Social effects of divorce

February 7, 2011

Conservative Christians have traditionally been known for their opposition to divorce. Various Biblical statements discourage divorce,[1][2] and reinforce the value of marriage,[3] [4] a value which is well recognized by professional studies.[5] [6] [7]

Many studies have demonstrated the long term negative effects of divorce on the individuals involved [8] [9] [10] [11] and on society.[12] [13]

Single parenting is a strong and reliable predictor of poor life outcomes for children,[14] [15] even when a single mother remarries.[16]

Fatherless families are strongly associated with negative life outcomes. [17] [18] [19] Outcomes for children with two parents are consistently better.[20] [21]

The common belief that cohabitation before marriage provides a more reliable basis for future marriage stability than non-cohabitation,[22] has consistently been proved false;[23] the opposite is in fact the case.[24] [25]

[1] Matthew 19:8 Jesus said to them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way. 9 Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.”

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:12 To the rest I say – I, not the Lord – if a brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is happy to live with him, he should not divorce her.13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is happy to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified because of the wife, and the unbelieving wife because of her husband. Otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever wants a divorce, let it take place. In these circumstances the brother or sister is not bound. God has called you in peace.

[3] Proverbs 5:18 May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in your young wife –

[4] Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, 27 so that he may present the church to himself as glorious – not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In the same way husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one has ever hated his own body but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 for we are members of his body. 31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32 This mystery is great – but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless, each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

[5] ‘Compared with unmarried people, married men and women tend to have lower mortality, less risky behavior, more monitoring of health, more compliance with medical regimens, higher sexual frequency, more satisfaction with their sexual lives, more savings, and higher wages (1–3). The differences between married and unmarried people may reflect a causal effect of marriage or a selection effect. Healthier people may be more likely than others to find mates and marry. Research has suggested that the benefits of marriage may be partially due to a selection effect and partially due to true benefits to be gained from being married as opposed to being unmarried (3,4). A lower mortality risk among the married has been shown to persist even after health in early adulthood was controlled, suggesting that at least part of the benefit of being married is not the result of selection (4).’, National Center for Health Statistics/Center for Disease Control, ‘Public Affairs, Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States’, Series Report 23, Number 22, p. 3 (2002).

[6] ‘The weight of evidence indicates that the traditional family based upon a married father and mother is still the best environment for raising children, and it forms the soundest basis for the wider society.’, O’Neill, ‘Experiments in Living: The Fatherless Family’, p. 14 (2002).

[7] ‘Marriage is associated with a variety of positive outcomes, and dissolution of marriage is associated with negative outcomesfor men, women, and their children’, National Center for Health Statistics/Center for Disease Control, ‘Public Affairs, Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States’, Series Report 23, Number 22, p. 3 (2002).

[8]The paper shows that divorce has a longlasting, negative impact on wellbeing and the effects appear to persist into later life for both men and women. However, the negative effects of divorce on wellbeing are largely confined to those who do not re-partner and remain single. An important difference between men and women is that for women who are divorced and single, negative effects of divorce are found for general health, vitality and mental health, while for men, there appear to be no effects of divorce on these health measures.’, Gray et al., ‘Divorce and the wellbeing of older Australians’, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Research paper No. 46, p. ix (2010).

[9] ‘When satisfaction with different aspects of life (home, financial situation, feeling of safety, etc.) are examined, divorced single men reported being less satisfied than married and never divorced men in relation to the home in which they live, their financial situation, feeling part of their local community, and the neighbourhood in which they live., ibid., p. 11.

[10] ‘An implication of the results of this report is that older Australians who have been divorced and are single in older age will have lower incomes and fewer assets than they would have had if they had remained married. Older divorced single Australians are much more likely to experience material hardships and report having a lower level of prosperity than the married and never-divorced.’, de Vaus, et al., ‘The consequences of divorce for financial living standards in later life’, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Research paper No. 38, p. 21 (2007).

[11]Compared to married individuals, divorced persons exhibit lower levels of psychological well-being, more health problems, greater risk of mortality, more social isolation, less satisfying sex lives, more negative life events, greater levels of depression and alcohol use, and lower levels of happiness and self-acceptance (5).’, NCHS/CDC Public Affairs, Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States’, Series Report 23, Number 22, pp. 3-4 (2002).

[12] ‘The negative effects of divorce on wellbeing are likely to have negative economic consequences for society as a whole, particularly in relation to the health consequences for women, which are likely to increase the demand for publicly funded or subsidised health services. It is clear that the costs to government of divorce last for two or more decades.’, Gray et al., ‘Divorce and the wellbeing of older Australians’, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Research paper No. 46, p. ix (2010).

[13] ‘However, many scholars and policy makers who study crime have identified family breakdown as one among a cluster of disadvantages which are associated with criminal activity and with chronic reoffending.’, O’Neill, ‘Experiments in Living: The Fatherless Family’, p.11 (2002).

[14] ‘Adverse outcomes accrue to children of divorce and children raised in single-parent families.’, NCHS/CDC Public Affairs, Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States’, Series Report 23, Number 22, p. 4 (2002).

[15] ‘Single-parent families have lower levels of parental involvement in school activities and lower student achievement, compared to two-parent families (10). Children raised in single-parent families are more likely to drop out of high school, have lower grades and attendance while in school, and are less likely to attend and graduate from college than children raised in two-parent families (11). They are more likely to be out of school and unemployed and are also more likely to become single parents themselves, than children raised in two-parent families (11).’, ibid, p. 4.

[16] ‘Even when the mother does remarry, studies suggest that children in stepfamilies have similar risks of adverse outcomes as children in single-parent families: both groups of children do worse than children living with two biological parents in terms of academic achievement, depression, and behavior problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, premarital sexual intercourse, and being arrested (9).’, ibid., p. 4.

[17] ‘It has long been recognised that children growing up in lone-mother households are more likely to have emotional, academic, and financial problems and are more likely to engage in behaviour associated with social exclusion, such as offending, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse or worklessness.’, O’Neill, ‘Experiments in Living: The Fatherless Family’, p. 6 (2002).

[18] ‘Analysis of 35 cases of fatal abuse which were the subject of public inquiries between 1968 and 1987 showed a risk for children living with their mother and an unrelated man which was over 70 times higher than it would have been for a child with two married biological parents.’, ibid., p. 8.

[19] ‘In focus group discussions, young people in prisons spoke frequently about disruption in their family lives and about their fathers’ absence.’, ibid., p. 8.

[20] ‘Studies have found that, compared to children in two-parent families, children of divorce score lower on measures of self-concept, social competence, conduct, psychological adjustment and long-term health (5).’, ibid., p. 4.

[21] ‘A major longitudinal study of 1,400 American families found that 20%–25% of children of divorce showed lasting signs of depression, impulsivity (risk-taking), irresponsibility, or antisocial behaviour compared with 10% of children in intact two-parent families.’, O’Neill, ‘Experiments in Living: The Fatherless Family’, p. 7 (2002).

[22] ‘The popular belief that cohabitation is an effective strategy in a high-divorce society rests on the common-sense notion that getting to know one another before marrying should improve the quality and stability of marriage.’, Hall & Zhao, ‘Cohabitaiton and Divorce in Canada: Testing the Selectivity Hypothesis’, Journal of Marriage and the Family (57.421), 1995.

[23] ‘However, in this instance, it is looking more and more as if common sense is a poor guide. Major empirical studies have failed to discover a positive link between premarital cohabitation and marital quality or stability.’, ibid., pp. 421-422.

[24] ‘Bentler and Newcomb (1978) found no difference in marital satisfaction between cohabitors and noncohabitors, and more recent studies have suggested that living common-law is actually related to lower quality marriages (Booth & Johnson, 1988; DeMaris & Leslie, 1984). Perhaps most compelling are the findings from several recent articles that document a strong negative association between cohabiting and marital stability. These studies indicating that living together before marriage substantially increases the chances of divorce for a couple (Balakrishnan, Rao, Lapierrre-Adamcyk, & Krotki, 1987; Bennett, Blanc, & Bloom, 1988; DeMaris & Rao, 1992; Teachman & Polonko, 1990).’, ibid., p. 422.

[25] ‘Among the findings in the report: unmarried cohabitations overall are less stable than marriages.’, National Center for Health Statistics, ‘New Report Sheds Light on Trends and Patterns in Marriage, Divorce, and Cohabitation’, July 24, 2002.



  1. Nice facts. It is difficult to draw conclusions from these facts, especially regarding the effects of divorce on children. Is there a causal relationship or is it just a correlation?

    It is also difficult to know whether the negative effects of divorce on children are a direct result of the divorce or that these children would have faced the same effects if their parents should not have been divorced.

    • Within the relevant peer reviewed literature you will find that professionals are not finding it difficult to draw facts from these conclusions. Certain causal relationships have been well established after some 50 years of research, even when controlling for various factors. The amount of scholarly literature on this is vast. Even cramming in all the citations I did, I still had to leave out another dozen or more standard studies.

    • I found these comments on your site to be very sound; they are well supported in the relevant literature.

      Divorce increases the risk that children will suffer from psychological and behavioral problems. The parenting style plays an important role. The two years after the divorce, support is most important for the children. In general, use an authoritative style of parenting to minimise for children negative effects of divorce.

      Research has generally found this to be the most effective kind of parenting. Authoritative parents are able to provide structure but still remain flexible. They can allow the children to make some decisions on their own, while still maintaining parental control over the situation. Hence, how divorce affects children is influenced by the parenting style.

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