitudinal samples, genetically informed designs, and statistical models that control for time-invariant sources of unobserved heterogeneity. Emerging perspectives, such as a focus on the number of family transitions rather than on divorce as a single event, are promising. Nevertheless, gaps remain in the research literature, and the review concludes with suggestions for new studies.