Chapter 13: The Dissolution and Loss of Relationships

Divorce, separation, and loss often lead to pain and hurt, yet many do find comfort, relief, and are able to enjoy life once again.

The Changing Rate of Divorce: The Prevalence of Divorce

l   The U.S. Census Bureau keeps track of divorce and reports the refined divorce rate, the number of divorces per 1,000 married women over age 15 that occur in a given year.

l   The divorce rate has generally increased over the 20th century. And in 1998, about 8% of men and 11% of women were either divorced or had not married (Popenoe & Whitehead, 1999).

l   By the late 1990s, 20 million children lived in single-parent homes, usually headed by the mother (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998).

U.S. Divorce Rates in Comparative Perspectives

l   While almost all Western countries experienced an increase in divorce rates during the last 50 years of the 20th century, the United States led the pack (United Nations, 1999).

l   It is important to remember that marriages did end after a short period in older times, too. People did not live as long, and women were especially vulnerable to the complications of childbirth, increasing the number of widows.

l   Nevertheless, what has changed is the way that marriages end today, as compared to the past.

Why Has the Divorce Rate Increased?

l    Numerous possible reasons for the high divorce rates have been proposed.

l    One suggestion is that too many demands are placed on married life (Slater, 1968; Phillips, 1988).

l    Other research has suggested that married couples are less happy in recent times than couples were in the past (Popenoe & Whitehead, 1999; Rogers & Amato, 1997).

l    Factors such as increased work-family conflicts, less traditional attitudes about gender roles, and the change in womenís economic status, seem to have influenced the increase in divorce rates.


l    Two hypotheses have been proposed regarding money and its relation with divorce.

l    The independence hypothesis postulates that paid employment increases a personís freedom to choose divorce.

l    The stabilization hypothesis states that people with money are more likely to invest in marriage-related assets such as children, that increase their commitment to the marriage.

l    Research supports both hypotheses and concludes that the greatest risk of divorce is for low income wives who work 35-40 hours a week (Greenstein, 1990).

l    Other sociological changes may have influenced the divorce rate. Such as divorce laws making it easier for people to divorce (Thorton, 1989), and divorce being passed on to the next generation (Glenn & Kramer, 1987).

Specific Factors Associated with Divorce

l   Some factors that have been identified as influencing higher risk of divorce:

l   Teenage marriages

l   Low-status, less education

l   Premarital cohabitation

l   Negative interactions

l   Neuroticism

l   Spending less time together

l   Not having children

The Predictors of Divorce:
Levingerís Model

l   George Levinger (1976) has that 3 main factors leading to breakups:

l   Attraction

l   This is enhanced by the rewards in a relationship and diminished by its costs.

l   Alternatives available

l   Includes other partners, being single, or achieving occupational success.

l   Barriers

l   Including legal and social pressures to stay married, religious constraints, and financial costs of divorce

The Road to Divorce

l   Joseph Hopper (1993) conducted intensive interviews with 30 divorcing people and found that most experiences were characterized by long periods of discontent, multiple complaints about partners coupled with things they liked, and ambivalence about getting separated.

l   One model that has been offered to explain the steps leading to separation was developed by Karney and Bradbury (1995) and is known as the vulnerability-stress-adaptation model of marital dissolution.


l    The model states that some people enter a marriage with enduring vulnerabilities that may include negative experiences in oneís family, poor education, maladaptive personality traits, poor social skills, or dysfunctional attitudes about marriage.

l    These vulnerabilities are thought to interact with different circumstances people encounter and help determine the number of stressful events couples face.

l    How well partners adapt to their stresses is a function of the stresses and of the partnersí vulnerabilities/attributes.

l    Some people cope better than others and failure to cope with stresses can lead to dissatisfaction, which in turn leads to divorce.

Steps to Separation

l   Baxter (1984), Duck (1982), and Lee (1984) each proposed a model of the steps that partners go through in ending their relationships. While the three models differ in some ways, a general pattern emerges. They all agree that separation involves discovery of the problem, exposure, negotiations, transformation, and grave dressing.

l   Discovery of the problem:

l   In this phase, the dissatisfied person assesses their partnerís behavior, notices there is a problem, and evaluates the cost of leaving and the benefits of alternatives. Common feelings include frustration.


l   Exposure

l   After noticing the problem the frustrated person expresses (directly or indirectly) his or her desire to leave. Common feelings include shock, anger, hurt, and sometimes, relief.


l   Negotiation

l   Partners try to negotiate some solution during this phase and may articulate their own needs, evaluate their partnerís point of view, or bargain. The person trying to separate may change their mind. In any case, the couple reaches a decision about the relationship.


l   Transformation

l   Now that a decision is reached, there are changes in frequency, duration, and nature of interactions. A process of mourning likely begins and partners make it known to others that they are no longer together.

l   Grave-Dressing

l   The goal of this phase is to put the relationship behind oneself and move on. Simplification and rationalization are often involved in order to create an acceptable story about the course of the relationship from beginning to its end.

The Aftermath of Separation from the Individualís Perspective

l    Stewart and colleagues (1997) followed 160 families with children for 18 months after they legally intended their divorce.

l    Shortly after filing for divorce participants generally had lower well-being than later. And in the early period after divorce, most people increased the time they spent with friends.

l    For both men and women, the number of house-related tasks increased.

l    Most women reported that their financial situation had deteriorated after the divorce.

l    Relationships changed dramatically between partners themselves. Some never speak to each other again, others can at least be civil, still others may have an enduring friendship.

Children Whose Parents Divorce

l   Studies examining the effects of divorce on children have found that in general children of divorced parents are more likely to head one-parent families, have lower psychological adjustment, have more behavioral problems like alcoholism and drugs, and lower educational attainment (Amato & Keith, 1991).

l   However, these effects were modest.


l   There may be several reasons why divorce negatively affects children.

l   Divorce often involves economic deprivation, parental loss, parental stress, and family conflict (Amato, 1993; Amato & Keith, 1991; Hetherington et al., 1998).

l   According to the parental loss view children are thought to benefit from having two parents. Thus, children who lose a parent due to death should show levels of well-being similar to children of parents who have divorced and both groups should show lower well-being than those whose parents have remarried.


l   However, these expectations are not consistently confirmed by the research.

l   Most studies show that children who experience the death of a parent manifest well-being that falls between that of children whose parents divorce and those of parents who remain married.

l   According to the parental stress model, stress impairs the quality of parenting and therefore has negative effects on children. According to this view, childrenís well-being should be associated with the psychological adjustment of the custodial parent after divorce and the quality of the relationship with the custodial parent.


l   These expectations have been supported (Amato, 1993).

l   Most studies show that if economic differences between divorced and non-divorced families are taken into consideration, the difference in the well-being of children in these households is reduced.

l   Amato (1993) concludes that the conflict explanation has the strongest and most consistent support. This explanation states that parental conflict has detrimental consequences for children.


l   While some people are more vulnerable to becoming divorced than others, situational and historical-cultural factors also influence whether couples actually dissolve their relationships.

l   Many people experience wounds due to divorce, but injuries do heal. And children of divorced families often show remarkable resiliency in adjusting to their new family and their new life circumstances.