Sociological Aspects of Divorce
In sociological studies of the family, the occurrence of divorce is inextricably linked to marriage practices in a given culture or society. As a case in point, this article focuses on social-psychological aspects of divorce in Western culture, examining two issues related to divorce in the United States: perceptions and social interaction. This article outlines three primary social institutions influencing how societies characterize divorce and how these characterizations influence perceptions of divorced persons: religious doctrine, civil law, and societal norms. Four major settings are discussed, in which the social interactions of family members are affected by divorce. Social institutions, and the effect of social-systemic feedback to these institutions via individual attitudes and behaviors, are examined briefly. Questions are raised about similar processes in non-Western cultures.
Keywords Civil Law; Divorce; Marriage; No-Fault Divorce; Nuclear Family; Social Interaction; Society; Stress
Only relatively recently has marriage come to be examined in terms of component factors that constitute differing patterns of behavior in marital relationships. Historically, little differentiation was made between religious, civil, and normative factors in divorce, as social agreements concerning marital bonds were less complex than today. Marital bonds, family ties, and the social norms surrounding marriage and family have become more complex as societies began to differentiate between religious and civil codes of social behavior. Here, we will focus on contemporary aspects of divorce, that is, the dissolution of marital bonds, in a culture and segment of society which is well-known and for which we have the most complete data: Western culture in middle-class U.S. Society.
When spouses divorce, a host of changes affect family ties and interpersonal relationships. To varying degrees, these changes may alter the social, psychological, physical, spiritual, and economic well-being of each family member. These changes may also affect relationships with individuals outside the nuclear family, such as relatives and in-laws, friends, co-workers, teachers, and classmates.
Although the social, psychological, physical, spiritual, and economic factors of divorce often overlap, this article will focus on two questions that primarily fall within the parameters of the field of sociological investigation. First, how do social groups perceive divorced persons? Second, how does divorce affect the social interactions of family members?
These two issues are important because they may contribute to the well-being of individuals in that social perception of divorced persons can overshadow a divorced person's self-esteem and degree of success in personal and professional endeavors. Moreover, the preservation of effective social interactions may be crucial to maintaining satisfactory and productive relationships to help a person navigate through life.
Sociological Aspects of Divorce in the United States
In this section, we will explore two questions related to the sociological aspects of divorce in the United States: (1) how does society perceive divorced persons? and (2) How does divorce affect the social interactions of nuclear family members?
For purposes of a discussion about how divorce affects the social interactions of family members, we will consider a family to be one of the following two nuclear family structures: a mother, a father, and one or more biological or adopted children, or a female spouse and a male spouse without children.
Of course, other types of family structures exist. A family might contain two same-sex spouses, for instance. Other family structures that involve divorced heads of household include persons raising their grandchildren or nieces and nephews. The divorced spouses in these families will often experience many of the same societal perceptions and social interaction issues as female-male marriage partners. However, the history of same-sex marriage is short, and literature and statistics on divorced same-sex or non-parental heads of households are scant. Therefore, these types of family units are beyond the scope of this article.
Society perceives divorced persons through a complex lens that is influenced by a number of factors, including religious beliefs, cultural heritage, and networks of interpersonal relationships.
Whether the segment of society is a broad group or a smaller, more intimate group, the degree of negativity or acceptance toward divorced persons by individuals within a group will often be influenced by one or more of the following three social institutions:
- Religious doctrine or dogma
- Civil divorce law
- Social norms
The following outlines how these three institutions influence some common perceptions of divorce and divorced persons and their family members.
Religious institutions are perhaps the most visible examples of social structures heavily influenced by doctrine or dogma.
Religions differ greatly in their perceptions and treatment of divorced persons. These specific perceptions are determined by the doctrine of a given religion. For example, Roman Catholic doctrine specifies that the marriage contract cannot be dissolved and forbids divorce except in certain, legally necessary cases (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.d.).
The clergy of a specific church or house of worship may exhibit negative perceptions of divorced persons. For example, Deal (2007) describes the experience of a married couple who joined a new church (p. 31). After they confided to the minister that theirs was a second marriage for both of them, he told them to leave his church so they would not "infect" everyone else in the congregation. Eventually, though, the couple did find a congregation that welcomed them (p. 33). Deal, himself a longtime minister to remarried couples and families, explained that ministries that cater to the special situation of remarried couples are a necessary and growing movement within churches that wish to attract or retain divorced members.
The second factor that influences how society perceives divorce and divorced persons is civil divorce law.
In their study of divorce reform, Adams and Coltrane (2006) reviewed media coverage of three newspapers from 1968 to 2005 because newspapers both "reflect and inform public opinion" (p. 28). They noted that during the colonial period of America, divorce resulted because one spouse failed to meet marriage and family obligations and was therefore considered to be a disappointment to the community.
In 1969–1970, California became the first state to institute so-called no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce law eliminated the legal requirement that one spouse in a divorce must assign blame for the marriage breakdown to the other spouse, a requirement that often led to accusations, revelations, and post-divorce bitterness (Adams & Coltrane, 2006, p. 20). By 1985, every state had instituted no-fault divorce legislation (Singer, 1992). We might assume that the widespread institution of no-fault divorce would remove much of the stigma of divorce. However, Adams and Coltrane found that the divorce reform movement that arose from no-fault divorce legislation evolved into marriage reform ("healthy marriage") and that this shift has implications for marriage and family counselors, who are forced into either pro-marriage or pro-divorce positions. And, since media coverage began to focus heavily on the idealization of marriage, it potentially stigmatizes those who are divorced (Adams & Coltrane, 2006, p. 31).
Social norms also influence social perception of divorce and divorced persons. Social norms can be defined as patterns or traits that are considered to be typical in the behavior of a social group, or a widespread, usual practice or procedure.
Hill (2007) contended that originally, marriage was based on religious and economic needs (p. 293). Now, however, she noted, marriage is widely regarded as a loving union between equal partners; when marriages don't continue to provide love and emotional fulfillment to both partners, they fail. The fact that the basis for marriage has changed suggests that the social norms for divorce have changed. Since marriage is no longer predicated on religious and economic factors, divorce need not be limited to those factors either.
Social norms can influence personal beliefs and often incorporate factors such as religious doctrine or personal experience into divorce. In general, most people would probably view marriage as a more positive concept than divorce. However, personal beliefs may favor divorce as a more acceptable status if certain undesirable characteristics such as alcohol, drug, or physical abuse are present in a marriage.
The Effect of Divorce on the Social Interactions of Nuclear Families
Divorce affects the social interactions of nuclear family members in various types of social groups, but particularly in four specific, major settings:
- The family
- Religious organizations
- Work environment
- School environment
The first major setting in which divorce affects the social interactions of nuclear family members is the family. For the purpose of this overview, the family will be considered to consist of members of the nuclear family—which may include the parent's biological or adopted children, step children resulting from blended families, and all other relatives.
The social interaction...
(The entire section is 4334 words.)