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The Effects of Recent Parental Divorce on Young Adults

Young adults from divorced families are cautious and realistic about marriage.

Young adults from divorced families are cautious and realistic about marriage
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Divorce is a significant life event. In some cases, it is even devastating, and family members can hardly recover. Yet, questions remain as to the effect of divorce on children.

Indeed, literature reviews on the effects of recent parental divorce on young adults’ attitudes have reported inconsistent findings. Moreover, most of them have focused on pre-teens children. Only a few of these studies are on young adults in their late teens and early twenties.

For this reason, one study primarily aimed to address the following questions:

  • What are the meanings and significance of marriage and divorce to today’s young adults?
  • What are the potential influences upon their future intentions concerning marriage, and to what do they attribute their views?

To attain an understanding of the views of young adults from their perspective, rather than those being predefined by the researcher, a qualitative approach was used. In the interview, there were ten female and ten male undergraduate students aged 18 to 24, whose parents of half in each gender group divorced when they were over 14, while the other half were from intact families.

The first aspect the study examined is their views of marriage as an abstract, more general idea rather than everyday reality. The respondents regard marriage as not only a symbol of love but also a symbol of public commitment. Similarly, they consider the implications of marriage at both individual and societal levels and found marriage significant at both levels.

But concerning the reality of marriage, the respondents' statements were mixed. On one side, some welcome the more flexible roles within marriage. Women were envisaged to be: “Less willing to accept certain situations than they were previously, for example, if there was domestic violence.”

On the other side, they criticize the “cheapening” of the current marriage. As one woman from a divorced family noted, “They love its glamour (marriage), but it’s so superficial... I think that people have lost sight of what marriage is about.”

Such ambivalent statements can also be found in respondents’ perceptions regarding divorce, as divorce is seen as a “necessary evil.” When talking about the influence of their parents’ divorce, diverse illustrations were depicted: Although divorce has an alleviating function bringing change for the better, it doesn’t mean that there is no problem.

For example, some felt they were pushed to be involved in their parents’ issues as both sides confided in them:

I’ve tried to spend as much time with both of them, treat them equally and not do things to wind them up, but it doesn’t really feel natural. It’s not good.

Nevertheless, contrary to younger children, these young adults could develop certain coping strategies. Whether it was to distance themselves from it and actively focus on personal goals or engage in deep discussions and empathize with parents, they became more resilient. They tried to construct a more objective perspective. As one said in the interview,

…in a way I’ve actually gained from it, it’s contributed to my self-confidence and independence. I don’t feel that hard done by to be honest.

Respondents from divorced families showed explicit caution not to repeat their parents’ mistakes. Parents’ experiences seem to be an influential factor for the future intention of marriage, but not the sole one. Their own experiences of relationships and peer relationships also play a role. In addition, unresolved issues surrounding the divorce could sometimes loom larger than anything else:

I’ve learned positive things about myself (from a relationship of her own that ended) . . . but . . . the divorce issue is the bigger issue for me . . . because I find it hard to move on, not to move on from the divorce per se but to move on from the fact that my dad doesn’t bother about me... that is hard... I never really felt loved.

Indeed, this study indicates that young adults from divorced families are more cautious and realistic about marriage. Yet they are not ready to dismiss marriage. They value marriage sufficiently to try and avoid costly mistakes. The study successfully provides a novel observation of young adults’ thinking about marriage despite its limitations of samples and universality.


Burgoyne, Carole B, and Rebecca Hames. 2002. "Views of marriage and divorce: An in-depth study of young adults from intact and divorced families." Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 37(1-2):75-100.

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