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 

Families Breaking Up; Young-Adult Minds Coming Unglued

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

America’s permissive divorce laws give children no voice when parents choose to part. But evidence continues to mount that those children suffer tremendously when parents fail to make an enduring marriage. That suffering takes a number of forms. In a study recently completed at Charles University in Prague, researchers identify serious mental disorders as symptoms of the suffering occasioned by family disintegration.

Intent on identifying the “potential mental health risks related to stress influences associated with a mother’s marital status,” the authors of the new study parse data collected from 364 19-year-old Czechs participating in the European Longitudinal Study of Parenthood and Childhood. With these data, the researchers can diagnose the mental distress occasioned when parental marriages fission—or never form in the first place. These data indicate that living without a father disorders the minds of young men, and that living with a stepfather entails similarly malign consequences for young women.

As they examine the data for the young men in their study, the Czech scholars detect psychopathology in significantly elevated dissociative symptoms—including “feelings of depersonalization, derealization, [and] psychogenic amnesia”—among those living with never-married and divorced mothers (p < 0.01 with young men living in intact two-parent homes as the baseline). The researchers speculate that psychological dissociation develops among fatherless boys because “boys need a specific kind of separateness from mothers to find male identity, for which they need a father or father figure.” What is more, they suggest, a fatherless home may foster a “pathologically dependent attachment between mother and son.”

When they shift their focus to the young women in the study, the researchers find the disturbing incidence of dissociation not among those living without fathers but rather among those living with stepfathers. Compared to peers living in intact two-parent families, young women from stepfamilies are significantly more likely to manifest symptoms of psychological dissociation (p < 0.01). The Czech scholars see in this pattern evidence that “girls had more difficulties interacting with stepfathers than [did] sons.” Noting an even more disturbing but plausible reason for the high levels of dissociation among girls in stepfamilies, the researchers note “that stepfather–daughter erotic attachment and sexual abuse is more prevalent than [such] abuse by biological fathers.” Psychological malaise may also result when “stepfather–daughter erotic transference (or partnership) . . . result[s] . . . [in] competition and conflict between mother and daughter, which may seriously affect mental disintegration and dissociative symptoms.”

The researchers interpret their findings against the backdrop of earlier studies establishing a clear “relationship between fatherlessness and children’s emotional and behavioral problems” and showing that “divorce and destructive couple conflict represent major risk factors for many forms of dysfunction and psychopathological manifestations in children.” The authors of this new study also find relevant context for their conclusions in earlier studies indicating that “children from single parent or blended families have increased vulnerability to traumatic and other stressful life events.”

No doubt the authors of this new study hope their findings matter to their European colleagues. However, they may have chosen to publish in an American journal because of the American implications of their findings. In their conclusions, they point out that “more than two-thirds of African American children are born to unmarried mothers, which may represent a significant factor in criminal behavior,” especially since their own findings “seem to support . . . interpretations regarding mental disintegration associated with pathologically dependent mother-son relationships and violence.”

The Czech scholars call for “further research . . . to explain to what extent psychodynamic factors play significant roles in these family processes associated with dissociation.” But Americans already have enough research on hand to know that the minds of many young people have been scrambled by parental breakups, facilitated by our swinging-door divorce laws.  


(Petr Bob et al., “Dissociative Symptoms and Mother’s Marital Status in a Young Adult Population,” Medicine 94.2 [2015]: e408, Web.)