The belief that rising divorce rates indicate the dissolution of the family--and hence of society, given that the family is its central building block--is far from new. Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, complained in 1816 that marriage and the family were going to the dogs in Connecticut because one marriage in a hundred was ending in divorce. Between 1869 and 1889, the divorce rate increased 150%. It jumped another 250% between 1960 and 1980. After peaking in 1981 and declining through the mid-eighties, the rate  leveled off at about 4.7 divorces per 1,000 population in the late 1980s and early 1990s before again declining to 4.2 in 1998.  Interestingly, while divorces overall dropped between 1981 and 1990, there was a 16 percent rise in divorces of couples married 30 years or more. For the first time in history, a married couple is as likely to be parted by divorce as by death. Click here to see divorce data sets  from the National Center for Health Statistics; for an overview of Glenda Riley's Divorce: An American Tradition, click here.

Numerous factors underlying rising divorce rates have been identified or suspected.   Christopher Lasch identifies Victorian roots of the revolution in "Divorce and the Family in America" (The Atlantic Monthly, 1966).  Additional prime suspects include:

Since 1974, the NORC General Social Surveys have included the question "Should divorce in this country be easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?" (variable DIVLAW) Between 1974 and 2002, the percentage of Americans responding "easier" declined from 34% to 27% while the percentage saying divorce should be more difficult increased from 44% to 51%. So who is most likely to want divorce laws tightened?

Given our need for rite-of-passage rituals coupled with the importance of divorcing couples with children to remain friends rather than bitter enemies, it is not surprising that divorce ceremonies have appeared. In 1980, Sheila Davis, a divorce-court welfare officer in Birmingham, England, devised the following procedure: She asks couples to join hands and repeat after her, "Goodbye and thank you for the good times we had in our marriage. I wish you all the best. Our relationship will continue as mother and father of our children but not as husband and wife. Good luck." Click here for an example of a Unitarian divorce ceremony.  See ABCNews.com's report "Parting Rite: More Couples Marking Divorce With a Ceremony."


In 1990, 16.8 per 1000 children under 18 years of age were involved in divorce. It is estimated that more than one-half of American children are now likely to experience the dissolution of their parents' marriage by the time they are 18. One third of children born during the 1980s are predicted to live in a stepfamily before 18. In studying how these children of divorce fare as adults, Glenn and Kramer (1985) analyzed eight years of the NORC General Social Science Surveys and found that on eight indicators of psychological well-being (e.g., happiness, health, and satisfactions with life activities) that female children of divorce scored as adults significantly lower on six measures and males lower on three. Click here for an analysis of the long- term effects of parental divorce on children.

In Lewis Terman's famous longitudinal study of gifted California children (n=1,521), begun in 1921 with follow-ups every 5 or 10 years, it was found that those whose parents divorced faced a 33 percent greater risk of an earlier death (average age at death=76 years) than those whose parents remained married until the children reached age 21 (average age at death=80). According to Dr. Howard Friedman, who did the analyses, there was no such mortality effect for children whose parents had died (cited in Daniel Goleman. 1995. "75 Years Later, Study Is Still Tracking Geniuses." New York Times [March 7]).


In addition to the toll on children, there are the emotional and financial costs bore by the divorced spouses, particularly for the female. In 1986, the media carried the statistics of how in the first year following a divorce that, on average, women's standard of living declined by 73% while that of men increased by 43%--figures that were later corrected to -27% and +10% respectively.  One analysis of national mortality data showed that for deaths that could be related to psychological factors, the divorced were worse off than the widowed in eight of 10 categories. When, for instance, comparing the suicide rates of females who were married with those divorced or widowed, the rate was more than twice as great for widowed women and almost three and a half times higher for women who were separated or divorced (cited in Jane Brody, "Divorce's Stress Exacts Long-Term Health Toll," New York Times, Dec. 13, 1983).


According to Dr. Arnold Kornhaber, co-author of Grandparents-Grandchildren: The Vital Connection, the grandparent-grandchild bond is second only in emotional importance to the bond between parents and children. For grandparents, grandchildren represent a form of symbolic immortality. So what happens when their child, the parent of their only grandchildren, gets divorced and loses visitation rights? In 1984, the New York Supreme Court ruled in such a case, over the objections of a boy's mother and adoptive father, that his paternal grandparents have a right under state law to visit their grandson even through his real father no longer had visitation rights. By 1990, laws in all 50 states allow the grandparents to petition the courts to keep seeing their grandchildren. In 1997, legislation was proposed in Iowa for great-grandparent visitation rights.

It is interesting that the time when most of these laws protecting grandparent visitation rights were established, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, corresponded with the 1978 establishment of "Grandparents Day" (which falls on the first Sunday after Labor Day). In fact, getting Congress to pass legislation for Grandparent's Day was no easy feat. A retired real estate developer with a number of older supporters lobbied for six years until it was made official.


It is estimated by some demographers that as many as one-third of all children born during the 1980s will live with a stepparent before they reach 18. According to the latest available Census figures, there were close to 7 million children living in stepfamilies (or "blended" families) in 1985, an increase of 11.6 percent in just five years.

There are a number of recognized problems and needs of stepfamilies, of these families born of loss. When compared to those from intact families, stepchildren are reported by psychologists to have significantly more developmental, emotional and behavioral problems, but these vary given the educational and income levels of their families and their age at the time of remarriage.

Sociologist Albert Bergesen (University of Arizona) develops the ironies of how these new family forms can actually increase broader social solidarities--how divorce, instead of producing more singles, yields ever larger family unities which he labels "filament families". He argues that because of the rise of no-fault divorce--where one is to remain friends with the ex-, or at least be cordial--and with the growth of joint custody of children, relations are extended beyond both nuclear and blended families. Increasing divorce thus leads to ever-wider webs of familial relations. For example, say following divorce, that dad's children go to live with their mother and her new family. Given his continuing parental responsibility, dad remains close to them and perhaps develops some relationship with their new step brothers and sisters (and possibly even with the step-grandparents, -aunts, and -uncles). When mom divorces again, she moves on with the children from her first marriage and with their new half brothers and sisters (and possibly even with the step brothers and sisters from the second marriage; social workers report an increasing incidence of custodial parents remarrying into a blended family and then disappearing, leaving the new spouse with his or her children). The visitation rights of the stepparents, in addition to those of the grandparents, have already been reaffirmed by the courts in certain conditions. Are you still with me? Do we not still have a family, albeit one with thinner and looser ties (hence the filament label)? Since dad remains responsible for his children and friendly with his ex, this family remains, no matter how many times he or his ex remarry.

Stepfamily Association of America
Stepfamily Foundation
FamilyFusion--a newsletter and web forum that serves the stepfamily and blended family communities


Given one underlying theme of these pages, the commodification of family life, it should come as little surprise that divorce has spawned a multibillion dollar industry. Those who profit include marriage mediators, special attorneys (legal fees alone amounted to over three billion dollars by the mid-1980s), property appraisers, therapists, and even the appliance and furniture industries (regarding the latter, a consultant for furniture retailers and manufacturers observed how the “divorce rate is keeping the furniture business alive” [Iovine, Julie V. 2001. “Divorce creating furniture niche.” New York Times, July 12]. )  According to the Association for Family and Conciliation Courts, there was as of 1995 more than 500 court-affiliated parent-education programs for divorcing parents in 41 states.

DivorceNet--"the net's largest divorce resource"
The Divorce Directory--compendium of articles on divorce, divorce laws (broken down by state), and related legal issues
DIVORCE Magazine: Home Page
Divorce Online
Divorce Talk
The Divorce Page
Divorce & Family Law Links (Marital Dissolution, Child Custody, Division of Property, Mediation)


Every year, nearly eight million Americans suffer the death of a close family member. The event can disrupt life patterns and routines for as long as three years, commonly for at least a year. There are, of course, a number of factors determining this disruptive potential of death, including:


Increasingly for those in the American middle class, the first familial death experienced is that of a grandparent. Indeed, for nearly one-half of the undergraduates here at Trinity University, the first remembered death experience involved the death of grandparents. For them, the lesson is that death typically comes to the old within institutionalized settings, to those who have lived full, completed lives. Had our sample of those in their early twenties included more minorities and those of the lower classes, the lesson may have been quite different: that death comes prematurely due to violence.


Next to the death of spouse and offspring, the deaths of one's parents often produce the greatest degree of Americans' grief. Triggered may be guilt over failing to be the ideal son or daughter, and introspection, which can lead to closer ties with children or other family members. With the death of the last parent, one not only is "orphaned" but typically enters the status of family elder. One also becomes next generation "up to bat" with the Grim Reaper, as Ralph Keyes, author of Fathers on Sons, observes:

I think when you lose your parents, it's like that line of defense is gone. You're at the rear of a formation of soldiers being shot at and the first two rows collapse. ... I remember when my mom died a minister said to me that you feel vulnerable in a way you didn't when your parents were still alive. You have to step forward and say, "I'm ready to assume responsibility in the world."

Once again analyzing the combined NORC General Social Surveys from 1973- 94, let's first examine the timetables of parental death in the United States.

18-29 96% 1% 2% 88% 5% 5%
30-39 89% 1% 5% 74% 5% 9%
40-49 75% 2% 8% 50% 6% 14%
50-59 45% 3% 15% 21% 7% 15%
60-69 19% 3% 12% 10% 7% 8%
70-79 8% 5% 8% 6% 7% 4%
80+ 6% 4% 2% 6% 7% 1%

We don't hear much about orphans these days. With declines in adult mortality over the course of this century, the percentage of the total childhood population falling into this category dropped from 16.3 to 5.4 percent just between 1920 and 1953. In the United States, the last of the orphanages--one traditional mechanism for managing children without parents--disappeared during the 1950s. Another mechanism was the "orphan train," which carried more than 100,000 New York City orphans West between 1856 and 1930. At each stop, the children would be displayed before the train, where farmers and ranchers would make their selection (interpretations varied: some were chosing a child, others indentured servants or "white slaves"). Those not picked (and siblings were often separated) would reboard the train to move on to the next town.


In Lifting the Taboo: Women, Death and Dying (London: Little, Brown and Company), Sally Cline observes how the stigma of being a widow derives from the fact that it is a status typically occupied by females.  Indeed,  some 85% of wives outlive their husbands.  Examination of the marital status of those 65 years of age and older in the combined 1973-94 NORC General Social Surveys, women are more than three times as likely as men [56% vs. 18%] to be widowed.

In couple-oriented, patriarchal societies, the widow is one often viewed as being unavailable, uninteresting, and being either sexually uninviting or a predator. Observes Sally Cline:

The Old English widewe originated in the Indo-European root widh meaning to be empty or separated. The Sanskrit vidh means destitute or lacking. Joseph T. Shipley in the Dictionary of Word Origins points out that "since marriage has made two of one, a widow is a woman that has been emptied of herself." Other writers confirm this notion: "She was a widow, that strange feminine entity who had once been endowed with a dual personality and was now only half of what she had been." These meanings are not similarly affixed to widowers ( p. 147).

Underlying much of the problematic nature of this social status is, as generally is the case,  the matter of property ownership--specifically, who inherits what of the deceased's estate?   (Returning to the previous paragraph's discussion of stigmatizing labels, it's interesting to note how the word "quarantine" [from the Italian quaranta, meaning forty] originally referred to the 40 days during which a widow had the right to remain in  her deceased husband's house.)  If a Masai warrior dies single, a bride may be selected to inherit his property and name.  Such is not the case  in modern, revenue-hungry, warfare-welfare nation-states.  

Studies of widows have located the common themes of financial stress, feelings of aloneness, loss of friends and social isolation, and problems with other family members. Children, for instance, may deny their widowed mother opportunities for substitute intimate relationships, demanding a nun-like status out of respect for their deceased father (Cline observes how, cross-culturally, silence and celibacy are interwoven with ideas of widowhood). To be first widowed in one's friendship structure can be highly stigmatizing as one is perceived to perhaps be a threat to couple relationships, a reminder of women's eventual fate, and a potential victim of the widow-attachment syndrome, where one claws for intimate other's attachments, ensnaring them in obligatory roles such as by having them do one's decision making.

It may be the case that the above problems are even more profound for widows of those cohorts now old. These are the generations of women who were generally too old to be affected by the feminist movement of recent decades. Often their identities were so totally dependent upon that of their spouses that when death did occur these females lost a significant portion of their very self-concept. On the other hand, as age discrepancies between husbands and wives were greater in the past than in the present, many husbands had prepared their wives to be widows. For more recent generations of women, however, things may be different as women may be more likely to have anticipatory socialization for widowhood because of previous divorces and because a greater portion of their identities are derived from their activities in the work world.

Out of the 800,000 Americans widowed each year, 10 percent to 20 percent--up to 160,000--still suffer serious depressions a year or more later, according to a 1982 National Academy of Sciences report.

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