Childhood Studies Divorce and Custody
by
Robert Hughes, Jill Bowers, J. Kale Monk, Jeremy B. Kanter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0162

Introduction

Since the 1970s, social scientists have explored a wide range of issues related to divorce and custody. This interest in divorce was sparked, at least in part, by the growth in the number of families that were experiencing divorce. With increases in the number of divorces and a social acceptance of various family structures, social scientists’ interests in the causes of divorce, how children are affected, custody and legal issues, and the types of interventions that can help families as they go through the divorce transition have all become important areas of research. Changing values and expectations about marriage may be one driving force behind the increased rates of divorce. As such, researchers have explored factors that contribute to marital dissatisfaction, and much progress has been made in understanding specific patterns of conflict within couple communication that contribute to marital quality, unhappiness, and even dissolution. With divorce research, many studies have focused on how adults and children are affected by this family transition. The evidence has indicated that divorce can be harmful to both adults and children on average, yet some researchers have suggested that this is dependent on how parents adjust and handle the situation. Some research has indicated that some adults and children fare better following a divorce (e.g., when one partner has been abusive, violent, or suffered from a mental illness). Indeed, competent parenting following divorce and little conflict between mothers and fathers has the largest positive effect on children’s adjustment, although the effects of divorce on adults and children is complex and warrants further study with contemporary families. To deal with changes in families as a result of divorce, the legal system has had to change and evolve to address the needs and interests of families. The legal system is still evolving in many parts of the world to deal more effectively with issues raised by divorce. In the United States and Europe, the grounds for divorce have been liberalized to make the process less adversarial. Debates continue about whether these policies increase rates of divorce or simply follow existing social trends. Another challenging area of law is in regards to custody of children and child support. Joint custody between mothers and fathers has become increasingly common, yet controversies about the best arrangements continue, especially regarding very young children. Handling financial issues within families has also created new legal issues, and research in the last decade has provided implications for managing and enforcing child support agreements. Legislation continues to evolve to meet the needs of contemporary families, and there have been laws and policies that influence mediation and divorce education services. With the increase in complicated and contentious custody decisions within families, the court system has developed mediation and divorce education efforts to help parents resolve these issues and develop effective parenting arrangements. There is considerable evidence that these new divorce intervention methods are effective in helping families resolve disputes. There has been much progress in our scientific understanding of divorce and custody issues, yet there remain many questions that need further study in order to build evidence-based programs and policies that will be most beneficial to divorcing families. The research and clinical studies that follow highlight both the progress and limitations of scientific and clinical literature surrounding divorce and custody issues.

General Overviews

There are many scholarly books that provide a general overview of divorce and custody research and intervention. Demo and Fine 2010 comprehensively discusses the research about divorce and custody, including a concise but thorough overview of current theory, research findings, and methodological issues. Thompson and Amato 1999 provides a well-written overview of adult and child outcomes post-divorce, and the focus is applicable to contemporary families, although the book was written in the 1990s. Another helpful perspective is provided in Cherlin 2004, which focuses on the sociological analysis of the deinstitutionalization of marriage and the links between social changes and high divorce rates. Other social scientists have published books that are focused on their own research or experiences with divorced families. For example, Judith Wallerstein pioneered the in-depth exploration of children of divorce in the 1970s. Her twenty-five-year study, which followed children from childhood to adulthood, has been both praised and criticized. Wallerstein and Blakeslee 1989 summarizes the important challenges facing children following the divorce of their parents. Another example is the work of Constance Ahrons, one of the first scientists to look closely at the variations among divorcing couples rather than treating them as if they were all the same. Her work suggests that some divorces can be “good” divorces (see Ahrons 1994). For years, work about divorcing families focused on the couple or the mother-child relationships following divorce, and issues that confronted fathers were overlooked. Kaslow 2013 addresses these issues and emphasizes the challenges fathers have experienced. With respect to intervention and mediation services, there are several useful books that focus on helping families manage divorce and custody in ways that lead to more positive outcomes. Two of the most widely read are Emery 2012, which provides a summary of therapeutic techniques and mediation strategies for helping parents resolve custody issues, and Johnston, et al. 2009, which provides therapeutic strategies for helping high-conflict families that are having difficulty resolving divorce and custody issues.

  • Ahrons, Constance R. The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Ahrons introduced many new ideas for thinking about divorce, such as the term binuclear family, as well as five types of post-divorce families, including Perfect Pals, Cooperative Colleagues, Angry Associates, Fiery Foes, and Dissolved Duos. This book encourages others to think about differences across couples and how this affects family outcomes.

  • Cherlin, Andrew J. “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage.” Journal of Marriage and Family 66.4 (2004): 848–861.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0022-2445.2004.00058.xE-mail Citation »

    Over the last century, societal views surrounding why people marry have shifted, and such ideologies influence individuals’ expectations for marriage, as well as their views about divorce. Cherlin highlights these changes and explains how marrying for companionship and personal fulfillment is different from marrying for reasons of economics or procreation.

  • Demo, David H., and Mark A. Fine. Beyond the Average Divorce. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2010.

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    Much of the research with adults and children experiencing divorce has focused on general comparisons between divorced and nondivorced families. In this book, Demo and Fine take a deeper look at variations in divorced families and provide an explanation for why it is important to move past the “average” divorce.

  • Emery, Robert E. Renegotiating Family Relationships: Divorce, Child Custody, and Mediation. 2d ed. New York: Guilford, 2012.

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    The divorce adjustment process for both adults and children is outlined in this book. Additionally, Emery provides information about how to use mediation to develop workable parenting plans and maintain co-parenting strategies that optimize children’s well-being following divorce.

  • Johnston, Janet R., Vivienne Roseby, and Kathryn Kuehnle. In the Name of the child: A Developmental Approach to Understanding and Helping Children of Conflicted and Violent Divorce. 2d ed. New York: Springer, 2009.

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    Families that continue to experience conflict and violence following divorce are the ones most vulnerable to poor mental health or well-being. Written by clinicians who work with these families, this book outlines ways to help these families reduce their conflict.

  • Kaslow, Florence Whiteman. Divorced Fathers and their Families: Legal, Economic, and Emotional Dilemmas. New York: Springer, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4614-5535-6E-mail Citation »

    Written by a therapist, this book recounts thirteen case studies of divorced fathers and their successes and challenges in dealing with divorce, the legal system, and their former spouses. The conclusion provides advice from the fathers about what professionals should consider in dealing with divorcing families.

  • Thompson, Ross A., and Paul R. Amato, eds. The Postdivorce Family: Children, Parenting, and Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book provides an extensive synthesis of the research on the consequences of divorce for children and adults, the experiences of fathers, and the ways that divorce is shaping our society.

  • Wallerstein, Judith S., and Sandra Blakeslee. Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade after Divorce. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book chronicles the lives of children and their parents during the ten years following a divorce. This overview of the challenges faced by children and the ways in which parents either helped or hurt their adjustment provides insight into risk and resiliency factors for children after divorce.

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