The long-term consequences of divorce on adult children's mental health appear to be under-investigated. Specifically, the respective roles of parental separation and the level of perceived parental conflict are still controversial.
This paper considers a model between depression and anxiety disorders (DAD) during the adulthood of children of divorced/married parents via the perceived level of parental conflict. We predicted that the level of perceived parental conflict that would account for the influence of divorce on the level of DAD during adulthood.
A sample of 121 adults (MAge = 26.14, SD = 1.74, 91 women), consisting of 55 children of divorced parents, 66 children of parents who are still cohabiting, completed a questionnaire assessing DAD, and perceived level of parental conflict.
Although results do not provide evidence of differences between the two groups, the level of perceived conflict significantly predicted DAD during adulthood in both groups although with a small effect size.
This could imply that it is not separation per se that predicts the long-term effects of divorce but rather the exposure to parental conflict. Moreover, consistently with previous findings, participants’ perceived level of conflict in the family was not a significant predictor of divorce between the parents. Limitations of the study and its clinical and theoretical implications are discussed.
The first unexpected finding of our study was that divorce had no visible effect on the level of DAD among adult children. Although this non-significant result does not mean that there is no effect, it is inconsistent with previous results such as those of Aseltine Jr (1996). One explanation for this discrepancy may be that our participants were older than those of Asletine Jr’s study and thus had more time to cope with the parental divorce. Another explanation could be that, for some children, parental separation could have positive effects (Amato, 2014). Indeed, some divorced parents enhance their level of education (with the aim of increasing their social level or autonomy) and/or the number of social interactions after divorce, and some gain in autonomy and in accomplishments following a divorce (Amato, 2014). Those positive changes for the parents promote the speed of recovery of their children, which appears to be positively related to people’s access to financial, social and psychological resources (Amato, 2014). A second unexpected finding was that participants’ perception of the level of conflict in the family is not a significant predictor of divorce between the parents. Although a non-significant result is difficult to interpret(e.g. lack of power, psychometric issues. . .), we propose two theoretical rationales that could account for these results. The first is that the children memories of adults might not reflect the actual level or the actual nature of conflict experienced by the parents at the time of the divorce (for example, what is perceived as destructive conflict by the child could as well be perceived as constructive conflict by the parents). The second is that the level of conflict is not the main reason to divorce, or to stay together. Further studies should take other key aspects into account, such as the socio-economic level of the family or the lack of support by other family members (e.g., grandparents, relatives). Amato and Previti (2003) showed that the main cause of divorce is infidelity, followed by drug or drinking use. Hence, although conflict management has been identified as an important factor in the incidence of divorce (Gottman, 1994; Gottman & Gottman, 2018), it might not be sufficient for divorcing and even couples sustaining a high level of conflict might stay together in many situations. However, the level of family conflict seems to have long-term consequences on adults’ DAD, and more specifically on depressive symptoms, independently of divorce. As the data show, people having grown in conflicted families have significantly more chances of having higher level of depressive symptoms, although the effect size is quite small. The small effect size is not that surprising, indeed, it is likely that depressive symptoms mainly depends on other factors such as personality traits, situational aspects of the adult’s current life, etc. Another interesting conclusion is thatthe level of conflict before divorce strongly predicts the level of conflict during divorce. Let us not forget that some of the questions assessing the level of conflict during divorce related to the extent to which the subject was emotionally torn between the parents. Thus, having a high level of conflict in the family prior to divorce seems to increase the likelihood of involving children in conflicts during the divorce and to bring them into loyalty conflicts that will predict depression in adulthood. Note that, this correlation could also be partially spurious if participants had difficulties to separate the memories related to conflict before and during the divorce. But, at least, it suggests that the way parents handle conflicts before the divorce is perceived as relatively similar than the way the handle conflicts during the divorce.