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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

Just as a given society has a way to join people in matrimony, it also has a way to dissolve such a union. “Divorce” generally applies to a legal status that separates married people, but it can also apply to the type of unions known as “common-law” marriage or civil unions that approximate the marital state but were not affirmed within the legal system. In the United States, marriage and divorce laws are within the jurisdiction of states; there are no relevant federal laws. Within organized religion, as well, rules for joining people vary widely.

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Beyond the legal status and religious dimensions, however, the social effects of dissolving a partnership have wide-ranging implications, including effects on other family members, especially children. The aspects affected may be social, psychological, and/or economic, and these may differ widely within a given family, both nuclear and extended. Beyond the family, the repercussions extend to friends, colleagues, and schoolmates. The negative economic impact disproportionately affects women, including mothers and, by extension, their children. Until recently in the United States, stigma was often attached to divorced persons; however, now that about half of marriages end in divorce, the situation is more widely accepted.

Divorce creates new family structures and households, as after divorce, one partner leaves the home, both partners may move to other locations, or another person(s) move in to share the home. Children are often affected by custody agreements that assign them two residences. The challenges for children often include adjusting to new schools and to their parents’ changing social worlds. The divorcing partners often change jobs or, if one partner had not been employed outside the home, enter or re-enter the waged work force.

Recent changes in US marital law include the recognition of marriage equality, so the legal institution of marriage is no longer restricted to heterosexual couples. These changes have likewise affected divorce, as same-sex couples now have access to the legal protections that formerly were denied to them.

Religion may be involved in divorce both through the rules and customs of organized religion, which may differ from civil law, and the less formal attitudes of fellow believers and practitioners. While negative attitudes toward divorce or toward divorced persons may be associated with religious beliefs, clerical counseling may also benefit people going through the traumatic experience of separation and divorce.

The psychological dimensions of divorce extend to all aspects. The impact of altered economic status, including moving into a smaller home, working outside the home on a daily basis, or transferring a student from private to public school have ripple effects. The employment search itself may cause stress, although a new job can generate positive self-esteem. Social life may be radically altered as couples’ relationships with other couples are affected, and newly single people must establish new friendships, often in a new neighborhood or even a new city. For children, changing schools requires adjustment to new physical surroundings as well as the academic and social aspects.

Beyond the effects on individual couples, the patterns may be discerned according to class and socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, and community. More generally, sociological attention to large-scale trends within the United States over long periods of time and within regions can be studied quantitatively. An era of great social upheaval may witness an uptick in both marriage and divorce, as coping with large changes can affect the internal dynamics of a relationship. Prolonged absence by one partner—for example, from wartime military service—may lead to estrangement and ultimately divorce. Overall, not only war but also an economic downturn or a natural disaster is likely to generate social changes at both macro and micro levels, which may be manifested in individual decisions to dissolve a partnership through divorce.

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