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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Long-Term Consequences of Parental Divorce? Heart-Breaking!

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

As social scientists amass ever more empirical data on the effects of parental divorce, the long-term view looks increasingly dark. The latest evidence that easy divorce leaves behind hard consequences comes in a study recently completed at Pennsylvania State, showing that parental divorce predicts long-term impairment of the physical health of the children affected, with a particularly alarming spike in the risk of heart attack.

Based on data collected from 52,250 American adults living in 14 states—from Hawaii to Wisconsin—ages 18 to 64, this new Penn State study probes the effects of “family-based adverse childhood experiences on adult health outcomes.” The authors of the study stress that “the family is one of the most important contexts for human development,” with previous research concluding that individuals who are exposed to adverse conditions in family life during their childhood are at distinctively “greater risk of several negative health outcomes in adulthood, including poor self-rated health, chronic diseases, functional limitations, premature mortality, and poor mental health” than they would be if shielded from these adverse conditions. In other words, “early-life adversities lay a critical foundation for long-term trajectories”—so critical that health officials have reason to focus on “the origins of adult disease and health disparities . . . in the childhood family environment” and to seek ways of “ameliorating these problems for children . . . to protect their health over the life course.”

In investigating the long-term consequences of adverse childhood experiences, the Penn State scholars look closely at the effects of “experiencing childhood physical, verbal, or sexual abuse, witnessing parental domestic violence, experiencing parental divorce, and living with someone who was depressed, abused drugs or alcohol, or who had been incarcerated.” All of these adverse circumstances merit serious attention. However, for Americans concerned in particular about the aftermath of the nation’s divorce revolution, it is good that this study separates the effects of parental divorce from those of the other adverse experiences.

The effects of parental divorce indeed do stand out in a statistical model that accounts for various background variables—including gender, age, race/ethnicity, marital status, metropolitan status, and receiving a routine health checkup during the past two years. Using this model, the researchers limn a clear relationship between parental divorce and the self-rated health (p < 0.001), the functional limitations (p < 0.05), and the risk of heart attacks (p < 0.05) of adults who experienced such divorce during childhood.

When the authors of the study re-examine their data in a statistical model that also accounts for differences in household socioeconomic status, they find that the linkage between parental divorce and self-rated health falls below the threshold of statistical significance. However, since parental divorce itself potently affects socioeconomic status, the statistical adjustment in this model is highly artificial.

Nonetheless, even the very artificial adjustment for socioeconomic status cannot hide a disturbing linkage between parental divorce and cardiac disease. Employing their most complex and complete analytical model, the researchers find that “parental divorce . . . remained significantly and positively associated with odds of having a heart attack” (Odds Ratio of 1.419; p < 0.05).

As they ponder the public-policy implications of their findings, the Penn State scholars plausibly argue that “interventions targeting the early childhood origins of adult health disparities may be more effective than attempting to modify health behaviors or improve health care access in adulthood.” It may not be among the interventions the researchers have in mind, but surely it is past time for a roll-back of the permissive divorce laws that are breaking the hearts of millions of those affected.


(Shannon M. Monnat and Raeven Faye Chandler, “Long-Term Physical Health Consequences of Adverse Childhood Experiences,” Sociological Quarterly 56.4 [2015]: 723-52.)