Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

Epidemiology of Divorce
Patricia H. Shiono Linda Sandham Quinn

Introduction

American children have been greatly affected by the revolutionary changes in patterns of marriage, divorce, and remarriage occurring over the past 30 years. Increasing divorce rates in America have resulted in increasing numbers of children who are affected by divorce. In 1988, 9.7 million, or 15% of all children (under 18 years of age), lived with a divorced or separated parent, and an additional 7.3 million, or 11% of children, lived with a stepparent.1,2 Each year since the mid-1970s, more than 1 million children have experienced a family divorce. It is projected that nearly half of all the babies born today will spend some time in a one-parent family which occurred as a result of single parenthood or divorce.1

The social consequences of these changes in the American family structure have been staggering and are discussed in more detail in the accompanying articles in this journal issue. The increasing number of children affected by divorce has added to the growing number of American children living in poverty and the growing number of single-parent families supported by government subsidies. (For an in-depth discussion of this problem, see the article by Teachman and Paasch in this journal issue.) Compared with children from intact two-parent families, children from divorced families appear to suffer from more adjustment problems, but it is not clear whether or not some of these problems may have occurred prior to the divorce. However, for those children who are directly affected by divorce, the adverse psychological effects appear to be relatively mild. (For an in-depth discussion of this topic, see the article by Amato in this journal issue.) After a divorce, the financial circumstances and psychological adjustment of children are highly dependent upon the living arrangement of the child's new family. Current research suggests that custodial parents who remarry improve their financial position, but their children's psychological adjustment becomes slightly worse, as compared with the adjustment of children who remain in one-parent families.3 Serial marriages (three or more) are likely to lead to financial instability and increased adjustment problems in children because of the repeated disruptions such families undergo.4

Informed policy decisions must begin with a reliable quantitative description of the children affected by divorce. Thus, the purpose of this article is to describe the national trends in the number of children experiencing a family divorce and trends in the living arrangements of American children. We begin this article by describing the national trends in marriage, divorce, and remarriage and discuss some demographic factors that are associated with these events. We then focus on changes over time in the family living arrangements of children, the number of children experiencing a family divorce, and the changing composition of single-parent households of children of divorce. We also highlight some of the more recent trends in the living arrangements of children, such as the emergence of single, divorced-father families, the amount of contact children have with their fathers after divorce, and the role of grandparents in the homes with children.