ON DIVORCE Rev. Peter Gutierrez Divorce: Definition and Statistics Divorce, or the legal t
Rev. Peter Gutierrez
Divorce: Definition and Statistics
Divorce, or the legal termination of a marriage has been called the most
detestable of all permitted things. The reasons for this may be that no other
process known to man causes such utter devastation to the family unit,
socioeconomic status of the family, and the psychological well-being of all
In the United States, the divorce rate has shown a dramatic increase in
the past half century. One in seven marriages ended in divorce in 1920,
compared with one in four in 1960 and in 1974, one in three. Today, the ratio
is now approaching one in two. These figures, however, do not include those
who separate without bothering to get a divorce.
From an over-all statistical standpoint, the divorce-risk time has risen
so for a number of reasons. First, with an increased life expectancy in this
century of from 47 to 70 years, the duration of marriage (over 90% take place
before the age of 30) has more than doubled. Also, the proportion of the
population ever married has increased over 20%, making it logical for the
divorce rate to rise.
The over all effects of divorce on society are not fully known. Enough
data does exist, however, to suggest that its effects are not beneficial to
the mental health of those involved.
Statistics show that there is a marked preponderance of mental disorders
among divorced persons. There are several reasons for this, but on the whole
research has consecutively shown that divorced persons represent a group
suffering from many psychological conflicts that the high incidence of mental
illness does not come as a shock.
These statistics do not tell the whole story. Many unhappily married
couples stay together because of religious or financial considerations, and
reluctance to disrupt the lives of their children. Thus, many marriages that
do not end up in divorce are often as unhappy and even unhappier than those
marriages that have.
Before we begin to examine some of the effects of divorce, we will
acknowledge the most common causes of divorce. One of the few large scale
studies on divorce was done in 1966 by Levinger, a social psychologist. He
examined the counseling records of 600 couples applying for divorce and
compared the complaints of husbands and wives of middle-class and lower-class
couples. Among men, mental cruelty, neglect of home and children, infidelity,
and sexual incompatibility were among the most common complaints listed.
Wives most often complained of physical and mental cruelty, financial
problems, and alcohol abuse. Generally, the middle class couples were more
concerned with psychological and emotional satisfaction. Lower-class
couples were generally more concerned with financial problems and the
physical actions of their partners.
Several background factors are related to higher divorce rates. For
example, couples with a low educational level are at a higher risk for divorce
than those who are better educated. Consequently, divorce is more common
among lower socioeconomic groups than among professional groups. Family and
racial backgrounds also play a major role with higher divorce rates resulting
from unhappy or divorced parents and nonwhite marriages being more divorce
prone than white. Couples who do not attend church also have a higher divorce
rate than those who do. Other factors contributing to the divorce rate
include interracial marriages, mixed religions, sexual experience prior to
marriage, and the age gap between spouses.
Divorce and Man
Divorce is traumatic for all who must endure it. However, due to the
sexual stereotypes and the traditional interpretation of divorce laws in the
courts, the breakup of a marriage takes a peculiar toll on men. Moreover,
there is no real information exchange or support networks for men to get
To the individuals involved in divorce, every emotional reaction is
possible: anger, depression, anxiety, fear, loneliness, grief, and euphoria.
What often goes unrecognized is that the emotional toll on men is equal to and
perhaps greater than the effect on women. Though men may appear to be
managing and relatively unaffected, inside they are holding the emotions that
women are more easily able to express.
Kaslow and Schwartz state in their book The Dynamics of Divorce: A Life
Cycle Perspective, that men do experience the same emotional responses as
women. In our society, however, men are not expected to grieve as openly as
women. Thereby making the healing process more difficult to complete.
Men may also suffer long bouts of depression accompanied with feelings of
utter hopelessness and despair. These feelings culminate when the husband
comes into realization of how little power and authority they have. The
courts have built a system which severly restricts what men are allowed to do.
Fairness is all too often no longer a consideration. Due to lack of support
groups, men are not able to seek a proper solution to their concerns and
Most men believe that their postdivorce financial responsibilities are
unfair. Examples are numerous. Men pay alimony and child support. It is
very rare for a court to order a woman to pay either. This is the case
regardless of the fact that most states require both parents to assume
financial responsibility for their children. Moreover, men have no control
over how their money is spent. Men almost always have to pay for their wives'
attorneys' fees regardless of the outcome. Despite the expected psychological
disturbances that the couple suffer when undergoing a divorce, the male is the
only part of the couple that must worry with these numerous legal inequities.
Surviving divorce appears to be easier for the older man than for the
younger man and for those who were better adjusted before the separation than
for those who were emotionally disturbed prior to it. Older men (39 years of
age and over) generally have more stability, opportunities for gratification,
and more sense of competence in their careers than younger men do. These
factors converge to provide substantial support for them which is lacking in
younger, less experienced settled men. As for the quality of pre- and post-
separation emotional adjustment levels, those men who were very dependent
prior to (and usually during) marriage can be expected to maintain that
characteristic in the separation and postdivorce periods. If they married in
an effort to escape problems in and with their family of origin, more than
likely they will still experience troubles with some or all of those same
problems. Likewise, those who functioned comfortably and confidently in an
independent fashion prior to separation can usually regain that capacity after
the initial psychological stress of the split.
Divorce and Woman
Despite the problems men have, women fare little better in their post
divorce life. While much of the psychological suffering is the same for both
sexes, the socioeconomic factors are quite different. Though every state in
the union usually requires a man to pay alimony and child support, families
headed by women are likely to be poor, making up one-fourth of the low-income
groups in America. Furthermore, this trend has accelerated with the rising
divorce rate. In fact, in a 1984 research project, sociologists Kaslow and
Schwartz, discovered that a woman's standard of living dropped by 73% in the
year following divorce while a man's typically rises by 42%.
Weitzman's 1985 study titled The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected
Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America revealed
some startling facts. For instance, he showed that the husband's per capita
income is almost 200% above what it was when he married. His wife and
children, however, are left with about half of their former income. This is
more pronounced among middle- and higher-income families. The wife's income
is reduced to 39% of the family's former standard while her husband's
maintains 75% of their predivorce income. In low- and average-income groups,
the husband has about twice as much income as his former wife and children.
Weitzman's study also showed that husbands experience rapid upward mobility.
His wife and children suffer rapid downward mobility.
Women undergo more social discrimination than men. If she lives in a
society where there is strong anti-divorce sentiment, she runs the risk of
being discriminated against. On the other hand, the status of the divorced
person in our society is quickly changing (probably due to the rise in divorce
rates), and discrimination of this kind is quickly changing.
Clearly, both men and women experience adverse psychological reactions in
divorce. It appears, however, that the source of men and women's stress,
fears, and anxieties are quite different. Men seem to suffer most from the
realization that they are severely discriminated against in divorce courts and
losing custody and many rights to their children. Despite having to pay
alimony and child support, data shows that financially speaking, the husband
has little to lose.
Women, on the other hand, suffer most stress from their postdivorce
socioeconomic conditions. As illustrated in the studies shown, a woman's
standard of living drops dramatically after divorce while her ex-husbands
Children of Divorce
It is suspected that no one suffers more from the psychological effects
of divorce than the children of divorced couples.
Children experience a wide range of psychological disturbances including
fear, anxiety, anger, feelings of inadequacy, and guilt. It is not uncommon
for children to feel that they are the reasons for their parents decision to
In the process of divorce, children are often overwhelmed with mental
images of family activities which they realize will cease to exist. Most young
children (0 to 9 years of age) are not aware, however, of the conditions of
their parents failing marriage. Thus, divorce usually comes as a shock.
Today, though not as much as in the past, parents who had a bad marriage
often chose to remain a couple for "the sake of the children." Today however,
psychologists, marriage counselors, clergymen (with exception to Roman
Catholics), and lay people seem to agree that divorce is preferable to raising
children in a loveless home. In other words, a broken home is psychologically
healthier for children than an unbroken, miserable one.
The statistics are frightening. It is estimated that one in five
children today, is likely to have divorced parents before they reach the age
of seventeen. With the separation of parents, the children will experience
the partial (sometimes total) loss of one parent's (usually the father) input
in their lives. What is the psychological status of children at this time?
Furthermore, in what ways do children react to the consequences of their
At the time of divorce, children will often have mixed emotions.
Typically, they will feel depressed about the termination of their parent's
marriage, and all that goes along with that: disruption of the family and
family life, possible relocation, and embarrassment. They will also feel a
sense of relief that the bitter feud between the two people they love so much
will finally end. Unfortunately, much of the child's problems begin after the
divorce is final. The child will often feel a great deal of love and pity for
the non-custodial parent. Though the child will not see the other parent for
some time, antagonism against the non-custodial parent will continue. If for
any reason the child is unhappy, anger and blame turns dramatically to the
custodial parent. They may begin to fantasize about the absent parent, and in
their minds he/she becomes the good parent - the parent they now wish to live
with believing that the "grass is greener on the other side." This may happen
regardless of the absent parents sex.
The psychological well-being of children depends a great deal on the
ability of their parents to discuss the reasons and meanings behind the
separation with their children. Another very important factor seems to be
whether or not the children are allowed to continue good relationships between
with both parents and are satisfied with the access (visitation) rights.
A 1979 study by Hess and Camara compared three groups of children of
divorced parents. The children in Group A enjoyed good relationships with both
parents. Group B had a good relationship with only one parent (sex was not a
factor). Group C did not have good relationships with either parent. The
children in Group A had the lowest scores on psychological test designed to
measure stress and aggression. They also scored highest on work effectiveness
and peer interaction tests. The findings of Group C were just the opposite of
Group A's. Group B, however, scored only slightly higher than Group A.
The conclusions of this study showed that children with good personal
relationships with both parents are psychologically better adjusted to the
effects of divorce. Meanwhile, those children who had a good relationship
with one parent appeared to be relatively unharmed. Group C children who had
not established a relationship with either parent, fared poorly.
The problems associated with divorce are numerous. The scope of this
research project was focused on the psychopathological effects divorce has on
all members of the nuclear family. Many questions remain unanswered.
Perhaps, as has been offered by sociologists, the high rate of divorce
indicates that today's marital relationship has become more important than it
used to be. How? Well, the high rate of divorce shows that there must be a
lot of unhappy marriages - but that could also mean that at any given moment,
the great majority of surviving marriages are happy ones. Why? Over the past
80 years, divorce laws have become much less restrictive. The idea behind
this statement is that if bad marriages are ended in divorce, most surviving
marriages must be good ones.
With all the horrors divorce may bring, I felt it appropriate to end this
research project with perhaps a positive aspect of divorce. From the research
that I have done, I don't see a "cure" or even a dramatic change for the
divorce rate. This doesn't mean we can't work together to make divorce less
if a legal issue and more of a personal one. This, I think, would benefit all
those involved and help to make divorce less of a battle, and more of a
This work has been compiled and shortened for BBS transfer purposes.
The bibliography for this work is available on request.
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