Contemporary Family Trends
Dr. Anne-Marie Ambert, York University
(Revised edition 2002)
The Vanier Institute of the Family
This paper has been commissioned by The Vanier Institute of the Family as a
contribution to discussion and as a source for the development of The Vanier
Institute of the Family's perspective on divorce in Canada.
Contemporary Family Trendsis a series of
occasional papers authored by leading Canadian experts in
the field of family studies.
The Vanier Institute of the Family was established in 1965 under the patronage of Their
Excellencies Governor General Georges P. Vanier and Madame Pauline Vanier. It is a national
voluntary organization dedicated to promoting the well-being of Canada's families through
research, publications, public education and advocacy. The Institute regularly works with
businesses, legislators, policy-makers and program specialists, researchers, educators, family
service professionals, the media and members of the general public.
About the author
Dr. Anne-Marie Ambert has been a professor at the Department of Sociology, York University
(www.arts.yorku.ca/soci/ambert) since 1971. Her main areas of interest encompass the family.
She has done extensive research in the areas of divorce and remarriage, poverty, and various
aspects of the parent-child relationship. Her two latest books are entitledFamilies in the New
Millenniumand her second edition of The Effect of Children on Parents, both in 2001. She has
also served for two decades on the editorial board for theJournal of Marriage and Family.
She is publishing a series of online articles on family issues, such as single-parent families
Aussi disponible en français
UNDERSTANDING THE NUMBERS ................................................................ 1
Is it true that "one out of every two marriages breaks up"? ................................................1
How do we measure divorce? .............................................................................................2
So why the misunderstanding? ...........................................................................................3
But is this the entire story? ..................................................................................................4
Are divorce rates going up or down? ..................................................................................5
How do Canadian rates compare with others? ....................................................................6
How many people divorce many times? .............................................................................7
After how many years of marriage do couples divorce? .....................................................7
How old are people at divorce? ..........................................................................................8
How many children are involved in divorce cases? ............................................................8
What about predictions that 40 to 50% of children will experience the divorce of
their parents? .......................................................................................................................8
Who gets child custody? .....................................................................................................9
How common is remarriage? ............................................................................................10
How many families with dependent children are stepfamilies? ........................................10
Are remarriages as stable as first marriages? ....................................................................10
How frequent is cohabitation? ..........................................................................................11
How many children are involved in cohabiting families? ................................................12
Are cohabitations as stable as marriages? .........................................................................12
Do couples who cohabit before marriage divorce less than others? .................................13
How is it that cohabitation before marriage does not prevent divorce? ............................13
CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES .................................................................... 14
What causes divorce? ........................................................................................................14
Consequences of divorce ..................................................................................................17
Divorce causes poverty .....................................................................................................17
Increased risk of problems for children of divorced parents .............................................19
There are, however, several cautions that are advised in interpreting the above
There are six main explanations for children's negative outcomes following a
parental divorce. ................................................................................................................21
Are there differences by age and sex to children's adjustment to divorce? .......................24
Does parental remarriage help children? ..........................................................................25
What are the consequences of divorce for adults? ............................................................26
CONCLUSIONS .................................................................................................. 28
REFERENCES ..................................................................................................... 30
Divorce: facts, causes, and consequences
Many questions recur in people's mind and in their inquiries about divorce. This paper answers themain ones. Furthermore, the statistics about divorce, its causes and its consequences give rise to many misinterpretations. The second goal of this report is to address these. The paper is divided into two sections: one presents and interprets the basic numbers, and the second focuses on the causes and consequences of divorce. Trends in remarriage and cohabitation that pertain to divorceare also reviewed in the first section.
It is easy to misinterpret and misunderstand facts about divorce. To begin with, official statistics about divorce are sometimes confusing and erroneously interpreted, even by a few scientiststhemselves. Then, when research information and official statistics are published, radio, TV, and newspaper people often tend to report on some selected pieces of information and consequently may inadvertently blow them out of proportion. Furthermore, media people may neither have the time nor the space to provide other important facts which are essential in the interpretation of the information they selectively provide.
UNDERSTANDING THE NUMBERS
Is it true that "one out of every two marriages breaks up"?
Definitely not. Frederick and Hamel (1998) cautiously estimate that "almost one in every threeCanadian couples (31%) who married in 1991 will eventually split up if the 1991 divorce rates prevail" [italics added]. This compares with an estimated 44% in the U.S. For 1998, Statistics Canada (2000) provided an estimate of 36% for that year's marriages--ranging from 23% in Newfoundland and 45% in Quebec to 55% in the Yukon. These estimates, however, include people
who were marrying for the first time and others who were remarrying, generally after a divorce. For instance, in 1998, 22% of the brides and grooms were remarrying following a divorce and 33% of all marriages included at least one spouse who had been previously married. It means that the probability of divorcing for a first marriage is lower.
How do we measure divorce?
The most commonly used method to measure divorce internationally is the rate for every 1,000 or 100,000 people in the population. In 2000, this rate in Canada was 2.2 per 1,000 people in the population. This method of calculation allows us to say that there are more or fewer divorces in any year per 1,000 or 100,000 population. Holding the denominator constant allows us to see fluctuations in the annual rates. But there are two main problems with this measure.
First, this measure is sensitive to a population's age distribution. For instance, as seniors become proportionately more numerous, the number of divorces goes down, thus lowering the overall divorce rate even though younger people might still be divorcing at a high rate. The second problem is that, when we calculate divorces per 100,000 population, children are included as well as single persons. All of these people reduce the divorce rate because they can't divorce: they are not even married!
A more realistic method is to focus on those who are eligible to divorce, namely legally married couples, which gives us a divorce rate per 1,000 or 100,000 married couples. Of course, as you see in Table 1, this method produces higher rates of divorce because the denominator is not diluted and includes only people at risk of divorcing, that is, married couples. This approach shows that in:
1981, there were 1,180 divorces per 100,000 married couples, or a rate of 1.2%;
1987, there were 1,585 divorces per 100,000 married couples, or a rate of 1.6%;
1995, there were 1,222 divorces per 100,000 married couples, or a rate of 1.2%.
In other words, both in 1981 and 1995, the risk of divorcing in any of these two years for a married couple was 1.2% compared to 1.6% in 1987, the peak year. Of course, the lifetime risk of divorcingfor a couple is higher than the annual 1.2%--as seen earlier, the overall prediction is around 31% to 36% if current rates hold.
So why the misunderstanding?
People are also led to believe that one out of two marriages ends in divorce because the following simplistic way of measuring divorce is often used: the number of divorces in a year is calculated over the number of marriages that have taken place during this same year. If the number of marriages goes down, as it has in the past decade, it only makes sense that, even if the number of divorces remains the same, the proportion of divorces will increase. As you can see, this is a very misleading way of calculating divorce.
A similarly misleading approach utilizes the rate of divorce in one year and compares it to the rate of marriage in the same year, such as 2.7 divorces per 1,000 population and 5.4 marriages per 1,000 population in 1994. Thus, the divorce rate (which becomes a ratio) is 50% that of marriages--a false "fact," as we have already seen. Furthermore, because this 50% rate is calculated on the basis of marriages and divorces occurring in one year, it has at times been erroneously used to predict that "50% of people marrying in a year will end up divorced." One has to keep in mind that the divorces recorded in any one year rarely happen to the couples who have married during the same year! The fact is that we can know what proportion of marriages end in divorce only after the death of one ofthe spouses.
But is this the entire story?
No. Several points need to be emphasized.
1. Predictions are just that: predictions. They are made on the basis of yearly trends. Unfortunately, the "yearly" is often forgotten in heated discussions! Thus, predictions have to be constantly revised to fit new realities.
2. Some of the divorces that take place each year are actually second or third divorces for some people. Theseredivorces increase the overall number of divorces and artificially inflate the proportions of people who divorce during their lifetime because some people contribute more than their fair share to the divorce rate.
3. Cohabitation is rising. The end result is that when a cohabiting union breaks up, the dissolution does not appear in divorce statistics. It is said that cohabitations which break up constitute hidden divorces and, therefore, divorce rates do not provide an accurate picture of conjugal dissolutionrates (combining cohabitations + marriages that end).
However, including all cohabitations under the rubric of conjugal relations may be misleading and so would be equating their break up with divorce. Indeed, many cohabitations last a few months at best and merely constitute a "glorified" dating period. Including cohabitations of two years or more might be more appropriate. This is an issue, which requires more thought and research.
4. Finally, an unknown number of couples separate but never divorce. This type of conjugal dissolution may be as real as a divorce, yet it does not appear in divorce statistics.
So, when caveats 3 and 4 are put together, it is certainly true that at least one out of every two unions ends in dissolution. And the percentage may become even higher if young people or younger cohorts continue to enter into cohabitation as a first union. But unions are not necessarily the equivalent of marriages.
Are divorce rates going up or down?
They have gone down substantially during the 1990s. In Table 1, Statistics Canada presents us with the following rates of divorce throughout the years:
Years # of divorces Rates per
Rates per 100,000
1921 558 6.4 N/A
1941 2,462 21.4 N/A
1961 6,563 36.0 N/A
1968* 11,343 54.8 N/A
1969 26,093 124.2 N/A
1981 67,671 271.8 1,174.4
1985** 61,980 253.6 1,103.3
1986 78,304 298.8 1,301.6
1987*** 96,200 362.3 1,585.5
1990 80,998 295.8 1,311.5
1995 77,636 262.2 1,221.9
1997 67,408 224.8 N/A
2000 70,292 228.4 N/A
*Reform of Divorce Laws
**Divorce Act ("no fault")
Divorce has greatly increased since 1968 when the Divorce Laws entered into effect; in fact, we
have experienced a five-fold increase from 1968 to 1995. Divorce rates peaked in 1987 in Canada and in 1981 in the U.S. and have since stabilized at lower levels. Whether they will go up or down in the future largely depends on demographic factors and on people's lifestyle as well as values.
For instance, as more young couples choose to cohabit before marriage and as the "children ofdivorce" who are at a higher risk of divorcing enter into marriage themselves, there are chances that divorce rates could go up again one day. Or, if the rates of never-married women bearing children skyrocketed, divorce rates would go down for their cohort as these never-married mothers have far fewer chances of ever marrying--but their children's cohorts would then have higher divorce rates, assuming they married (Teachman, 2002). Furthermore, if the proportion of adults between 25 and 45 in the population declines, the rates of divorce will go down because, as indicated below, this is the age range most susceptible to divorce. As you can see, predictions depend on many "ifs."
How do Canadian rates compare with others?
In Table 2, United Nations statistics give the following divorce rates per 1,000 for selected westerncountries in 1996.
Countries Rates per 1,000
The U.S. actually has the highest divorce rate in the western world, followed by Cuba, the U.K, France and Canada. Thus, although our rate is modest compared to that of the U.S., it is nevertheless one of the highest in the world. Not a situation about which to be complacent.
How many people divorce many times?
There is no readily available information on this for Canada at this time but I would estimate that at least 15% of divorces are redivorces for one or both spouses. In the U.S., one third of all divorces occurring each year are redivorces for at least one of the spouses. For instance, in 1990, 18% of women aged 25-29 who were divorcing were doing so after a remarriage as were 31% of women aged 40-44 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1997). Both here and in the U.S., people who divorce many times seem to differ from the once-divorced on some dimensions (Ambert, 1989; Booth, 1999). Some have more personal problems while others are less committed to marriage.
For Canada, there are no estimates of the number of children who experience multiple parental divorces. In the U.S., 15% of all children will see their custodial parent divorce more than once before age 18; and nearly 50% of children of divorced families see their parents divorce again. The research indicates that such multiple familial transitions correlate with declining well-being in children (Amato and Sobolewski, 2001).
After how many years of marriage do couples divorce?
The average duration of marriages ending in divorce in 1998 was 13.7 years. In the U.S., it was 11
years for first marriages and 7.2 years for all marriages--remarriages that end in divorce are of shorter duration than first marriages that do so. Statistics Canada indicates that the highest rate of divorce per 1,000 population occurs at year 5 of marriage with over 3.5 divorces per 1,000 population.
How old are people at divorce?
In 1998, the average age at divorce was 42 years for men and 39.4 for women. Nevertheless, people in their late twenties and early thirties are the most susceptible to divorce. For instance, in 1992, the rate of divorce per 1,000 married women was 2.2; but it was only 1.1 for women aged 45-49, and 0.65 for women 75-87 (versus 0.85 among older men).
But we do have to be careful when we consider divorce statistics by age because, among older
persons, a divorce at age 65-87 may be a first one after a long marriage or a second or nth one. For men 65-87 who divorced in 1990-92, the average duration of their first marriage was 37.8 years, while subsequent divorces occurred after an average of 14 years of marriage (Gentleman and Park,1997). The more frequently people divorce and remarry, the shorter each subsequent remarriage (Ambert, 1989). But, overall, people are divorcing at a later age because of a later age at first marriage.
How many children are involved in divorce cases?
The number of dependent children involved in a parental divorce was 36,252 in 1998--the total number of divorces had been 69,088--compared to over one million in the U.S. Couples who divorce either have no children or do not have as many as same-age couples who remain married, in great part because a good proportion of them divorce within the first few years of marriage.What about predictions that 40 to 50% of children will experience the divorce of their parents?
Not too realistic! If we consider that only about 31 to 36% of all marriages may end in divorce and that, as seen earlier, a proportion of these marriages, perhaps 50%, do not include dependent children, then this prediction is far too high. However, some couples do divorce when their children
are adult. Furthermore, as we see later, many children who live in cohabitational families also experience the dissolution of their parents' union. For these children, the results are the same, even though they are not included in the divorce statistics.
Who gets child custody?
Both in Canada and the U.S., children are predominantly in thephysical custody of their mother, that is, they live with her. Only about 10 to 12% of children live with their father--a percentage which has not changed much over the years. However, joint custody has become more common and now accounts for about 30% of custody cases: it means that both parents have equal decision making rights and access to the children. Even in these cases, however, most children live with their mother. Mothers prefer sole custody but are favorable to joint custody when they perceive their ex-husbands to be good parents and when the post-marital relationship is not conflictual (Wilcox,
Wolchik, and Braver, 1998).
Resident fathers compared to resident mothers are more likely to be remarried or have another adult living with them. They also tend to have older children, perhaps because smaller children require too much work. For men, residence with their children results in a better father-child relationship and contributes to fathers' mental health (Arendell, 1995). They are less subjected to feelings of lack of control over their paternal situation, as is the case among nonresidential fathers. However, resident fathers find their role constraining--they have less freedom and more demands are placedon them--and are less happy as persons than visiting fathers (Shapiro and Lambert, 1999).
Mother and father custody have somewhat different but equivalent results for children; on average, neither is as good in terms of child outcomes as a stable two-parent situation (Powell and Downey,
How common is remarriage?
Very common but less so than before because of the increasing tendency to cohabit. Approximately 70% and 58%, respectively, of divorced men and women remarry in Canada, excluding Quebec. In Quebec, rates are closer to 45% for men and 35% for women because of a preference for cohabitation. For women between the ages of 25 and 35, the probability of marriage is 66% and closer to 80% among men. The probability between the ages of 35 and 50 for women is 48% compared to 61% for men.
How many families with dependent children are stepfamilies?
In 2001, 12% of families composed of a couple with children were stepfamilies, for a total of 503,100. Of these stepfamilies, 50% included only the mother's child(ren) from a previous union; 10% included exclusively the father's child; 32% were the result of a child having been born to a union in addition to the children born from previous ones, and 8% consisted of both spouses' children from previous unions (Turcotte, 2002). About 10% of all Canadian children under the ageof 12 are living in a stepfamily.
For the entire country, half of stepfamilies are remarriages. In Quebec, nearly 75% of all stepfamilies are common-law unions whereas less than 45% of stepfamilies are common-law in Ontario, the Prairies, and B.C. One should note that, in Canada, stepfamilies include both marital
and cohabitational unions while, in the U.S., the term usually refers only to remarried families.
Are remarriages as stable as first marriages?
Although remarriages are as happy as first marriages, controlling for the number of years married, remarriages after a divorce have a higher rate of dissolution, probably 10% higher. The projected11
rate of redivorce is around 41% (Glossop, 2002). In the U.S., over 50% of remarriages end in divorce. But when a remarriage endures, it may outlast a first marriage.
Why are they less stable? First, remarriages are constituted of persons who have already shown that they can divorce once; they may be more accepting of divorce as a solution and more ready to have recourse to it a second time. Second, spouses in remarriages may be less willing to compromise and may become disenchanted more rapidly. Third, the structure itself of remarriages is a more complex one when children are brought in along with ex-spouses and ex-in-laws. Fourth, there are fewernorms that guide these relationships, making it more difficult for the spouses to feel secure within their respective roles. Remarriages without children from previous unions or with children born to the union have a rate of divorce equivalent to that of first marriages (Glossop, 2002).
How frequent is cohabitation?
Common-law unions are increasing for all age groups, particularly in Quebec, but remain more frequent among the younger cohorts (Turcotte and Belanger, 1997). For instance, in 1996, 39% of all couples aged 20-30 were cohabiting (versus 21% in 1986) compared to 10% of those 50 years or over (Milan, 2000).
Figures from the General Social Survey show that in 1970-74, 17% of all first unions were common-law; in 1990-95, 57% of all first unions were common-law.
In Quebec, 80% of all first unions are common-law. In 1996, 14% of all Canadian couples were
cohabiting; 24% of all Quebec couples were compared to 9% in Ontario and British Columbia.
Between 1981 and 1995, the number of cohabiting couples tripled to over one million (Gentleman
and Park, 1997). It is often surmised that the higher rates of cohabitation in Quebec may have something to do with the fact that the Catholic Church does not sanction remarriage. However, I personally doubt that this is the entire reason because Quebecers who cohabit, as is the case elsewhere, are not as religious as people who choose to marry or remarry. Cohabitation may simply have acquired a different cultural meaning among francophones.
How many children are involved in cohabiting families?
In 1996, 47% of all cohabiting unions included children (Milan, 2000) or 7.9% of all children
(735,565). Younger children are more likely to live with parents in common-law unions: 14% of all children under age 6 in Canada and 31% in Quebec. Many of their parents will eventually marry, others will separate, and some of these children actually live with their mother and her cohabitant-- the latter relationship is the most likely to end in dissolution, perhaps because males invest less in a relationship that includes children who are not theirs (while remarried men are less influenced by this matter). Actually, some children live with their mother and a series of her partners. These children often have very negative outcomes (e.g., Dunifon and Kowaleski-Jones, 2002).
Are cohabitations as stable as marriages?
They definitely are not and this is true both in the U.S. and Canada. Furthermore, cohabitations tend to dissolve more rapidly than marriages. More than 50% of all these unions end in dissolutionwithin five years (Milan, 2000). The reasons for this are detailed later.
However, cohabitations are somewhat more stable in Quebec than in the rest of Canada. For instance, it is estimated, based on 2001 information, that 55% of Quebec women aged 30 to 39 whoopted for a cohabitation as a first union will go through a separation compared to 66% among
women in the other provinces (Turcotte, 2002).
Do couples who cohabit before marriage divorce less than others?
No, they divorce more (Wu and Balakrishnan, 1995). This question is generally based on the notion that cohabitation with one's future spouse may serve as a "trial marriage." The reasoning is that, by cohabiting, couples will learn more about each other than can be the case just by dating. This is true. The second part of the reasoning is that, if they don't like what they get, they will separate andnot go on to marry, therefore saving themselves the trouble of divorcing later. But this does not necessarily happen even though rates of cohabitation dissolution are very high.
Le Bourdais et al. (2000) found, in the General Social Survey, that, in the 20- to 30-year-old group, 63% of those women whose first relationship was a cohabitation had separated by 1995 comparedto 33% of those who had married first. Of course, the first figure included women who had cohabited and had separated before marrying their partner and others who had gone on to marry and then separate from this partner.
How is it that cohabitation before marriage does not prevent divorce?
First, cohabitation represents for many couples, particularly men, a lesser commitment than
marriage (Clarkberg, Stolzenberg, and Waite, 1996). In fact, some individuals choose cohabitation
because it requires, in their opinion, less sexual faithfulness than in marriage. Therefore, it cannot
be said that it really constitutes a "trial" marriage because the level of commitment may not be
comparable. However, many such less committed couples do, almost automatically, move on to the
next step, which is marriage, and then later divorce.
Second, some researchers find that couples who cohabit are less religious than those who marry
without cohabiting first. There are several studies indicating a correlation between religiosity and
marital happiness as well as stability (Call and Heaton, 1997). If couples who are both less religious
and less committed to each other and to the institution of marriage cohabit and then go on to marry,
it is not surprising that they will have a higher divorce rate.
Third, McLaughlin, Leonard, and Senchak (1992) have found that newly married couples who had
cohabited before marriage had substantially higher rates of premarital violence than those who had
not lived together; premarital violence was in turn followed by more marital violence than when
none had taken place before. To complete this overview, Magdol et al. (1998) have reported that, in
a group of 21-year-olds, cohabitants were significantly more likely than daters to be abusive.
Fourth, some cohabitants hope that marriage will smooth things out when their relationship is
turbulent. This is always a very optimistic hope--and a self-defeating one as well. Finally, among
some couples, cohabitation actually hastens marriage. This may be the result of conscience pangs,
religious beliefs, or parental pressure. Had these couples been merely engaged or dating, they might
have "split" before their ill-fated marriage.
CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES
What causes divorce?
Multiple, interlocking factors have contributed to the rapid rise of divorce in Canada and other
western countries in the second part of the 20th century. These same factors have contributed to the
maintenance of high rates of divorce since.
1. Divorce rates were already slowly inching up in the 19th century as the result of secularization
trends, the liberalization of norms concerning individual choice, and the lessening of religious
influence. The religious aspect is now largely missing in the institution of marriage: this is often
referred to as the desacralization of marriage. Marriage has become an individual choice rather than
a covenant before God and this change has contributed to the acceptance of its temporal nature.
2. These sociocultural trends later came to influence the liberalization of divorce laws. In turn,
easier divorce laws, such as those promulgated in 1968 and 1985, are usually followed by an
increase in divorce. Then, such laws signal the normalization of divorce. Hence, divorce lost its
stigma and became socially accepted. These cultural and legal factors have made it easier for people
to be less attached to marriage as an institution and consequently to turn to divorce.
3. The trends toward individualism that began two centuries ago have resulted in an emphasis on
rights rather than duties. When individualism is coupled with an ideology of gratification,
particularly sexual and psychological, where people are encouraged to be "happy" and "fulfilled," it
follows that the spouses' mentality about their marriage is affected (Glenn, 1996). Marriage is no
longer seen as an institution centered on mutual responsibilities but is now based on the pursuit of
happiness, fulfillment, and companionship. More is demanded of marriage in terms of personal
gratification. As Simons et al. (1996:219) put it, "If the raison d'être for marriage is mutual love and
support, it is difficult for people to justify staying in a relationship where this is no longer present."
4. Along with the trends above, Canadians and Americans have developed a lower threshold of
tolerance when their marriage does not meet with their expectations for personal fulfillment
(Amato, 1999). All things considered, while more is expected of marriage, couples are also less
tolerant about its challenges and less willing to shoulder the sacrifices it may require. At the
positive level, however, this also means that women now leave abusive relationships that would
have kept them captive 40 years ago.
1. Youthful marriages are a risk factor to divorce: young people may be in a less good position to
marry for the right reason. Furthermore, they are not as mature as older persons to cope with
conflict and their personalities have not yet stabilized. Very young people also have low incomes.
2. Low incomes and poverty are risk factors for divorce as is a very rapid upward social mobility
where the acquisition of money and status is a prime mover. This may be because such a pursuit of
materialism takes time away from relationships or reflects values which are incompatible with a
good conjugal life.
3. Cohabitation, as we have already seen, is another risk factor and so is premarital birth.
4. Men are more likely to divorce when there is a high proportion of unmarried women with them
in the labor force and the same occurs for women who work in domains with a male preponderance
(South, Trent, and Shen, 2001). These conditions raise married persons, especially men's, chances
of meeting a more attractive alternative to their current spouse.
5. Parental divorce correlates with higher divorce rates among their children later on, especially so
when the parental marriage had a low level of conflict--such parents are less committed to marriage
and may transmit this value to their offspring (Amato and DeBoer, 2001).
6. Low religiosity is related to lower marital happiness and a higher propensity to divorce (Clark,
1998; Treas and Giesen, 2000). Furthermore, religious and to some extent racial heterogamy are
risk factors for marital instability, perhaps because of a lack of shared values (Heaton, 2002).
Reasons for divorcingthat people give, such as alcoholism, domestic violence, adultery, "didn't
get along," and "no longer loved each other" are actually caused by the sociodemographic factors
enumerated above. For instance, without an emphasis on individualism and gratification, people
would not divorce because they "fell out of love" or because they did not get along. In countries
where marriage is strongly institutionalized within a context of family solidarity, these reasons
would be considered frivolous. In a society where divorce is more difficult to obtain and less
acceptable, only "strong" reasons, such as abuse and abandonment, are tolerated. Therefore, before
people decide to divorce on particular grounds, a social and cultural climate has to exist that offers a
legitimate framework for their reasons. Furthermore, personal grounds for divorce such as fighting,
alcoholism, violence, tend to be mentioned more by couples with some of the demographic
characteristics discussed above, such as youthful marriages, prior cohabitation, and poverty. Thus,
cultural and demographic factors related to divorce "push" people out of marriage and into divorce
via their own personal reasons.
Consequences of divorce
In this section, I will proceed by presenting the two most salient consequences of divorce: poverty
and an increased risk for the development of problems among the children involved. Then,
consequences for adults will be discussed. These consequences apply both to Canada, the U.S., and
to many other countries.
Divorce causes poverty
Divorce is a direct cause of poverty for a large proportion of women and their children. Finnie
(1993) has found that, in the first year after divorce, Canadian women's household income
plummets by about 50% while men's declines by a lesser 25%. However, when the figures are
adjusted for family size, women's income drops by 40% while men's increases slightly. Women's
poverty rises from 16% before divorce to 43% after divorce. Even three years after divorce,
women's income remains far below what they had during marriage and far below their ex-husbands'
Ex-husbands, compared to ex-wives, are less likely to be poor because their income is generally
higher, they do not have full care of their children with all the attendant expenses, and their support
payments are usually not crippling. Nevertheless, it should be added that in a decade when most
families have two breadwinners, men lose far more economically than in the past when they
divorce, especially those who are married to a high-earning wife. As support payments become
better enforced, these two factors may contribute in the long run to dissuade many men from
endangering their marriage.
Another way of looking at this is to consider single-mother families. In 1994, according to the
Vanier Institute of the Family, 21% of all children lived in poverty but an astounding 65.8% of
children in single-mother families did. It should also be noted that the younger the children are at
the time of parental divorce or common-law dissolution, the more likely they are to be poor. This is
because they have younger parents who earn less. On average, single parents who are poor have an
income that is 40% below the poverty line. This is dire poverty.
Canada and the U.S. are the two western countries in which single-parent families experience
extremely elevated poverty rates, and where there is a vast difference between the incomes of
single- and two-parent families.
Increased risk of problems for children of divorced parents
In a nutshell, children whose parents are divorced (and even after they are remarried) are more
likely than children whose parents remain together to (e.g., Furstenberg and Kiernan, 2001; Le
Blanc, McDuff, and Tremblay, 1995 Sun and Li, 2002):
·suffer from depression, anxiety, and other emotional disorders;
·exhibit behavioral problems including hyperactivity, aggressiveness, fighting, and hostility;
·become young offenders;
·do less well in school and stay less long in school;
·have more relationship problems, in part due to their behavioral problems.
Finally, when they are older, adults whose parents divorced during their childhood and teen years,
compared to adults from intact two-parent families, tend to:
·have had a child out of wedlock more often, particularly during adolescence;
·have achieved lower educational levels;
·be more often unemployed and do less well economically;
·have more marital problems and divorce more.
Adults are more likely to report a less happy childhood when their parents separated (Williams,
2001). As well, a study by Boyd and Norris (1995) has found that older children of divorced parents
leave home earlier than others. They leave home in even greater numbers when their custodial
parents remarry and even more so when both parents remarry. A consequence of this earlier home
leaving is that for many it becomes too expensive to continue their education. This, in turn,
contributes to lower occupational skills and higher unemployment. Frederick and Boyd (1998) have
shown, on the basis of Statistics Canada data, that 80 to 84% of men and women aged 20-44 who
lived with their two parents when they were 15 years old completed high school. This compares
with figures ranging from 65 to 73% for those whose parents had divorced, including those whose
parents had remarried.
There are, however, several cautions that are advised in interpreting the above information.
The first is that, among an unknown number of children, some of what appear to be negative effects
of divorce already existed before parental separation. That is to say, many children and adolescents
who are difficult after divorce were also difficult before, either because of their personalities, peer
pressure, problems with parents, or interparental conflict and lack of parenting investment.
Therefore, when studying children after divorce, it is important to know how they were before the
divorce. Even so, researchers who utilize a longitudinal methodology have found that, even when
these past characteristics are taken into account, there still were effects specifically attributable to
divorce. Some of these effects have been shown to persist beyond the childhood years (Cherlin,
Chase-Lansdale, and McRae, 1998).
The second important point is that whatever statistics you read concerning the negative outcomes of
children "of divorce," they do not apply to the majority of these children. What these statistics
indicate is that children of divorced parents have a greater risk of developing problems than
children whose parents remain together (Cherlin, 1999). As Pedro-Carroll (2001) points out, one
has to differentiate between distress and disorder. Most children of divorce experience a certain
level of distress, which often lasts for over a decade, but most still function well, that is, do not
experience "disorders" (Laumann-Billings and Emory, 2000).
Nevertheless, I do not wish to err in the opposite direction and shrug off the negative effects of
divorce. They are real and costly for children, parents, and schools, as well as the welfare and health
care systems (for a review, see Ambert, 2001).
Furthermore, as the concept of distress implies, at the time of their parents' separation, children
generally suffer a great deal: most do not want them to divorce; they miss the other parent; when
little, they may feel that they are partly to blame for the divorce; some desperately try to get their
parents together again; they are sad; some cry a lot while others lash out and develop temporary
There are six main explanations for children's negative outcomes following a parental
1. As we have seen,poverty, or even a significant reduction in financial resources, so often
follows divorce, and is a root cause of children's problems. In fact, the "typical" negative outcomes
of children of divorce much resemble those of children in poverty (for a review, see Ambert, 1998;
Bouchard et al., 1991; Ross, Scott, and Kelly, 1995).
In the case of divorce, when children are poor or become poor, they experience a great many
stressors in their lives. This is because divorce is not a single event but a series of transitions. To
begin with, at least 55% of Canadian women and their children move after separation (Dandurand,
1994); they often have to move into more crowded and dilapidated housing, where there is more
noise and pollution. They may be less healthy as a result and more stressed. The neighborhood may
be less safe, have more children who are equally poor, and who do less well in school, and engage
more in delinquency.
Moreover, the custodial parent, generally the mother, has difficulty making ends meet and may
work long hours. When she returns home, she may be tired and generally has less time to devote to
her children. As a result, children of divorced mothers who are poor or who are financially insecure
(near poor) may receive less attention, guidance, supervision, encouragement, and affection than
other children. These mothers may not be able, for a variety of reasons, to monitor their child's
school progress or lack thereof. When the children are out of school, they may be home alone or
with peers, all unsupervised, or on the streets so to speak. Unsupervised children are far more likely
than others to engage in delinquent acts and premature sex. Thus, if we were to eliminate or even
significantly reduce child poverty, the consequences of divorce on children would be far less
2. The above paragraph has already hinted at the second cause of children's problems after divorce:
diminished parenting. Divorce creates a series of stressors for parents, particularly for the
custodial parents. In turn, as we have seen, these stressors diminish parenting time, skills, expressed
affection, and increase parenting instability, harshness, or yet permissiveness. After divorce, many
parents experience a dramatic downfall in their ability to care for their children, to provide them
with a regular routine, to shelter them from stressors and dangers. Faced with their own problems,
many divorced parents too often become their children's pals and abdicate their parental
responsibilities. These adolescents then lack guidance and authoritative parenting. Amato and
Gilbreth (1999) suggest that children of divorce have better outcomes when nonresidential fathers
are more than "Sunday daddies" and behave as parents--that is, when they provide emotional and
practical support, make behavioral demands, place limits on what can be done, and administer
3.Many divorced parents, both as a result of divorce and poverty, are soburdened emotionally that
they become, at least temporarily, depressed while others initiate a desperate search for a new mate
that makes them far less available to their children and responsive to their needs. All of these
factors bring instability and insecurity to the home life and thereby burden children emotionally.
Carlson and Corcoran (2001) have found that a decent family income, mothers' sound
psychological functioning, and a good home environment, including adequate parenting, reduce or
eliminate the potentially negative effects of family structure.
4. Parents who continue quarreling and verbally abusing each other in front of their children after
divorce cause immense distress to their offspring.Continued parental conflict--especially when
the children are caught in the middle--may result in depression, hostility, aggressiveness, and other
acting-out activities on the part of children. Moreover, parental conflict presents a dysfunctional
role model. Children learn that disagreements can be solved only by fighting. This lesson may carry
further negative consequences down the road in their own relationships.
However, divorces that end severe interparental conflict have positive consequences for children; in
contrast, low-conflict marriages that end in divorce have a strong negative effect on children,
perhaps because, from the children's point of view, they are so unexpected and unwelcome (Booth
and Amato, 2001).
5. Some of the causes of divorce are actually in part causes of the troubled home in which the
children lived during their parents' marriage. This would apply mainly to those couples which were
conflictual and were ineffective parents because of their troubled relationship. Thus, as we have
seen earlier, these children hadpre-existing problems which divorce may further exacerbate
(Cherlin et al., 1998).
6. A last cause is one that is rarely mentioned and it has to do with genetics (Rutter, 2002). A
proportion of people who divorce do so because they are difficult, conflictual, or problematic
individuals who pass on these predispositions to their children viagenetic inheritance. These
children are already predisposed to being difficult by temperament, have a home environment
which fosters these difficulties, and the divorce situation generally exacerbates their condition.
Are there differences by age and sex to children's adjustment to divorce?
Yes. Girls adapt generally better to divorce although not necessarily to the remarriage of a custodial
mother. There is, however, a wide diversity of adaptation levels depending on the child's personality
and the family circumstances. The same applies in terms of age. On the one hand, very small
children, younger than 4, may not note the absence of a parent they had rarely seen; if the mother
who has always been their primary caretaker functions well, they will not be significantly affected.
They will also more than likely adapt well to a parental remarriage. On the other hand, children
between 4 and 10 may be the most negatively affected because they are not yet mature enough to
understand their loss and their changing family circumstances (Jenkins and Smith, 1993). They may
even blame themselves for the divorce.
Moreover, when poverty is present, these young children are likely to be even more affected than
adolescents, particularly in terms of their intellectual development. New research clearly indicates
that poverty during the early childhood years hinders cognitive and verbal development (Pagani,
Boulerice, and Tremblay, 1997). It delays small children's adaptation into kindergarten. Many of
these children arrive in grade 1 unprepared to learn and a cycle of educational failure begins. In
contrast, a child who becomes poor only during adolescence may already have a solid foundation
on which to build success in the educational system.
Even so, older children can also be significantly affected by the six main causes of negative
outcomes discussed earlier. For adolescents, a particularly difficult situation arises when the
custodial parent loses the opportunity to communicate with and supervise them. Adolescence is
already an age when "temptations" towards deviance abound and a youth who is bereft of parental
support may succumb to detrimental peer pressures. School work may suffer accordingly.
Adolescent girls whose parents have separated, are at higher risk than others of becoming sexually
active and pregnant (Wu, 1996). This risk is further elevated when their custodial mother is openly
Does parental remarriage help children?
There is not a large body of research on this question in Canada. In the U.S., studies are finding
that, while a custodial mother's remarriage helps the family financially, and may be very good for
the mother, results are more mixed for children (Morrison and Ritualo, 2000). Often remarriage
results in additional negative consequences for children, particularly girls who had a close
relationship with their mother. These girls may resent the intruder. In my research, some women
students have written that they had purposely destroyed their mother's remarriage by becoming
horrendous and behaving very badly toward the new husband. For their part, boys are able to escape
as they tend, in adolescence, to spend less time at home--which may in itself lead to delinquency.
Still on the negative side, girls are more likely to be sexually abused by their stepfathers or mothers'
boyfriends than by their own fathers (Giles-Sims, 1997).
We have already mentioned that older adolescents and young adults tend to leave home earlier once
their custodial parent remarries. This may be a result of conflict with the new stepparent, or because
the new couple does not make them feel welcome, or because they are subtly or not so subtly
"encouraged" to leave.
On the positive side, younger children usually adapt better, especially when they have always
known the stepparent. Many children do enjoy or benefit from the presence and affection of a
stepparent. Many boys are advantaged by the addition of an authoritative adult male role model in
the family (Hetherington, 1993). Children may also benefit from an extension of their kinship
network with the addition of stepgrandparents and stepsiblings. Studies of young adults whose
custodial parent's remarriage had endured have found that they were strongly attached to their
reconstructed family and benefited emotionally from it. It is thus possible that some of the positive
effects of a parent's good remarriage do not appear until later on in adulthood.
What are the consequences of divorce for adults?
On the negative side, besides poverty for a proportion of women, there is often a loss of social
support, mainly from ex-in-laws and friends whom the couple shared. Elder women and those with
little employment experience have a more difficult time. The spouse who is left generally suffers
more, at least in the first three years (Sweeney, 2002). Rates of alcohol abuse go up among divorced
men and depression among divorced women as well as a general feeling of being less healthy (Wu
and Hart, 2002). However, let's keep in mind that remaining in a bad marriage will also produce the
same noxious effects.
In my own study (Ambert, 1989) and that of other researchers since, many divorced persons admit
that they are not any happier and even are more unhappy than during their marriage. In fact, Waite
et al. (2002) have found that even unhappily married people who divorce were not necessarily
happier five years later than those who had remained married. Divorce generally involves a period
of stress, instability, loneliness, hurt feelings, and often hostility. That period lasts a few months to
two years but may persist after five years. Furthermore, as shown by the high rates of divorce in
remarriages and dissolution of subsequent cohabitations, one divorce often triggers many other
On the positive side, divorce is or should be a good thing when there is abuse, alcoholism, and
severe conflict. It can also be functional for the spouse of a person who is criminal, severely
emotionally disturbed, or is chronically unemployed. But at best one third of all marriages that end
fall under these categories or are "bad" marriages from the spouses' perspectives. In fact, nearly one
third of all marriages ending in divorce were "average to very good" marriages for both spouses,
and another third were good to very good marriages for one of the spouses--in the latter case,
generally for the one who does not want to divorce.
For many, especially women, divorce results in the finding of new strengths, the building of
supportive relationships, the relief from fear, peace and quiet. For many as well, it means a new
love that remains "until death do us apart." There is such a thing as a "successful" divorce (Ambert,
2001). But, often, the ex-spouses have to work hard at it when they share children. All things being
said, even for adults, divorce is no cure all.
For societyas a whole, the dissolution of average to very good marriages and cohabitations, is a
costly proposition. It is so in moral terms (after all, what can be said in favor of the "virtue" of a
society where relationships become part of the throw-away culture?), in terms of consequent
problems for children, including juvenile delinquency, welfare costs for those single-parent families
that fall into poverty, health costs, as well as a loss of productivity on the part of the affected adults
and older children.
The phenomenon of divorce is a far more complex issue than generally believed. Furthermore,
statistics pertaining to divorce are difficult to understand and, as a result, are frequently
misinterpreted. Overall, about one third of all marriages in Canada end in divorce and the rate is
higher for remarriages and cohabitations. Currently, there are no solid predictions of either a sharp
decline or a sharp rise in divorce rates in the near future.
Divorce and remarriage are adult institutions. That is, they were intended to separate couples who
could no longer live together and to allow the ex-spouses to marry other partners. As institutions,
divorce and remarriage are not necessarily in the best interest of the children and, as seen above,
divorce is not necessarily good for adults either, nor are high rates functional for society.
We have seen that divorce is often accompanied by poverty or a significant reduction in financial
resources. This factor contributes to amplifying the negative effects of divorce on the mother-child
family unit and on children's life chances. In some European societies, particularly Norway and
Sweden, the social safety net compensates greatly so that single-mother families have a (low) rate
of poverty similar to that of two-parent families. The negative consequences of divorce for children
do not disappear entirely but are less pronounced than they are in Canada and the U.S. But these
societies have lower divorce rates to begin with.
We have also seen that a sizeable proportion of marriages that end in divorce were actually quite
"salvageable," and that many of these ex-spouses are no happier after. One cannot but help to
wonder if couples who marry should not be more encouraged to face the inevitability of ups and
downs in relationships, and I am not referring here to severe conflict, which after all, afflicts only
about a third of divorcing couples. After 25 years of studying divorce, I have come to conclude that
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