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Family Matters No. 32 - August 1992

Young adults and family change

Coping with parental separation, divorce and repartnering
Robyn Hartley

Abstract

Parental separation and divorce can be a painful and bewildering experience, even for adult children who have nominally flown the nest to make their own way in the world. Data from the Australian Institute of Family Studies' Becoming Adult Study are used to explore the effect of parental separation and divorce on young adults. Outcomes show that most families are complex and young people's reactions to divorce/separation are frequently mixed; that reactions to repartnering are diverse; that some of the respondents who were older when their parents separated are generally wary about relationships lasting, whereas those who were younger are more inclined to be optimistic and determined not to repeat the mistakes they believe their parents made. The author suggests that many questions about the long-term effects on older offspring of parents separating and repartnering warrant further investigation.

Most research into the effects of parental separation and divorce on their offspring has focused on children and young adolescents. This is understandable because children are clearly still dependent on parents, and their welfare and adjustment is of great importance.

However, the parents of older adolescents and young adults also separate, divorce and form new relationships. Several studies suggest that these older offspring are certainly not unaffected, despite their greater independence. They may react in particular ways, depending in part on the extent of their emotional and financial autonomy. The timing of the separation therefore may have noticeable effects on their transition to adulthood (Cooney 1988).

In general, it seems that the separation and divorce of parents may help or hinder adolescent separation and individuation. Anger and blame may temporarily turn young people away from one or both parents, or create conflict and anxiety that make it difficult for them to exercise independence, particularly if a parent looks to the young person for emotional support (Daniels 1990).

Readjusting the parent-child relationship is a crucial element of becoming an adult, with issues of independence, decision-making and autonomy being paramount; parents and children need to negotiate almost constantly on these matters. Family circumstances, financial and personal resources, and the sense of stability or otherwise in the family may each influence decisions about future directions and affect the ways in which young adults are able to exercise their growing independence.

Cooney (1988) found that 18 to 23-year-old Americans reported emotional vulnerability and stress when their parents divorced, which increased if the divorce coincided with leaving home to go to college. Other common reactions were initial feelings of anger at the news of the divorce, conflicting loyalties to parents, and worries about parents' futures. In general, relationships with parents improved after the divorce, but more frequently with mothers than with fathers. However, better communication with parents, improved understanding and mutual respect are expected in young adulthood, so divorce cannot be seen as the only reason for the improvement.

Given the different social and emotional development of young men and women, it is not surprising that a number of studies have found differences in their reactions to parental separation, and their reactions to mothers and fathers after divorce. The research parallels the complex and sometimes conflicting differences found between the reactions of girls and boys to parental separation in childhood. (Zaslow 1988 and 1989 gives a comprehensive survey of the literature.)

Cooney (1988) found that young women were more likely than young men to report emotional stress at some stage during their parents' divorce. A breakdown in parent-child relationships after divorce was more likely between daughters and fathers, and mother-daughter bonds seemed to be the most resilient. With older children, custody is not an issue, so Cooney suggests that these reactions are a function of interpersonal factors between parents and children, rather than the result of legally imposed restraints.

Bonkowski (1989), in an exploratory study of a group of 18 to 30- year-olds, also found that several years after the divorce, young adults' relationships with fathers were still strained. One-third of respondents were concerned about one or both parents following the separation. However, there appeared to be more concern and worry expressed for mothers than for fathers. Fathers were more often blamed for the divorce, and although there was less concern for fathers, this lack of concern sometimes made young adults feel guilty. Divorce forced the adult child to struggle with accepting each parent as a separate person. Bonkowski concluded that, despite sadness and worry, most young adults continued to develop in their own way.

Older adult children may feel disbelief, intense grief and a sense of betrayal when parents separate. The past is challenged, previous perceptions are thrown into question and the ability to trust may be shaken (Fintushel and Hillard 1991).

The Institute's Becoming Adult study provided an opportunity to explore the effect of parental separation and divorce on young Australian adults. The group of 138 23- year-olds was originally selected to include young adults who, as children, grew up in either a two-parent, single- parent or stepfamily. We asked each of them whether there had been any change in their family circumstances since they were 16 years old, due to separation, divorce, parental repartnering, or the death of a parent.

Although the numbers involved are small, the fact that some significant change occurred at different ages and various stages of developing independence allows us to explore issues that might be important at a particular time. Research in this area is still at the stage where relevant issues need to be identified, and close attention to a small number of individual circumstances is a useful way to proceed.

The following discussion focuses on those 23-year-olds whose parents separated and/or divorced. Three reported that a parent had had serious enough problems to talk of separating but in the end had not done so. Although they are not included in the following discussion, it is significant that they identify this as a big change in their parents' circumstances since they were 16. Separation and repartnering occurred in all three family types: intact, single- parent and step-parent.

SEPARATION AND DIVORCE 

Eight young adults who at 16 were living in two-parent families, and one young adult who at the same age was in a stepfamily, subsequently watched their parents separate. Respondents were asked how they felt about the separation when it happened, and about their relationships with parents then and now. Separation brought quite significant changes in young people's lives in some cases and important adjustments in others. Responses suggested a number of factors that are likely to affect outcomes for young adults.

ON THE CARDS OR OUT OF THE BLUE

Cooney (1988) found that separation and subsequent divorce was largely an unexpected event for the young adults she surveyed, and that they were not prepared for the changes in their lives. It was unexpected even when young people grew up in a household where there was a lot of conflict, because they questioned why a situation that had existed for a long time should suddenly change.

The Institute's findings on whether the break-up was expected were mixed; this aspect needs to be explored further. Events may be unexpected for different reasons and the reasons may be significant for understanding both family processes and effects on young people.

Like some of Cooney's respondents, 'Joel' didn't expect his parents to separate although they argued a lot and he believed that his mother had had a number of relationships outside the marriage. However, she did finally leave when he was 17 years old and he felt very insecure about the change in the family. Joel left home to live with his girlfriend's family for a period before returning to his father and brothers. His mother now lives in another state, and the relationship between them remains antagonistic; Joel blames his mother for the breakup and has not forgiven her.

'Kaye' didn't expect her parents to separate despite the many arguments because she didn't think her mother was capable of leaving an abusive and sometimes violent husband. When she did, Kaye was very relieved. She was 18 at the time, and living at home, although she also left soon after. She remained close to her mother and still sees her father, although she now feels both sorry for him ('because he's had such a lousy life') and resentful of the past. Kaye is quite certain that her parents' relationship, both before and after their separation, had a much more profoundly negative effect on her than their separation did.

Sometimes separation wasn't a surprise in conflict-ridden families. 'Finn' expected his parents to divorce. 'They argued a lot. It was inevitable, really. They were leading up to it for a number of years.' As children grow older and presumably more aware of widespread parental separation and/or divorce in families, it is likely that they will become more aware of this possibility in their own family, particularly if there has been conflict for many years.

From the parents' point of view, too, as children become less dependent and their departure from the parental home draws closer, there may be less incentive to keep an ailing relationship together. However, even when separation is not a surprise, it is still likely to mean significant adjustments for young people in other ways that are discussed below.

There are also separations that 'come out of the blue' for older children. 'Fiona' was 22 and not living with her parents when her father had an affair with a family friend and her parents separated. She felt confused and said her trust in her father was shattered. One consequence of the separation was to bring her closer to her mother. 'We've always been pretty close, but there's always been a bit of competition between us. Now you couldn't tear us apart. It's sad that it takes something like that to bring us really close together.'

INDEPENDENCE

All other things being equal, parental separation is likely to have a greater and more immediate effect on a young person's life if they are still living at home and are financially dependent on their parents. They have to physically 'go' or 'stay' with one parent or the other, or they may unexpectedly have to become more responsible and independent, forcing an earlier transition than anticipated.

Lack of money and geographical shifts may profoundly affect young people's lives. At 16, 'Veronica' moved from the family home with her mother. Shifting away from friends and going to a new school unsettled her considerably. Similarly, 'Alison' says the timing of her parents' separation and her subsequent shifting between them had a negative effect on her schooling and development.

On the other hand, 'Frances' was 21, married and had left home before her mother and father separated. The separation had little immediate effect on her circumstances although she was very concerned for her mother. However, when her own marriage failed, Frances was able to come home with her baby, something she said she would not have done if her father, whom she didn't like, was still living there. Their respective separations also became experiences that Frances and her mother could share. As a result, their close relationship has become even closer.

SELF-ESTEEM

Parental separation may have positive and negative effects on young adults' self-esteem, depending on the domestic environment before separation, the reason for separation, and relationships between children and parents. The father of 'Neil' left when Neil was 17. He said: 'It made me grow up a lot, probably affected me in a positive way, really. I was living in the shadow of my father to an extent. He was such a dominating person. I matured a lot over that time.'

When Kaye's mother left her abusive husband, there was a direct and positive spin-off for Kaye, whose sense of control over her life was boosted. 'It was the best thing she could have done, for me anyway. To show that she didn't have to live like that,' Kaye said.

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARENTS

Adolescence is a time when parents begin to be seen as not just parents, but as human beings with emotions, problems and foibles of their own. Seeing parents as fallible and vulnerable is often part of establishing more positive, adult relationships.

Parental separation may hasten this process as young people see their parents behaving in unfamiliar ways. Changes in relationships between parents and older children after separation reflect not only the different situation facing young people, but also the changed circumstances of parents as they adjust and make a new life for themselves.

However, some young people in the Becoming Adult study recalled their distress at parents' unfamiliar behaviour, particularly when it might lead to new sexual and emotional involvements. Some young people are not only jealous about sharing a parent with someone else, they also feel acutely that parents are behaving inappropriately.

'Jackie' found her relationship with her mother changing in a number of ways. Initially, the separation made her realise her parents 'weren't just a mum and dad, they were human beings'. Then, as her mother began to rebuild her life, there were other changes. 'I was l7,' Jackie said, 'and I really hated my mother going out and doing the things that I was doing. She was an adolescent again and I assumed responsibility for her. I thought she was carrying on like an idiot and I told her. And we had a lot of conflicts over that.'

Alison recalled how she felt about her mother, at age 17. 'I hated her. Couldn't get along with her at all. Couldn't understand the way she was being. She got married when she was very young to my father and they'd never gone out with anyone else. I mean, this was how she justified it to me, but when you're only 17, you don't see that. And she was going out all the time and leaving me in charge. And it was really hard.'

Both young women had a rapid and unexpected push into assuming more responsibility, as well as being forced to see their mothers from a different perspective. Complex feelings about sexuality - their own and their mothers' - were also likely to arise.

Although Jackie and Alison went through a traumatic adjustment in their relationships with their mothers, the outcome for each was different. Alison now gets on very well with her mother (and her stepfather) while the problems in Jackie's relationship with her mother have not really been resolved and there continues to be resentment and pain.

Some young people in the Becoming Adult study had been able to maintain a good relationship with both parents, and we would expect that young adults have more choice than younger children about their relationship with separated parents.

Neil, Veronica and Finn, all of whose parents separated when they were 16 or 17, are still quite close to their fathers but feel closer to their mothers, probably partly because they have spent more time with them. 'I feel very close to my father,' Veronica said. '(But) I'm not able to talk over as much with him (as my mother). I think it's just personality. I seem to get more of a response from my mother.' Finn is 'distant' from his father but on 'good terms', although they have grown apart in recent years following his father's remarriage.

Those who are not close to one parent or the other have almost always had a difficult relationship before the separation but there is also an element of blame in some cases. Frances' love for her father 'died many years ago' because he drank a lot and she didn't like bringing friends home; Kaye resents her father's violence towards her mother; Joel and his mother had problems before she left his father.

REPARTNERING OF PARENTS

Twelve parents who were previously single repartnered and lived with that partner, and in all the eight two-parent families where parents had separated since the respondent was 16, one and sometimes both had repartnered.

We would expect that the reaction of older offspring to repartnering would depend on some of the factors shown to affect younger children's adjustment, such as the length of time spent in a single-parent household, their relationship with the non-custodial parent and the role that the new partner plays in relation to the child's upbringing.

In addition, there are factors peculiar to older children, particularly the extent of their emotional, personal and financial independence. At this stage, young people are concerned with making their way in the world separately from parents while one of the tasks of the stepfamily is unification - moving from a single- parent family with a step- parent outsider to a new family unified by a strong couple bond (Daniels 1990).

Older offspring may have to live or remain living in the same household; they may be partly financially dependent on the new partner; they may see the new relationship as a threat, an affront or a blessing. Independence and individuation may be assisted, made more complicated or disrupted by a new relationship with an adult who comes into their life through their parent's choice, not their own.

There are significant differences between the periods young people spend in single-parent families before becoming part of a step-family. For example, the Becoming Adult study included young adults who had spent up to 18 or 19 years in a two-parent family or as long as eight or nine years in a single-parent family before their parents repartnered. Strong family patterns and very close parentchild (but most frequently mother-child) bonds are established, and change is often difficult.

THE PARENT'S NEW PARTNER

The bounds of parental control are not easy to establish or maintain, but they become most particularly difficult as young people expect to assume, and do assume, more control over their lives. There are indications that for younger children, stepfathers don't need to be highly involved for the children to be happy but they are happier when they like their stepfathers (Funder, Kinsella and Courtney 1992).

Comments from respondents in the Becoming Adult study suggest that this distinction is important for older offspring, too. Cameron was 12 when his parents separated and 17 when his mother repartnered. Although there were some adjustments at the beginning (Cameron was still living at home), he thinks his step-father handled the situation very well.

'You could say he's like a second father,' he said. 'He's sort of known - not where the line is - but known where his responsibilities start and end. He's realised that he shouldn't really impose his views upon me, and it's up to my mum to impose those views. I think he's the best thing that ever happened to her.'

On the other hand, Luke says his stepfather was jealous of the attention his mother gave Luke and his brothers and sisters, and humiliated and insulted him. The tension led to an ultimatum for Luke to leave home. Luke still doesn't get on well with his stepfather and says that his presence stops him from seeing more of his mother.

HOME AND AWAY

Respondents generally said that if they were not living at home at the time, their parent's repartnering didn't affect them greatly. Having to develop a live-in relationship is different from general acceptance of a parent's new partner. Meredith left home at age 16 after a stormy relationship with her mother (and an unsuccessful period of living with her father), so her mother's repartnering several years later didn't have much effect on her. 'It's good that she has someone,' she said. 'I don't like him much but my mother does, so that's good'.

A step-parent may precipitate or hasten young people leaving home. Neil lived with his mother only between the ages of 12 and 17. He recalled 'there was only mother and I in the house and we were pretty happy. Then my new stepfather and I didn't get on at all and about a fortnight after he moved in, it came to a head and he told me to get out. So I got out and have never been back since. I've been to visit but not to live'.

While his leaving home was clearly related to his stepfather's arrival, Neil remarked: 'I was half-kicked out but I wanted to leave anyway.' Now his relationship with his mother is close and he has a real appreciation of the difficulties she went through as the head of a single-parent family. Of his step-father, he says: 'We don't think much of each other, really. There's never open hostility but always surface tensions.'

For 'Eva', her mother's repartnering had a significant effect. Like Neil, her parents separated when she was 12 and her mother remarried when she was about 17. She explained how difficult it had been to come to terms with her intense jealousy and anger towards her stepfather.

'When I was 17, when I was 19, I couldn't see it,' Eva said. 'I knew I'd see it when I was older, but I just couldn't accept that I'd see it when I was older. It was happening now, and I was 'Arrr...!' Everyone was saying: 'Oh, you'll grow out of it.' I said: 'I'm old enough now to understand it, but I don't understand.' Probably jealous, I suppose, and I hated to admit I was jealous. I said, no, we just don't get on. But it was really vying for the love and attention of the mother.'

When she was 19, her mother told her she would have to leave home. Although Eva is reasonably settled now in a good relationship, and gets on quite well with her mother (but still doesn't like her stepfather much), she looks back with some sadness on years she calls 'tumultuous'.

DIFFERENT SEX, DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

Separation and individuation from parents have different psychological and social implications for men and women, so it would not be surprising if young people's acceptance of and adjustment to their parents' repartnering was affected by their own gender and that of the new partner.

There are indications from the Becoming Adult study that young women whose parents repartner after their daughters are 16 tend to come to some accommodation with a stepfather more readily than a stepmother. There was a common pattern of a period of conflict and tension, particularly if the young person was living with a step- parent, but final acceptance and mutual respect, often after leaving home.

Daniels (1990) reports, in her review of adolescent development into young adulthood and family transitions, that the combination of father, daughter and stepmother is a particularly difficult one. However, the research on which she draws notes that these were instances where fathers had custody of their daughters, and it would be expected that for this to be the case, there would be particularly strong bonds between father and daughter, which may lead to tension and jealousy between stepmother and stepdaughter.

Young men in the Becoming Adult study tended to have more difficulty with stepmothers than stepfathers, although this was not always the case. For example, when 'Richard' was 16, his new stepfather moved in, complete with four children. At first Richard resented the changes in his life - losing a bedroom of his own, having his possessions shifted around - but he fairly quickly came to accept the changes and enjoy them. He says he has always got on well with his stepfather, and his mother and stepfather both continue to be very supportive.

A different view of the effect of gender is offered by Stinson in a recent study, although her sample was very small (Stinson 1991). She did not find big differences between female and male adolescent responses to their parents remarrying, although she did conclude that adolescents had different types of relationships with their mothers and with their fathers.

She suggested that gender differences between adolescents living with divorced mothers tend to be reduced when there are close supportive relationships between the mothers and adolescents, and when male and female roles are less well defined. The idea needs further exploration, as does the influence of gender in general.

OUTCOMES

Of the nine young adults whose parents separated after they were 16, only two mentioned immediate positive outcomes - Frances, who said her father drank a lot, and Neil, who felt he had escaped a dominating father. Kaye, who said her father was violent and abusive, could possibly be included here, too, although she recalled that it took her some time to recover from the effects of a negative home atmosphere.

In fact, it needs to be emphasised that most families are complex and young people's reactions are frequently mixed. Even though Frances was married herself and not living with her mother, she said it was a very traumatic time and she was worried about how her mother would cope after many years of marriage. And Finn, who believed his parent's separation was inevitable, was sad for himself and for his father who left.

Reactions to repartnering were more diverse, with about half the young adults claiming they were not emotionally or materially affected at the time, and the other half saying that they were. Those who were younger (16-18 years) and therefore more likely to be living with a parent had stronger reactions, as it was they who faced immediate adjustments.

The length of time spent in a single-parent family before repartnering is important for several reasons. The perceived threat of a step-parent to a strong adolescent-parent bond has already been mentioned. However, an extended period in a single-parent family potentially gives young people more of a chance to accept that their original family is highly unlikely to be reunited, so they may be more willing to accept their parent's new partner. As Alison said: 'Even though my parents never got along and it was very harmonious not having them married, you always want your little family unit the way you knew it.' Despite this, Alison has a warm relationship with her stepfather.

Young adults who had lived with their step-parent were more likely to have strong feelings about them, either positive or negative. Some relationships remain strained and it is obvious that earlier tensions and conflicts have not been resolved (although earlier anger at the parent for separating or repartnering has generally abated or disappeared). Those who haven't lived with a step-parent talk about acceptance, rather than close involvement.

There are many questions about the long-term effects on older offspring of parents separating and repartnering which warrant further investigation. Of particular interest is whether and how young adult's attitudes to their own intimate relationships are affected.

Young adulthood is a time when decisions about commitment to a partner are important, and parental separation is likely to have an effect on such decisions. There are indications from the Becoming Adult study that some of those who were older when their parents separated are generally wary about relationships lasting, whereas those who were younger are more inclined to be optimistic and determined not to repeat the mistakes they believe their parents made.

REFERENCES

  • Bonkowski, S.E. (1989), 'Lingering sadness: young adults' response to parental divorce', Social Casework: The Journal of Contemporary Social Work, April.
  • Cooney, T.M. (1988), 'Young adults and parental divorce: exploring important issues', Human Relations, Vol.41, No.11.
  • Daniels, J.A. (1990), 'Adolescent separation-individuation and family transitions', Adolescence, Vol.25, No.97.
  • Fintushel, N. and Hillard, N. (1991), A Grief Out of Season: When Your Parents Divorce in Your Adult Years, Little, Brown and Company, Boston.
  • Funder, K., Kinsella, S. and Courtney, P. (1992), 'Stepfathers in children's lives', Family Matters, No.31, April.
  • Stinson, K.M. (1991), Adolescents, Family and Friends: Social Support After Parents' Divorce Or Remarriage, Praeger Publishers, New York.
  • Zaslow, M.J. (1988), 'Sex differences in children's response to parental divorce: 1. Research methodology and post- divorce family forms', American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol.58, No.3, July.
  • Zaslow, M,J. (1989), 'Sex differences in children's response to parental divorce: 2. Samples, variables, ages and sources', American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol.59, No.1, January.