Of all the changes in family life during the 20th century, perhaps the most traumatic-and the most far-reaching in its implications-was the increase in the rate of divorce. Near the middle of the 19th century, only about 5% of first marriages ended in divorce (Preston & McDonald, 1989).
In contrast, demographers estimate that about half of first marriages initiated in recent years will be voluntarily dissolved (Cherlin, 1992).Observers have attributed this change to a number of factors, including the increasing economic independence of women, declining earnings among men without college degrees, rising expectations for personal fulfillment from marriage, and greater social acceptance of divorce (Cherlin, 1992). The increase in divorce-and the implications of this increase for the lives of adults and children-has generated a high level of interest among social scientists.Indeed, a search of the sociofile database revealed 9,282 articles published (and dissertations completed) between 1990 and 1999 in which "divorce" appeared in the title or abstract. The authors of these works represent a variety of disciplines, including developmental psychology, clinical psychology, family therapy, sociology, demography, communication studies, family science, history, economics, social work, public health, social policy, and law.
The extent and diversity of divorce scholarship pose a sobering challenge to any reviewer attempting to synthesize current knowledge on this topic.Researchers in the 1990s have employed a variety of theories and conceptual perspectives to explain how divorce affects adults and children; these include feminist theory (Carbonne, 1994), attachment theory (Hazan & Shaver, 1992), attribution theory (Grych & Fincham, 1992), symbolic interactionism (Orbuch, 1992), systems theory (Emery, 1994), the social capital perspective (Teachman, Paasch, & Carver, 1996), and the life-course perspective (Amato, 1993). The largest number of studies, however, begin with the assumption that marital disruption is a stressful life transition to which adults and children must adjust.Many researchers link their work to established stress perspectives, such as family stress and coping theory (Henry, & Robinson, 1997), general stress theory (Thoits, 1995), and the risk and resiliency perspective (Cowan, Cowan, & Schulz, 1996).
Because stress frameworks dominate the literature on divorce, I give them particular attention here. And because these frameworks have much in common, I combine their various elements into a general divorcestress-adjustment perspective.This conceptual model integrates the assumptions found in many discrete pieces of research, helps to summarize and organize specific research findings from the 1990s, and provides a guide for future research on divorce. This perspective also is useful because it can be applied to children as well as adults. In my years of counseling experience, I have observed that many individuals, like Cinderella in the story above, have been traumatized by the infidelity of their partners.At any given time, approximately 20% of my adult caseload are victims of infidelity, and half of those exhibit intense and prolonged stress reactions.
Certainly, discovering a partner's adultery causes enormous stress for any individual. However, some are traumatized, feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope, often for years. Their reaction is similar to those who have had life-threatening experiences, such as war, natural disasters, violent crimes, physical and sexual abuse, and automobile accidents.These individuals manifest a predictable pattern of symptoms marked by alternating periods of emotional numbing and reliving the horror of the trauma (van der Kolk, McFarlane, ; Weisaeth, 1996). Many victims of infidelity experience their psychic life threatened, and become preoccupied with the betrayal and filled with rage.
In fact, those who are victims of adultery would often ask, "Why can't I just get over the affair and move on with my life? " In my counseling experience, it is helpful to explain the nature of the trauma they experienced and how their reaction is a predictable response to an extraordinary event.These clients often breathe a sigh of relief and tell me, "I thought I was going crazy. " In understanding their painful experience and reactions in the broader context of a traumatic response, they become more patient with themselves and the recovery process. They feel more confident they will survive the journey on the road to recovery traversed by many others who have experienced life-threatening events.
Sadly, the reality of marriage and committed relationships today is that mutual love, promised to last forever, often ends prematurely.It is common knowledge that half of marriages in the United States end in divorce, causing untold pain and turmoil for the couple and their families. In addition, a significant number of separations are precipitated by an infidelity on the part of one or both of the partners. Researchers have estimated that 37% of men and 20% of women have had sexual affairs sometime during their marriages (Spring, 1996). Part of this essay, I will discuss the trauma and the major effect of loss from the perspective of Cinderella, realizing that only half the story is being told.
Men have a similar traumatic response to discovered infidelity but divorce their unfaithful spouses more frequently than women. What makes the discovery of an affair so traumatic? It is experienced as a betrayal of trust. Erikson (1959) wrote extensively about human growth and contended that individuals progress through eight identifiable stages. In each stage, individuals are presented with an age-appropriate challenge that must be successfully completed before moving on to the next stage of growth. Each challenge requires a psychic risk, which leads to a new perspective on life and a new challenge.
Failure to negotiate the challenge leads to maladjustment and stagnation. Erikson (1950) identified the first stage of human growth as the choice between trust and mistrust, and claimed that developing a sense of trust is "the cornerstone of a vital personality" (p. 97). Recognizing the trustworthiness of oneself and others opens individuals to relationships, love, and growth, whereas mistrust leads to estrangement and withdrawal from others into oneself.
It also destroys the possibility of engaging in any life-giving relationship with others.In this way, an affair is often experienced as a fatal psychic wound and a death blow to the relationship. Experience of Intense Fear, Helplessness, or Horror Traumatized individuals become fixated on the horror of what they experienced. Victims of infidelity also live in fear of another infidelity; they need constant reassurance and feel helpless to prevent it.
After discovering the affair, Cinderella initially felt she had gained some control over her life by demanding that Jim leave their home immediately. However, she became frightened because she had never lived alone before. Every night noise or creaking sound startled her.She also thought of herself as a violated person, "damaged goods,” that no one would ever love again. She believed she was condemned to live the rest of her life alone because she could never trust another man again. Cinderella felt helpless in confronting her fears and could not stop crying.
Emotional Numbing Trauma victims become so overwhelmed by their feelings of anxiety, rage, and helplessness that they attempt to cope by withdrawing into an emotional "cocoon. " They detach from life and from themselves to survive the emotional storm. Survivors of infidelity cope by shutting down their feelings and often drink alcohol to self-medicate.After discovering her husband's affair, Cinderella became a different person. She had always been vibrant and full of life, with a wide circle of friends with whom she was frequently in contact. She was admired for her generosity, energy, and optimism.
Now she reported feeling dead inside and lacking energy or interest in going out. She sat in her backyard and daydreamed for hours to avoid painful thoughts of Dave’s adultery. She knew the children were being neglected and felt guilty about it, but had only enough energy to take care of their physical needs.In addition, Cinderella began to have trouble at her pan-time sales job in a clothing store. She had always had a flair for her work and been the top salesperson, but had become so distracted she could hardly concentrate on her job and uncharacteristically missed work.
She had never been a drinker, but now found herself looking forward to a cocktail hour each afternoon. Cinderella felt too ashamed to talk with her friends about what had happened and began to isolate herself more. She described losing all hope for the future and could not imagine herself ever being emotionally involved with a man again.Major Effects of Loss A large number of studies published during the 1990s found that divorced individuals, compared with married individuals, experience lower levels of psychological well-being, including lower happiness, more symptoms of psychological distress, and poorer self-concepts (Aseltine & Kessler, 1993; Davies et al. , 1997; Demo & Acock, 1996; Kitson, 1992; Lorenz et al.
, 1997; Marks, 1996). Compared with married individuals, divorced individuals also have more health problems and a greater risk of mortality (Aldous & Ganey, 1999; Hemstrom, 1996; Joung et al. 1997; Lillard & Waite, 1995; Murphy, Glaser, & Grundy, 1997).Although the direction of these differences is consistent, their magnitude varies across studies. For example, Hope, Power, and Rodgers (1999) compared the depression scores of married and divorced mothers in a large, national British sample and found an effect size of .
56, which translates into a 188% increase in the odds of depression. Other studies suggest smaller differences, however. Because no one has carried out a systematic evaluation of effect sizes in this literature, it is difficult to make claims about the magnitude of group differences on average.Studies in the 1990s indicate that divorce is associated with a variety of problematic outcomes. But does divorce lower people's well-being, or are poorly functioning people especially likely to divorce? Consistent with the divorce-stress-adjustment perspective, and contrary to the selection perspective, longitudinal studies show that people who make the transition from marriage to divorce report an increase in symptoms of depression, an increase in alcohol use, and decreases in happiness, mastery, and self-acceptance (Aseltine & Kessler, 1993; Hope, Marks & Lambert, 1998; Power, Rodgers, & Hope, 1999).Given that divorce is a process rather than a discrete event, declines in well-being are likely to begin prior to the legal divorce.
In fact, Kitson's (1992) respondents reported (retrospectively) that they had experienced the greatest level of stress prior to making the decision to divorce, the second highest level of distress at the time of the decision, and the least stress following the final separation. Consistent with Kitson's data, longitudinal studies (Amato, 1993) show that reports of unhappiness and psychological distress begin to rise a few years prior to marital separation.Furthermore, Johnson and Wu (1996) used a fixed-effects model to control for all time-invariant individual variables, thus making it unlikely that selection could account for the increase in distress. Comparing the Effect for Men vs.
Women Are the consequences of divorce more debilitating for women or men? Some studies suggest that the effects of marital disruption on psychological well-being are stronger for women than men (Aseltine & Kessler, 1993; Marks & Lambert, 1998). In contrast, other studies show that marital disruption is more debilitating for the psychological well-being and health of men than women (Hemstrom, 1996).Yet other studies show no gender differences in psychological well-being (Amato, 1993) or health and mortality (Lillard & Waite, 1995; Murphy et al. , 1997).
These studies do not provide evidence that one gender is more vulnerable than the other, overall, following divorce. The main exception to this conclusion involves economic well-being. Research is consistent in showing that the economic consequences of divorce are greater for women than for men (Kitson, 1992; Marks, 1996; Peterson, 1996).For example, Bianchi and colleagues found-using matched couples-that custodial mothers experienced a 36% decline in standard of living following separation, whereas noncustodial fathers experienced a 28% increase. Overall, mothers' postseparation standard of living was only about one half that of fathers. Similarly, divorced women, compared with married women or divorced men, report more chronic financial difficulties, such as being unable to pay bills or purchase necessary goods (Fisher et al.
, 1998).These differences exist because women, compared with men, have more interrupted work histories prior to divorce, experience greater work-family conflict (due to their responsibility for children), and are more likely to experience employment and wage discrimination. In general, studies conducted in the 1990s yield results similar to those of studies conducted in the 1980s in showing that divorced women, especially if they have custody of children, continue to be economically disadvantaged vis-a-vis married women or divorced men.