Do you have difficulty in opening up to and depending on important people in their lives? The reason could be due to an experience of experiencing your parent’s divorce early in your own childhood.
Divorce early in childhood affects parental relationships in adulthood. Divorce has a bigger impact on child-parent relationships if it occurs in the first few years of the child’s life, according to new research. Those who experience parental divorce early in their childhood tend to have more insecure relationships with their parents as adults than those who experience divorce later, researchers say.
“By studying variation in parental divorce, we are hoping to learn more about how early experiences predict the quality of people’s close relationships later in life,” says R. Chris Fraley of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a June 28, 2013 news release, “Divorce early in childhood affects parental relationships in adulthood.” Psychologists are especially interested in childhood experiences, as their impact can extend into adulthood, but studying such early experiences is challenging, as people’s memories of particular events vary widely.
Parental divorce is a good event to study, he says, as people can accurately report if and when their parents divorced, even if they do not have perfect recollection of the details
In two studies published June 28, 2013 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Fraley and graduate student Marie Heffernan examined the timing and effects of divorce on both parental and romantic relationships, as well as differences in how divorce affects relationships with mothers versus fathers. In the first study, they analyzed data from 7,735 people who participated in a survey about personality and close relationships through yourpersonality.net. See, “Your Personality | Free Online Personality Tests and Quizzes.” More than one-third of the survey participants’ parents divorced and the average age of divorce was about 9 years old.
The researchers found that individuals from divorced families were less likely to view their current relationships with their parents as secure. And people who experienced parental divorce between birth and 3 to 5 years of age were more insecure in their current relationships with their parents compared to those whose parents divorced later in childhood.
Can you trust your parents to be psychologically available when needed?
Trusting a parent to be psychologically available doesn’t mean asking a parent to do some work for you that you’re too uncomfortable learning to do yourself. It’s better to learn the skill. One example might be asking a parent to upload an article you wrote to a website instead of learning the computer skills it takes to upload your own creative material to the Web. The reason your parent may not want to do it could be due to the parent getting his or her computer hacked the last time the parent uploaded his or her own material to that particular website.
And other examples of ‘using’ an elderly parent abound in order for the younger ‘adult’ child to avoid learning one new skill or another that makes the younger person more computer literature. And of course, it works both ways when the child is computer literate or drives and feels the elderly parent is using the adult child’s time when the adult child has his or her own family to raise.
There could be hundreds of examples of whether parent or child feels psychologically available but not available for physical or mental workouts when the younger person wants to avoid learning new skills or doing various types of work such as learning to fill out and file tax forms. Psychologically available is different from being physically available, such as giving the elderly parent a ride home from a hospital or arranging for a taxi to show up on time.
Have a secure relationship with a parent?
“A person who has a secure relationship with a parent is more likely than someone who is insecure to feel that they can trust the parent,” Fraley says in the news release. “Such a person is more comfortable depending on the parent and is confident that the parent will be psychologically available when needed.”
Although there was a tendency for people to experience more anxiety about romantic relationships if they were from divorced families, the link between parental divorce and insecurity in romantic relationships was relatively weak. This finding was important, the researchers say, as it shows that divorce does not have a blanket effect on all close relationships in adulthood but rather is selective – affecting some relationships more than others. They also found that parental divorce tends to predict greater insecurity in people’s relationships with their fathers than with their mothers.
Which parent received the primary custody of you?
To help explain why divorce influences maternal relationships more than paternal ones, and to replicate the first study’s findings, Fraley and Heffernan repeated their analysis with a new set of 7,500 survey participants. Unlike in the first study, however, they asked the participants to indicate which of their parents had been awarded primary custody following their divorce. The researchers speculated that paternal relationships were more insecure following divorce because mothers are more likely than fathers to be awarded custody.
The majority of participants – 74 percent – indicated that they had lived with their mothers following divorce or separation, while 11 percent indicated living with their fathers; the remainder lived with grandparents or other caretakers. The researchers found that people were more likely to have an insecure relationship with their father if they lived with their mother and, conversely, were less likely to have an insecure relationship with their father if they lived with him. The results were similar with respect to mothers.
The researchers speculated that paternal relationships were more insecure following divorce because mothers are more likely than fathers to be awarded custody
While it is premature to speculate on the implications of this work for decision-making regarding child custody, the work is valuable as it suggests that “something as basic as the amount of time that one spends with a parent or one’s living arrangements” can shape the quality of child-parent relationships, write Fraley and Heffernan.
“People’s relationships with their parents and romantic partners play important roles in their lives,” Fraley says in the news release. “This research brings us one step closer to understanding why it is that some people have relatively secure relationships with close others whereas others have more difficulty opening up to and depending on important people in their lives.”
The study, “Attachment and Parental Divorce: A Test of the Diffusion and Sensitive Period Hypotheses,” R. Chris Fraley and Marie E. Heffernan, was published online on June 28, 2013, and is forthcoming in print in September 2013 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP).
SPSP promotes scientific research that explores how people think, behave, feel, and interact. The Society is the largest organization of social and personality psychologists in the world. Follow the society on Twitter: @SPSPnews.