The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Multi-Generational Damage

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Sociologists have long known that divorce sunders more than the marital ties. It often weakens—if not entirely breaks—ties between children and their father. Now a study indicates that parental divorce strains and often destroys children’s ties to grandparents, especially paternal grandparents.

Published by a team of researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, the study draws on data collected in 1992 from 10,008 households to assess the emotional and financial resources provided by grandparents. The Nevada scholars’ analysis reinforces concerns about the well-being of divorced single mothers and their children. Not only do single mothers have “only about half the income of married parents,” but they also suffer from other disadvantages when compared with married parents or—surprisingly—custodial single fathers (a relatively small group).

“Single mothers,” the researchers remark, “received less total support [from parents and grandparents] than any of the other parents, including the single fathers, and the quality of their relationships with parents and in-laws were the lowest in the study.” The researchers conjecture that the low level of support “probably reflects lost opportunities for support when single mothers distanced themselves from their in-laws.” The researchers further speculate that the poor relationship quality found in this study between single mothers and their own parents resulted from “higher levels of contact, which increased opportunities for parental interference, inducing greater conflict and ambivalence in the relationship.”

Overall, the Nevada scholars interpret their findings as a reflection of “the stressful life and economic disadvantages of single mothers.” One way that therapists, family practitioners, and legal professionals could ameliorate these disadvantages is “to encourage custodial mothers to view former in-laws as a resource rather than a threat.”

This suggestion, however, may seem naïve to anyone familiar with the typical dynamics of divorce. A much more helpful strategy may be simply that of preventing parental divorce in the first place.

(Jeanne M. Hilton and Karen Kopera-Frye, “Differences in Resources Provided by Grandparents in Single and Married-Parent Families,” Journal of Marriage and Divorce 47.1/2 [2007]: 33–54.)