The Complexity Of Marriage And Divorce Sociology Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Marriage and divorce are very complex subjects but more important than marriage and divorce are the effects they have on the adolescents and the homes they come from. "In the United States 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce which affects the family and children in many different ways" (Zinsmeister, 1997). What is in the best interest of the children is something that is not often considered enough and neither is how a divorce will affect the children later on in life. If adolescents choose to become involved in criminal activity later in life all aspects of their lives should be considered, not just if they were affected by divorce.

Despite how hard it may be growing up in a single parent home people can overcome the stereotypical titles that are given to those children. "Such titles are those of trouble makers, not as smart as the other kids, slower to learn things" (Felson, 2006). Poverty often plays a role in single parent styles of living but that does not mean that stealing and breaking the law is the first resort. Peer groups, school, and relationships with others all play roles in an adolescent's life in one way or another.

Research has shown that raising children is a full time job and is much easier when there are two functioning adults to participate. "Often the one parent that is raising the children works both jobs and tries to be there so that the family unit can remain as one and not be torn apart" (Rebellon, 2002). Communication is something that helps families overcome hard times. Divorce can be very traumatizing to children and also have a role on why adolescents act or do not act in a certain way.

There are three perspectives that help break down and explain broken homes and delinquency. "The mechanism linking broken homes to delinquency remains theoretically vague and empirically unknown. Nonetheless, three leading theoretical perspectives propose plausible mechanisms through which broken homes may affect delinquency at the social level. These include the control theory, learning perspective, and the strain theory" (Wells & Rankin as cited in Rebellon, 2002).

Traditionally people are conditioned to think of the family unit as a healthful and nurturing environment in which children prosper and parents realize their full potential, but that is not the case in all situations. Broken homes are homes where there is only one biological parent present for whatever reason. One of the main reasons for broken homes is due to a divorce between parents which ultimately affects the child in many ways. "To think of the family as a potential cause or correlate of crime is not something that society as a whole is conditioned to do. Although, not ignoring the family environment many criminologists have tended to seek explanations for crime in contextual conditions such as poverty, inequality, school failure, and broken homes as a result of delinquency" (Straus & Lincoln as cited in Pope, 1988).


Children of divorce ache inside. Having the two most important people in their life living apart hurts them. Even ten years after the divorce, psychologist Judith Wallerstein found that children remained sad and resentful. "They described the family break-up as the most significant event of their childhood; remembering vividly the exact date they were told, who told them, and what was said. Like trauma victims, they had flashbacks of the dismantling of their childhood home, the moving-out day, and their first visit to the noncustodial parent. Some used the word cheated- cheated of the experience of growing up in an intact family" (Videon, 2002).

Divorce hurts everyone who is touched by it or has to experience it first hand; it is not something that just parents are affected by. One of the major functions of the family is to protect, teach, and train children so they can grow up to be competent and productive adults. "Divorce is more common today in our society than ever before, with approximately 50 percent of all marriages ending in divorce" (Price & Kunz, 2003). Research also predicted that "two-thirds of all marriages in the 21st century will end in divorce" (Martin and Bumpass as cited in Price et al, 2003). Due to this high average of divorce the children in the home are being affected in a negative way and not being given the attention that is needed to help them through such an ordeal that effects the family as well as the parents. "Juveniles from broken homes are processed through the system at higher rates than peers from intact families" (Price et al, 2003).

The research on divorce can go either way by having good effects and bad effects but it has been proven as an important factor on the relationship between broken homes and delinquency. Another important factor that often gets set aside is the poverty level of children in broken homes and how it may play a role in delinquency. "A meta-analysis conducted in 1991 concludes that the prevalence of delinquency in broken homes is 10-15 percent higher than in intact homes" (Rankin and Wells as cited in Price et al, 2003). Other research conducted by the Texas Youth Authority in 2001 shows that three out of four adolescents committed to state correctional facilities come from homes that have experienced divorce, parents remarrying, or separation (Gelles, 1989).

Shaw and McKay (1932) evaluated the significance of broken homes in juvenile delinquency. In a analysis of earlier studies that had reported "almost twice the rate of broken homes among institutionalized (or delinquents) youth versus noninstitutionalized (or nondelinquent) youth, Shaw and McKay argued that the importance of broken homes per se as a causative factor in juvenile delinquency was overstated and unclear" (Demuth & Brown, 2004). "Arguing that most prior comparisons of broken homes among delinquent and nondelinquent your samples failed to control for other differences such as age and nationality that might be related to both delinquency and broken homes, they concluded on the basis of a more controlled study that it was unclear whether broken homes played such an important role in delinquency" (Shaw & McKay, 1932, as cited in Demuth, et al, 2004).

A number of studies have been carried out to show if there is a real connection between broken homes and delinquency. Some evidence supports the commonly notion that delinquency results from a broken home. George B. Mangold declared that "the broken home is probably the single most important cause of delinquency" (Felson, 2006). Sheldon Glueck and Eleanor Glueck's study which compared five hundred delinquents and five hundred nondelinquents reported "stronger evidence of the importance of broken homes, 60.4 percent of delinquents compared with 34.2 percent of nondelinquents came from broken homes" (Demuth, et al, 2004).

A study conducted by Kalter, Riemer, Brickman and Chen examined 522 teenage girls and found that girls in divorced families committed more delinquent acts such as larceny and drug use, than their counterparts in intact families (Kalter, Reimer, Brickman, Chen, 1985, as cited in Muehlenberg, 2002). A study in 1989 by Sampson and Groves found that there is a "direct statistical link between single parenthood and virtually every major type of crime, including violence against strangers, mugging, car theft, and burglary (Muehlenber, 2002).

Rebellon (2002) conducted a sample of 1,725 adolescents between the ages of eleven and seventeen. Results suggest that broken homes are strongly associated with a range of delinquent behaviors, including minor status offenses and more severe property/violent offenses. In particular, "distal divorce/separation appears related to three different types of delinquency, recent marriage appears related to status offending, and the long-term presence of a stepparent appears related to violent offending (Rebellon, 2002).

Literature overlooks the possibility that when a divorce happens, mothers and fathers might not have similar impacts on sons' and daughters' (Videon, 2002). This topic is especially important because of the growing trend of fathers gaining custody of their children. "Father-only families grew at more than double the rate of mother-only families during the 1980s and by 1998 father-only families constituted almost one fifth of single-parent families" (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1988, as cited in Videon, 2002). "Now that more than one half of children spend some time in a single-parent family and about fifteen percent of single-parent families are father only families" (Demuth, et al, 2004). Research on fathers has focused on two topics: "(1) the significance of father for the well-being of children residing with married parents and (2) the role of nonresident fathers in promoting child well-being" (Demuth, et al, 2004). Fathers make unique contributions to child well-being and influence.

Hoffman and Johnson (1998) studied delinquency drug and alcohol use among single-fathers and single-mothers. According to them, adolescents in single-father families are "more likely to have used marijuana, used other illicit drugs, been drunk three or more times, and have problem alcohol or drug use in the past year" than adolescents in single-mother families (Demuth, et al, 2004). "Adolescents residing in single-father or father-stepmother families appear to be most likely to exhibit those delinquent outcomes" (Hoffman & Johnson, 1998, as cited in Demuth, et al, 2004). A national sample of male and female youth between the ages of twelve and seventeen found that adolescents in mother-only households were more likely to engage in deviant act (Muehlenberg, 2002).

Using data from the 1995 National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health) of a sample of more than 20,000 adolescents in grades seven through twelve, Demuth and Brown (2004) compared delinquent behavior among adolescents in two-biological parent married families, single-mother families, single-father families, mother-stepfather families, and father-stepmother families. This study found that "mean levels of delinquency are highest among adolescents residing in single-father families and lowest among adolescent in two-biological parent married families. Adolescents in single-mother and stepfamilies fall in the middle" (Demuth, et al, 2004). Adolescents in single-parent and mother-stepfather families are especially likely to commit serious property and violent offenses. In single-parent families, the levels of delinquency among adolescents are higher in single-father than single-mother families. The greater delinquency of adolescents in single-father families is largely a function of the weaker direct and indirect controls exerted by the father (Demuth, et al, 2004).

Divorce is the most common factor in adolescents and delinquency but it is important to remember it is not the only thing that affects a choice of breaking the law. The environment and attitudes of those in their immediate family and friends also will play a large role. "A number of studies have determined that adolescents adjustment reflects the quality of the relationship between them and their parents whether they are divorced or not" (May, Vartanian & Virgo, 2002). How parents enforce rules fairly and rationally build a stronger relationship because their children respect them and accept their authority. Research shows "adolescents who report close relationships with their parents also express greater emotional wellbeing and thus are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior" (Baumrind as cited in May, et al, 2002). When looking at the full picture a divorce that is bad and effects the children in a negative way can lead to delinquency, but a divorce that ends well and does not have a negative effect on the children will not necessarily lead to delinquency. Different factors will lead to different outcomes. There is no cut and dry conclusion that divorce and broken homes lead to a life of delinquency.

Children of Divorce Parents: Statistics

The importance that is attached to issues of the effects of divorce on children increases in proportion to the number of children whose parents are divorced. Statistical data show that the number of families in which parents divorce has risen dramatically in the last three decades. From 1950 to 1980, for example, the rate of divorce doubled. In 1982, five million children in the United States under the age of eighteen (8%) lived in single-parent homes. But because these data include neither divorced parents who remarried nor parents who were separated at the time of the study, the number of children who experienced parental divorce and separation must be assumed to have been even higher (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1988, as cited in Martin & Bumpass, 1989).

Glick's (1979), study indicated that in 1978 as many as "18.6 percent of all children in the United States were living in one-parent families; about 39 percent of all children will experience parental divorce by their fifteenth birthday; and 38 percent of White children and 75 percent of Black children born to married parents will experience parental divorce before reaching the age sixteen. Recent national statistics indicate that currently one million children every year experience divorce of their parents" (Glick, 1979, as cited in Martin, et al, 1989).

Only in 1980 did the number of divorces in the United States decline, for the first time in twenty years. There were 3.5 percent fewer divorces in 1980 than in 1979. "The trend in the divorce rate started to turn around after 1979, falling by about fivepercent between 1979 and 1985" (National Center for Health Statistics, 1980, as cited in Martin, et al, 1989). "But if this decline may suggest a leveling off, or even a slight decrease in the rate of divorce, the large number of children experiencing parental divorce makes the impact of divorce on children a continuing concern of researchers and clinicians, and of the public at large" (Martin, et al, 1989).


Research concludes that there are no mechanisms linking broken homes to delinquency but there are three leading perspectives that can attempt to explain the broken homes and delinquency link. These theories include; the control theory, the learning perspective, and the strain perspective. Each theory has its own viewpoint on why adolescents act the way they do whether good or bad and describes how the family plays a role in adolescent's behavior.

The control theory has three components. "The first component is the social bond that is acquired between individuals, second is direct control, and third is self-control. This theory is the most complex and ambitious but is also the best to explain how the theory fits into an adolescent's life" (Rebellon, 2002). Social bond theory suggests that individuals engage in delinquency to the degree that they fail to "(1) form a strong affective attachment to their parents or caregivers; (2) develop a stake in conformity that promotes rational commitment to conventional norms; (3) seek behavioral involvement in conventional activities; and (4) adopt a strong belief that conventional norms merit respect" (Hirschi as cited in Rebellon, 2002). The social bonds theory explains broken homes through the four elements stated above and the lack of commitment that one gains through these bonds. Without them adolescents are more likely to not be successful in society. Also, "preliminary research suggests that broken homes may inhibit parent/child attachment, which in turn promotes delinquency" (Rebellon, 2002). The research has not yet established an official relationship between the two so there is more research to come on that topic.

Direct control is another component of the control theory and offers an alternative explanation of the link between broken homes and delinquency. "The conflict-ridden and single-parent households hamper a parent's ability to set appropriate rules, monitor children, recognize rule violations, and sanction inappropriate behavior" (Patterson, Rankin and Wells, as cited in Rebellon, 2002). Those abilities listed above show direct control of a parent over an adolescent and can stimulate a good relationship between them thus making the adolescent less likely to partake in criminal activities. "Among studies examining social bonding and direct control simultaneously, evidence suggests that direct control exerts a greater mediating influence on the broken homes/delinquency relationship" (Rebellon, 2002). Other research states that "parental attachment is not directly associated with delinquency but, instead, is associated with parental supervision, which seems associated with both contemporaneous and subsequent delinquency" (Laub & Samson, as cited in Rebellon, 2002).

The last component of the control theory is self control. In a study conducted by Gottredson and Hirschi in 1990, they agreed that delinquency occurs when parents fail to monitor and sanction inappropriate behavior. "When children lack self-control they are unable and unwilling to delay immediate gratification, and provided with the opportunity, they engage in delinquency to satiate immediate desires" (Rebellon, 2002). Self-control is established by early childhood and fixed thereafter; research must satisfy two preliminary conditions to support a self-control explanation of the broken homes/delinquency relationship. "First, it must establish that homes broken in the first few years of adolescents lives are associated with delinquency. Secondly, the effect of broken homes on delinquency in later years should be mediated entirely by delinquency in early years" (Rebellon, 2002).

The learning perspective implicates the peer group and relationship as a link between broken homes and delinquency, in other words, who you spend your free time with, effects your relationships. "According to the social learning theory, youths engage in delinquency because they associate with peers who model, promote beliefs favorable to, and reinforce deviant behaviors" (Rebellon, 2002). The peer group that one associates with can be a positive and negative thing depending on the activities youth participate in. During the years of adolescents youth are going through many issues and one of those issues is youth trying to find themselves and their identity.

When parents stand in the way of that the adolescents tend to act out and choose their peer groups over the family. "Adolescents in conflict-ridden households were more likely to report substantial delinquency among peers than were adolescents from stable households" (Rebellon, 2002). Also as stated above, "youths from broken homes were more susceptible to the effects of peer pressure than were youths from intact homes" (Rebellon, 2002). To add to the confusion youth may be going through their own problems but if the family is going through a divorce it will only push the adolescent farther away and cause more strain for the family (Rebellon, 2002).

Symbolic interactionism is a strong element of the learning perspective and is explained by the meaning that adolescents give to the symbols that they see. "Individuals have the cognitive capacity to imagine themselves in the role of others and incorporate this to their conceptions of themselves" (Cullen & Agnew, 2003). The meaning that young people associate to what they see around them helps them to develop who they are in the long run and where they want to go with their lives. "Behavioral principles are not limited to learning but are fundamental principles of performance" (Cullen, et al, 2003). Good behavior can promote good actions and develop a successful person in society.

The strain perspective explains broken homes as "actively motivate delinquency by preventing individuals from achieving/maintaining positively valued goals or by imposing negative stimuli" (Rebellon, 2002). In other words, the strain perspective puts adolescents under pressure for helping with financial issues of the family which in turn causes them to break the law. "Some studies show that children of recently divorced parents experienced significantly more stress than did children from intact families" (Cullen, et al, 2003). Children show their stresses from different situations in different ways depending on how they were taught to cope with them. If children feel rejected by their parents they will act out in ways to get any type of attention whether it is good or bad.

A major researcher in the strain theory is Agnew, and the research that was provided in 1992 suggests that the failure to achieve economic goals is but one type of strain among many that adolescents feel. According to Agnew, "psychological strain can follow (1) the failure to achieve goals ranging from fair treatment to respect; (2) the loss of previously attained outcomes ranging from financial resources to romantic relationships; and (3) the imposition of noxious stimuli ranging from physical abuse to poor family relations" (Rebellon, 2002). When such a pressure is put on adolescents they tend to respond in any way that they can and incorporate as much help as they can to help the family.

All three of these theories explain how adolescents view and incorporate everything they are facing as they grow up together. When adolescents incorporate all three theories together they may use parts of each theory to develop individual attitudes and personalities. Each situation is unique and so are the environments they come from. Two children from the same family and environments may cope and handle their own situation different. Through these theories research obtains the best understanding of the broken homes and delinquency concept of explaining why adolescents do what they do in regards to their actions or inactions.

Poverty and Race

Poverty is a major role player in divorce and an explanation for why adolescents sometimes feel like they have to break the law to gain respect in society. Broken homes often only have one source of income which can make attaining basic needs very difficult. Often parents get some type of assistance from the state or some other type of funding to help with the needs of the family (Pagani, Boulerice, Vitaro, & Tremblay, 1999). However, adolescents want more at times than their parents can provide for them, or they may feel pressure to help take care of the family which may lead to criminal activity.

The role of poverty in the development of delinquency is not a recent issue to society or something they have never seen before. "Being financially disadvantaged reduces youngsters' ability to compete in the school environment, which is laden with middle-class criteria; they attain status through means that are at odds with prevailing societal values" (Pagani, et al, 1999). The link that connects poverty and delinquency appears in many literature articles. In a study conducted by Gottfredson & Hirschi, they found that "a significant relationship between sustained underclass status and repeated involvement in serious crime in 8th and 9th graders followed over a period of 2 years was extremely high" (Pagani, et al, 1999). Thus showing that adolescents are feeling that in order for them to pave a way through society they must attain their wants and needs illegally.

"Poverty breeds crime" is something that the criminal justice system has examined for a period of time. "The logic of this argument is reflected in the fact that the vast majority of those processed through the criminal justice system are poor" (Pope, 1988). In a study conducted by Wilson in 1978, he examines the relationship between black Americans and the economic structure of society. "As a way of understanding the relationship between poverty, family life, and crime, it's been useful to review the origin and maintenance of the black "underclass," a segment of society that has been characterized by extreme poverty" (Pope, 1988).

Wilson identifies three stages of American race relations: "The first encompasses the period of antebellum slavery and the early postbellum era; the second extends from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the New Deal era; the third covers the post World War II modern industrial era" (Wilson as cited in Pope, 1988). These three reasons explain why black Americans are in such poverty and how they have not been able to rise above it in most cases. What is not explained is why white Americans face poverty and delinquency issues.

The changing nature of the economy has a lot to do with how and why people attain social class. As a result of having less money people are more likely to express themselves violently and be involved in delinquent behaviors. As a result, members of the underclass comprise the bulk of the juvenile and adolescent populations which are the most frequent clients of the criminal justice system. Broken homes and single parent homes has a lot to do with poverty and delinquency as stated above. "Many of the underclass characteristics associated with black, single parent households, such as low earned income, are also associated with white single parent households" (Unnever, Cullen, & Agnew, 2006).

There is no link between why black Americans and white Americans break the law and if they come from single parent or broken homes. The point to be stressed is that family structure, poverty, and the poverty environment may combine in such a way that high rates of crime and delinquency are likely to result.


Broken homes and single parent households go hand in hand but the simple fact has yet to be proven that one leads to an excuse for the other. So many other factors play into adolescents and they way they act in society. The research above will show all those factors that play a role in broken homes/single parents homes and adolescents and delinquency. "Research has yielded severe broad conclusions concerning the relationship between broken homes and delinquency at the individual level of analysis" (Rebellon, 2002).

Divorce is something that effects everyone involved in some way or another it is not just limited to the parents and too often parents forget about how their child can be influenced later on in life. Delinquency among adolescents is due to a large range of factors and can include affects of divorce but is not limited to only that factor. Where children are raised and by who, the amount of adults in their everyday lives, their peer groups, and their level of family income all play some role in an adolescent's life. Poverty is another factor that plays a huge role in delinquency. Broken homes that only have one parent are often affected financially which can lead adolescents to attain their financial needs elsewhere.