More and more scientific information is being accumulated about the long-term effects of divorce on children. Until very recently, most of what we knew was about the immediate or short-term effects of divorce, but increasingly long-term studies are providing insights about effects on the formation of intimate relationships and marriages in adulthood.
The major finding that gets the most attention is the slightly increased likelihood that children of divorce will also divorce. But beyond that there has been little understanding about what contributes to this finding what else is different about relationships of children whose parents divorce.
One interesting new report on the long-term effects of divorce on intimate relationships was conducted in Finland and recently reported in the Journal of Family Psychology (2011). A group of scientists at the National Institute for Health and Welfare and the University of Helsinki conducted a 16-year follow-up study of 1471 teenagers in one Finnish community. Ulla Mustonen and colleagues were interested in understanding the intimate relationships of these adults at 32 years of age and the role that parent-child relationships may have played in their adult relationships.
In keeping with previous research, they found that children with divorced parents were somewhat more likely to be separated or divorced in young adulthood. Additionally, young women whose parents divorced were also less likely to have been married. Surprisingly, parental divorce showed no predictive relationship with divorce for young men.
On the other hand, there were a number of important findings about the ways in which parental divorce affected young women. Though parental divorce itself did have a direct effect on young women's chances of divorce, the major effect of divorce on young women was the mother-daughter relationship in adolescence. Parental divorce tended to undermine the mother-daughter relationship; however, when a positive relationship was maintained, this resulted in better self-esteem and satisfaction with social support in young adulthood, which contributed to better intimate relationships.
This finding means that one of the key factors in fostering the long-term well-being of children of divorce is through strengthening positive parent-child relationships. For this study, a positive parent-child relationship was more important for women than men, but the importance of these adolescent relationships should not be overlooked as we think about programs and policies to foster the long-term health of children.
These findings highlight a key direction for future research on the effects of divorce on children. The mere finding that these children may be more at-risk of difficulties should no longer occupy so much of our attention. The important work is understanding the factors within relationships and family process that contribute to these outcomes and identifying opportunities to buffer the negative effects while building on the positive factors. Much progress in improving children's well-being is possible and deserving of more attention.