This article is the first in a five part series of articles that looks at divorce and the children involved in the divorce. This article examines the change in cultural attitude toward divorce.

Child development patterns have been studied and developmental theories, while helpful in counseling, must be viewed within the within the changing circumstances of society from the period of study to today. For example, Freud first published his theories in the early 1900’s when divorce was not viewed as a social acceptable option and the number of children dealing with blended families was relatively small.

The acceptability of divorce has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Alper, who was married in the early sixties, observed “I can honestly say in the home of my parents, I did not ever recall hearing the word ‘divorce’ uttered and do not remember a single instance of any member of my extended family, or friends of my family, ever having been divorced” (Alper, 2005). Nair notes that nearly half of all babies born today will spend some time in a one-parent family (Nair & Murray, 2005). Each year more than 1 million children experience the divorce of their parents (Cohen, 2002). In 2003, less than 60% of children in the United States were living with both biologic parents, almost 25% were living with their mother only, approximately 4% were living with their father only, the rest were living with stepfamilies, adoptive families, or foster families (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).

Divorce has become a common and acceptable outcome of couples, which have found themselves in an unfulfilling marriage. The divorce rate in the United States has reached a 50% rate; this represents the fact that half of the marriages in the Unite States end in divorce (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). This fact adds new challenges when looking at child development in relation to models developed during an era when the two-parent household was the norm rather than the exception.

Traditionally, divorce has been considered a social taboo, and if someone desired a divorce they had to prove to the court that the marriage contained either physical or emotional abuse, adultery, or abandonment. The Old Testament provided that to be divorced a man must provide his wife a certificate of divorce (Deuteronomy 24 1-4 NIV). At the time of Jesus the ability and acceptability of divorce was an issue. The Pharisees asked Jesus about the lawfulness of divorce and the reasons allowing for divorce. Jesus’ reply indicates that is was not part of God’s plan to allow for divorce but was allowed in the Law of Moses because of man’s hardness of heart (Matthew 19: 3-11NIV). In the 1960’s public opinion began to favor more relaxed divorce laws and in 1969 California became the first state to pass a no-fault divorce law. Between 1960 and 1980 the divorce rate grew almost 250 percent. The reason for the increased divorce rate range from a combination of the lenient divorce laws, more women being able to support themselves by entering the workforce, and the slow change of the public divorce opinion (Furstenbert & Cherlin, 1991).

Society’s attitude regarding divorce has changed over the last 50 years. This can be seen in contemporary TV programs. Families in the 50’s were represented by shows such as Ozzie and Harriet; Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. These programs presented a view of families, which consisted of a middle class two parent, mother stays at home and the father is the sole financial provider family. Today’s programs today range from Murphy Brown in the 90’s, a single working woman who had a child out of wedlock to Reba a divorced mother dealing with child visitation and step family member issues.

Also the change in social attitude toward divorce can be in the changes in a survey results of a group of women. In 1962, a group of women were asked if married couples with children should stay together even if they didn’t get along and half said they should. The views altered when the same groups of women were asked the same question in 1985. Less than one in five of the women felt that couples should remain together for the sake of the children (Furstenbert & Cherlin, 1991). The reason for the change may be many but is definitely supported by the increased divorce rate and the ease of obtaining a divorce. No longer must one prove to the court that a divorce is necessary (Amato, 2001).

A new term is being used in the literature to describe today’s family unit; binuclear family as opposed to the nuclear family. A binuclear family is any family that spans two households. This language is replacing the term broken home (Karpf & Shatz, 2005). Karpf and Shatz suggested using this term rather than broken family to present a “more positive view” of the divorced family. The major difference between the nuclear family and the binuclear family is the potential complexity of extended family relationships; children dealing with step-parents, step- siblings, being shuttled between two homes, holidays being split between two family traditions.

The divorce rate stands at 50% of all marriages, effecting more than 1 million children in the United States each year. This paper looked at the cultural changes in the attitude toward marriage. The following articles in this series will look at the general effect of divorce, custodial arrangements and remarriage on the children involved in the divorce process and finally looks at the effect of counseling children of divorce.

Alper, G. (2005). Voices from the unconscious. Journal of Loss & Trauma, 10(1), 73-81.

Amato, P. (2001). Children of divorce in the 1990s. Journal of Family Psychology, 15(3), 355-370.

Cohen, G. (2002, November). Helping children and families deal with divorce and separation. Pediatrics, 110(6), 1019-1023.

Furstenbert, F., & Cherlin, A. (1991). Divided Families. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Author's Bio: 

Cheryl Gowin is a life coach and counselor at Discovery Counseling, Sarasota Florida.