Divorce has become prevalent in contemporary societies. As observed by scholars, the instances of divorce have substantially increased over the years most especially in countries where divorce laws are quite lenient. It appears then that the natural urge for parents to bind themselves together and establish a partnership in order to increase their ability to raise their offspring and to increase the survival of the family in general has somehow diminished. In the present society where divorce has become almost a part of a country’s culture, the possibility of having an intact family upbringing becomes increasingly slim. As divorce increases, the number of children that grows out of divorced family background also increases. For the same reason, social scientists are worried that the prevalence of divorce might bring adverse impacts especially to children. In connection to the social issue posed by divorce, this paper would examine its history, prevalence and impact on children and their well-being.
Marriage and Family
The concept of marriage is varied and differs between cultures yet the central aspect to the union of the husband and wife is to establish a family, a social institution, which is understood to perform vital functions for its members. According to Hill, among the primary function of the family is to “produce, nurture, and socialize children; care for frail and elderly family members; provide the laborers needed for the economy; and meet the emotional needs of family members”. The importance of the family and how it provides for the physical, psychological and emotional needs of its members has caused society to develop its primary institutions in order to support and strengthen the family. In relation to strengthening the family, it is believed that marriage, as an institution, has evolved to serve this purpose. The evolution of marriage to strengthen family ties is quite apparent when its history is traced back to the primitive societies. As observed by Hill, “it is quite likely that some form of marriage or at least temporary partnering between women and men” emerged in primitive societies. Marriage was also used to form strategic alliances, which is one way of how early people strengthen their social relationships. It should also be noted though that even though some sort of marriage existed in the early human societies, most people especially the powerful males are practicing polygamy. According to scholars, it could not be determined when exactly the transition from polygamy to monogamy occurred but it is quite certain that present-day monogamy as practiced in the Western societies has been largely influenced by the Judeo-Christian doctrines. The rise of Christianity in the middle Ages has been crucial in the establishment of the modern institution of marriage. Since the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, the church became a crucial institution that determined how marriage relationships developed most especially in western societies. Evidently, the Catholic Church strengthened the institution of marriage by including it as one of its most important sacraments, placing marriage not only as a social union but a sacred union as well.
Without a strong marriage foundation, divorce is common place in early human societies. As observed, in ancient Roman Republic, “a simple statement of intent to divorce was sufficient to effect the dissolution of a marriage”. However, the rise of Christianity throughout the middle Ages changed how people view marriage and divorce especially in the Western societies where Christianity gained a strong foothold. For several years since its widespread acceptance, the Christian laws on marriage and divorce as dictated by the Catholic Church became the established morality in the Western culture. The Catholic Church strictly controlled divorce without opposition. However, the dominance of the Catholic Church in matters of marriage and divorce would eventually become challenged. In the middle of the 16th century, Henry VIII of England divorced his wife Catherine because of her inability to produce a male heir. This led to the excommunication of Henry VIII by the Catholic Pope; triggered the Protestant movement in England; and evidently the start of the liberal view towards marriage and divorce.
Prevalence of Divorce
Every year, there is an increase in the number of couples that undergo divorce. Generally, cases of divorce have risen substantially in almost all countries where it is legal. In the United States, for example, an incremental increase in divorce has been observed since the 1900s. According to statistics, in 1970’s, 12% of American families with children below 18 years old are under the care of single parents. This number doubled in 1984 and continued to rise until today. As observed by Lansford, “In the United States, between 43% and 50% of first marriages end in divorce and 50% of American children will experience their parents’ divorce”. Aside from the U.S., a rising trend in divorce is also observed in OECD countries. In Canada, for instance, since 1920’s, the number of divorce has raised from 558 in 1920 to 71,269 cases in 2005. Most scholars believe that the prevalence of divorce in past decade can be attributed to the new laws that broaden the grounds for divorce. In the United States, for example, divorce has been practiced as early as 1600s that it is understood to have been already deeply imbedded in American culture. As observed by Beaman, “It is possible that divorce has continuously been part of American life because early American beliefs fostered a climate favorable to it”. Similarly, as observed by Ambert, divorce has greatly increased in Canada in the period between 1970 and 1995 because of the Divorce Act, which broadened the grounds for divorce. Aside from judicial reforms, economic factors as well as inter-personal factors are also cited as the primary reasons why most American couples end up in divorce. Women, for instance, have already become economically independent while extra-marital affairs have become common when happiness or sexual satisfaction is not met.
Impact of Divorce to Children
While divorce is often seen as a solution for marital issues, the prevalence of divorce over the years has alarmed social scientists citing its potential impacts to society especially towards children. Among the major impact of divorce to children are:
Juvenile Delinquency - Scholars believe that divorce, which is equivalent to the breakdown of family institution, increases the tendency or risk of delinquent behavior among minors. This tendency is explained by the theory of social disorganization, which posits that the breakdown of social institutions such as the church; the school; and most especially the family; is a major factor that drives delinquent behaviors among minors . Initially developed by Shaw and McKay in the 1940s to explain the delinquent behavior in the bustling metropolis of Chicago, the theory of social disorganization has become one of the highly accepted theories both in criminology and sociology . Along with economic, ethnic and residential factors, Shaw and McKay concluded that family disruptions results to social disorganization, which increases crime and delinquency especially among minors. Also related to social disorganization and juvenile delinquency, the breakdown of families as a result of divorce creates an environment that is conducive to gang behavior. Most likely, children who lack the nurturing function of a nuclear family might seek its equivalent in other social groups such as friends and peers. Most often, children who come from problematic family backgrounds end up joining gangs. According to scholars, children that come from families that have low authority or have minimal supervision over their children are at also those children that are at higher risk of being involved in gang membership that eventually results to delinquent behaviors .
Health and Well-Being - Aside from fostering delinquent behaviors among children, divorce elicit severe emotional stress in children that could lead to personality disorders and other psychological issues. The extent of the emotional and psychological disturbances varies depending on the gender as well as the age of the children. In a study conducted by Demo and Acock, it was found that boys are particularly affected by divorce as they tend to exhibit aggressive behavior and recover or adjusts more slowly as compared to girls. Accordingly, “evidence suggests that adjustment problems are more severe and last for longer periods of time among boys” and that “boys in divorced families manifested significantly more maladaptive symptoms and behavior problems than boys in intact families”. Older children, on the other hand, can adapt easily to family disruptions as compared to younger children because they can confide to their peers and discuss their predicament with friends. Younger children on the other hand might get confused and could experience severe emotional trauma as a result of his or her parent’s divorce. Aside from psychological issues, most often, the severe anxiety and depression on children could lead to other adverse physical reactions such as headaches, stomach aches and fatigue.
Divorce Cycle – Most scholars believe that children who grows up in a divorced family would also end up being divorced themselves when they marry. As observed by Wolfinger, children from divorce families are more likely to: marry as teenagers but less likely to wed overall; more likely to marry children with divorced family backgrounds; and are more likely to dissolve second and third marriages. The tendency of children from divorced families to continue the divorce cycle can be explained by the social learning theory; popularized by Bandura, Akers and Bugress, which suggests that children view adults as role models. Under the social learning theory, children opt to learn social behavior that leads to divorce as a result of the environment where parents serve as the role model. As a result, the cycle of divorce indefinitely continues, which explains the increasing rate of divorce in countries where the act is already prevalent. As observed by scholars, “Children’s approval of premarital sex, cohabitation, and divorce rises dramatically, while their endorsement of marriage and childbearing falls”.
Weak Family Relationship – The primary function of a family to “produce, nurture, and socialize children; care for frail and elderly family members; provide the laborers needed for the economy; and meet the emotional needs of family members” is evidently weakened by divorce. As observed by Fagan and Churchill, divorce weakens: the parent-child relationship; mother to child relationship; father to child relationship; even relationships between siblings. Accordingly, children from divorced families gets less attention; less emotional support and less financial assistance from their parents, which eventually lead to broken parent-child relationships. Children may also risk losing their relationships with their grandparents as well as of their siblings as they are forced to take sides between their separating parents.
The value of an intact family could never be more emphasized when studying the effects of divorce on children. While most couples believe that divorce is the best solution to end their marital problems, the impact of divorce on children is clearly devastating. As observed and supported by social theories, divorce can impact children in several ways such as: increasing the risk of delinquent behaviors; increasing the risk of having adverse mental and physical health issues; increasing the risk of being divorced themselves when they marry; and weakens the bond that ties the family together.
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