Divorce and Remarriage

  1. 12.6 Summarize problems in measuring divorce, research findings on children and grandchildren of divorce, fathers’ contact after divorce, ex-spouses, and remarriage.

The topic of family life would not be complete without considering divorce. Let’s first try to determine how much divorce there is.


Thinking Like a 
Sociologist: Marriage, Divorce, 
and Families in the U.S.

Ways of Measuring Divorce

You probably have heard that the U.S. divorce rate is 50 percent, a figure that is popular with reporters. The statistic is true in the sense that each year about half as many divorces are granted as there are marriages performed. The totals are about 2 million marriages and 1 million divorces (Statistical Abstract 2013:Table 135).

What is wrong, then, with saying that the divorce rate is about 50 percent? Think about it for a moment. Why should we compare the number of divorces and marriages that take place during the same year? The couples who divorced do not—with rare exceptions—come from the group that married that year. The one number has nothing to do with the other, so in no way do these two statistics reveal the divorce rate.

What figures should we compare, then? Couples who divorce come from the entire group of married people in the country. Since the United States has 60,000,000 married couples, and about 1 million of them get divorced in a year, the divorce rate for any given year is less than 2 ­percent. A couple’s chances of still being married at the end of a year are over 98 percent—not bad odds—and certainly much better odds than the mass media would have us believe. As the Social Map shows, the “odds”—if we want to call them that—depend on where you live.

Figure 12.14

The “Where” of U.S. Divorce

A map shows state wise annual divorce rate, recorded per 1,000 people in the United States. Iowa (2.4), Massachusetts (2.5), and Illinois (2.6) have the lowest divorce rates, whereas Nevada (5.9), Arkansas (5.7), and Oklahoma (5.2) have the highest divorce rates.

Note: Data for Indiana and Louisiana, based on the earlier editions in the source, have been decreased by the average decrease in U.S. divorce.

Source: By the author. Based on Statistical Abstract of the United States 1995:Table 149; 2002:Table 111; 2013:Table 134.

Over time, of course, each year’s small percentage adds up. A third way of measuring divorce, then, is to ask, “Of all U.S. adults, what percentage are divorced?” Figure 12.15 answers this question. You can see how divorce has increased over the years and how race–ethnicity makes a difference for the likelihood that couples will divorce.

Figure 12.15

The Increase in Divorce

A bar graph tracks the increase in the percentage of divorced Americans across various racial-ethnic groups from 1970 to 2010.

Note: This figure shows the percentage of those who are divorced and have not remarried, not the percentage of those who have ever divorced. Only these racial–ethnic groups are listed in the source. The source only recently added data on Asian Americans.

Source: By the author. Based on Statistical Abstract of the United States 1995:Table 58; 2013:Table 56.

Figure 12.15 shows us the percentage of Americans who are currently divorced, but we get yet another answer if we ask the question, “What percentage of Americans have ever been divorced?” This percentage increases with each age group, peaking when people reach their 50s (“Marital History . . .” 2004). Overall, about 43 to 46 percent of marriages end in divorce (Amato 2010), so a divorce rate of 50 percent is actually fairly accurate.

National statistics are fine, but you probably want to know if sociologists have found anything that will tell you about your chances of divorce. This is the topic of the Down-to-Earth Sociology box.

A black-and-white cartoon shows a couple facing the pastor in a wedding chapel. The caption reads “I now pronounce you second husband and fourth wife.”

This fanciful depiction of marital trends may not be too far off the mark.

© Sidney Harris, ScienceCartoonPlus.com

Divorce and Intermarriage

It is “common knowledge” that people who marry outside their racial–ethnic group have a higher divorce rate. This is true in general, but it is not quite this simple (Wang 2012). Researchers have found that it depends on “who marries whom.” Marriages between African American men and white women are the most likely to break up. Their rate is much higher than the national average. For marriages between Latinos and whites, the divorce rate is less than that of African American men and white women but still higher than the U.S. average.

The researchers also came up with a major surprise: Some mixed marriages, as they are called, have a lower divorce rate than the U.S. average. The marriages that are more durable than the national average are those between Asian Americans and whites and those in which the husband is white and the wife is African American. Why these marriages are stronger is not known at present.

Children of Divorce

Emotional Problems. Children whose parents divorce are more likely than children reared by both parents to experience emotional problems, both during childhood and after they grow up (Amato and Sobolewski 2001; Weitoft et al. 2003). They are also more likely to become juvenile delinquents (Wallerstein et al. 2001) and less likely to complete high school, to attend college, or to graduate from college (McLanahan and Schwartz 2002). Finally, the children of divorce are themselves more likely to divorce, perpetuating a marriage–divorce cycle (Cui and Fincham 2010).

Two drawings by a fourth-grade boy whose parents are divorced. The first shows a boy alone beside a tree in a park. The second panel shows a father holding the hand of his son, standing beside the same tree in the park.

It is difficult to capture the anguish of the children of divorce, but when I read these lines by the 
fourth-grader who drew these two pictures, my heart was touched:

Me alone in the park . . .
All alone in the park.
My Dad and Mom are divorced
that’s why I’m all alone.

This is me in the picture with my son.
We are taking a walk in the park.
I will never be like my father.
I will never divorce my wife and kid.

Is the greater maladjustment of the children of divorce a serious problem? This question initiated a lively debate between two psychologists. Judith Wallerstein claims that divorce scars children, making them depressed and leaving them with insecurities that follow them into adulthood (Wallerstein et al. 2001). Mavis Hetherington replies that 75 to 80 percent of children of divorce function as well as children who are reared by both of their parents (Hetherington and Kelly 2003).

Without meaning to weigh in on either side of this debate, it doesn’t seem to be a simple case of the glass being half empty or half full. If 75 to 80 percent of children of divorce don’t suffer long-term harm, this leaves one-fourth to one-fifth who do. Any way you look at it, one-fourth or one-fifth of a million children each year is a lot of kids who are having a lot of problems.

What helps children adjust to divorce? The children who feel close to both parents make the best adjustment, and those who don’t feel close to either parent make the worst adjustment (Richardson and McCabe 2001). Children have an especially difficult time when one parent tries to undermine the other. These children are more likely to be depressed and insecure—even after they are grown up (Ben-Ami and Baker 2012). Children adjust well if they experience little conflict, feel loved, live with a parent who is making a good adjustment, and have consistent routines. It also helps if their family has adequate money to meet its needs. Children also adjust better if a second adult can be counted on for support (Hayashi and Strickland 1998). Urie Bronfenbrenner (1992) says this person is like the third leg of a stool, giving stability to the smaller family unit. Any adult can be the third leg, he says—a relative, friend, or even a former mother-
in-law—but the most powerful stabilizing third leg is the father, the ex-husband. (For children living with their father, it is the mother, of course.)

Perpetuating Divorce. When the children of divorce grow up and marry, they are more likely to divorce than are adults who grew up in intact families. Have researchers found any factors that increase the chances that the children of divorce will have successful marriages? Actually, they have. Children of divorce are more likely to have a lasting marriage if they marry someone whose parents did not divorce. These marriages have more trust and less conflict. If both husband and wife come from broken families, however, it is not good news. Those marriages tend to have less trust and more conflict, leading to a higher chance of divorce (Wolfinger 2003).

Grandchildren of Divorce

Paul Amato and Jacob Cheadle (2005), the first sociologists to study the grandchildren of couples who had divorced, found that the effects of divorce continue across generations. Using a national sample, they compared grandchildren—those whose grandparents had divorced with those whose grandparents had not divorced. Their findings are astounding. The grandchildren of divorce have weaker ties to their parents, don’t go as far in school, and don’t get along as well with their spouses. As these researchers put it, when parents divorce, the consequences ripple through the lives of children who are not yet born.

Fathers’ Contact with Children after Divorce

With most children living with their mothers after divorce, how often do fathers see their children? As you can see from Table 12.3, researchers have found four main patterns. The most common pattern is for fathers to see their children frequently after the divorce, and to keep doing so. But as you can see, a similar number of fathers have little contact with their children both right after the divorce and in the following years.

Which fathers are more likely to see and talk often to their children? It is men who were married to the mothers of the children, especially those who are older, more educated, and have higher incomes. In contrast, men who were cohabiting with the mothers, as well as younger, less educated men with lower incomes, tend to have less contact with their children. If his former wife marries, the father tends to see his children less (Berger et al. 2012).

Table 12.3

Fathers’ Contact with Their Children after Divorce

Frequent more info Minimal more info Decrease more info Increase more info
38% 32% 23% 8%

Source: By the author: Based on Cheadle et al. 2010.

The Ex-Spouses

Anger, depression, and anxiety are common feelings at divorce. But so is relief. Women are more likely than men to feel that divorce is giving them a “new chance” in life. A few couples manage to remain friends through it all—but they are the exception. The spouse who initiates the divorce usually gets over it sooner (Kelly 1992; Wang and Amato 2000) and remarries sooner (Sweeney 2002).

Divorce does not necessarily mean the end of a couple’s relationship. Many divorced couples maintain contact because of their children. For others, the continuities, as sociologists call them, represent lingering attachments (Vaughan 1985; Masheter 1991; author’s file 2005). The former husband may help his former wife paint a room or move furniture; she may invite him over for a meal or to watch television. They might even go to dinner or to see a movie together. Some couples even continue to make love after they divorce.


Remarriage is now so common that one-fourth (24 percent) of married couples are on their second (or more) marriage (Elliott and Lewis 2010). As you can see in Figure 12.16, divorced people are as likely to marry other divorced people as someone who has not been married before. How do remarriages work out? The divorce rate of remarried people without children is the same as that of first marriages. For those who bring children into a new marriage, however, marriage and family life are more complicated and stressful, and these couples are more likely to divorce (MacDonald and DeMaris 1995). A lack of clear norms may also undermine these marriages (Coleman et al. 2000). As sociologist Andrew Cherlin (1989) noted, we lack satisfactory names for stepmothers, stepfathers, stepbrothers, stepsisters, stepaunts, stepuncles, stepcousins, and stepgrandparents. Not only are these awkward terms to use, but they also represent ill-defined relationships.

Figure 12.16

The Marital History of U.S. Brides and Grooms

A bar graph tracks the marital trend of brides and grooms, who marry and remarry.

Source: By the author. Based on Statistical Abstract of the United States 2000:Table 145. Table dropped in later editions.