The Consequences of Divorce

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Children of divorced parents are less likely to end their own marriages today than their predecessors were back in the early 1970s. Before 1975, new research finds, people from divorced families were 2.5 times more likely to have dissolved their marriages than their counterparts from intact families. By 1996, the likelihood had slipped to just 1.4, says Nicholas Wolfinger, professor at the University of Utah and author of the 1999 study, "Coupling and Uncoupling: Changing Marriage Patterns and the Intergenerational Transmission of Divorce."

One explanation, which Wolfinger confirms in his research, is that the negative effects of divorce on children areweakening. Divorce has become more socially acceptable in the past 20 years and no longer takes such a strong toll on kids, he explains. Without such heavy emotional baggage, children are better equipped to succeed in their own marriages.

But there's another factor at work: declining marriage rates among children of divorce. Wolfinger used data from the General Social Survey, a random sample of 22,000 individuals that's been conducted annually or biennially by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago since 1972. Respondents from divorced families in 1973 were 36 percent more likely to marry than those from intact families. By 1994, they were slightly less likely to marry, perhaps reflecting their declining faith in the institution of marriage.

Look closer at the results for various age groups, however, and other patterns emerge. Children of divorce who were younger than 20 years old had very high rates of marriage, both in 1973 and 1994. Children who were older than 20 followed a very different course - in 1973, they had the same marriage rates as their peers who grew up in two-parent households. In 1994, they were 26 percent less likely to get hitched than people from intact families. Wolfinger also notes that demographic variables, such as educational attainment, race, gender, and presence of siblings, do not affect the relationship between parental divorce and getting married.

One reason for the decline in marriage rates, Wolfinger suggests, is an increase in cohabitation. Additional research has shown that children of divorce are disproportionately likely to live with their partner - and less likely to ever marry them. "Divorce rates for people from divorced families and for people from intact families will never converge," Wolfinger says. "They'll come close, but most of the time, divorce will still be hard on kids."

For more information, e-mail Wolfinger at Nick.Wolfinger@fcs. utah.edu.

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