Children of Divorce
Studies have shown that children of divorce in Europe and North America are less likely to marry and more likely to cohabit with a partner instead. Such findings are often used to argue that the increase in divorce rates has led to the decline of the institution of marriage. However, most of this research has been focused on individual countries and time points, with little systemic and cross-national analysis of the contextual factors that may contribute to variation in the effects of divorce on children’s partnership patterns in later life.
Juho Härkönen (European University Institute and Stockholm University), M.D. (Anne) Brons (Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI) and Utrecht University) and Jaap Dronkers (†, Maastricht University) sought to fill this research gap through a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between parents’ separation and children’s marriage & cohabitation patterns across 16 European countries and over time. They used data from the Generations and Gender Survey (GGS) and Harmonized Histories datafiles on 138,739 respondents born between 1930 and 1980.
Härkönen and colleagues ask two questions: first, were there similar trends across countries and birth cohorts? Using life table analysis, they measured the probability of cohabiting or marrying for the first time by the early 30s, as well as the probability of getting married by the early 30s and early 40s regardless of previous marriage or cohabitation. Second, the authors asked how social context - namely, the overall incidence of cohabitation and divorce are in the country - affects the relationship between parental separation and children’s partnership patterns.
Across countries, the share of those who marry has largely decreased over time, with increases in cohabitation as the first union replacing a decrease in marriage as the first union. While children of divorce are equally likely to form a partnership as those from intact families, it is more often an unmarried cohabitation. In other words, cohabitation as a first union has generally replaced marriage faster for children of divorce.
While the overall incidence of divorce in the country was not significant, increase incidence of cohabitation did play a role. At average levels of cohabitation, children of divorce are more likely to cohabitate instead of marrying directly, but then eventually marry at a similar rate to children from intact families. Especially for generations amongst which cohabitation was relatively uncommon, children of divorce were more likely to cohabit but marry officially later on. As cohabitation became more popular, however, children from intact families cohabitate at more frequent rates, “catching up” to children of divorce in their cohabitation patterns. This is also when overall marriage incidence begins to decrease - for everyone, but especially among children of divorce.
Children of divorce, Härkönen and colleagues conclude, are among the forerunners of the increase in cohabitation as a replacement for marriage. While increased incidence of cohabitation has led to a retreat from marriage for everyone, children of divorce are the first to cohabitate, and then the first to forego marriage completely as cohabitation becomes more common. The authors’ findings illuminate the nonlinear relationship between divorce and the evolution of family structures.