Divorce on Child Attachment and Outcomes Argumentative Essay

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As the prevalence of parental separation and divorce continues to rise in the United States, the study of the potential immediate and long-term effects on the children of these families is necessary. This review of the literature will analyze the question, “Does parental conflict lead to insecure attachment and/or negative outcomes in individuals ages one to 25?”.

For this analysis, interparental conflict will be defined as to include high levels of reported parental conflict from the parents and children, divorce, parental separation without marriage ever in place, and parental alienation by the other parental figure. Attachment style will be defined as insecure attachment or secure attachment but will have further classifications dependent on the study that was reviewed. Negative outcomes for the children that experienced interparental conflict will include negative impacts on the social and psychological well-being of the children.

This paper will define the social problem and the population impacted, look at the theoretical background of attachment theory, discuss the impact of separation and divorce on parent-child attachment, consider other negative outcomes that children experience as a result of interparental conflict and divorce, and consider the gendered aspect of the literature that was reviewed. It will then include several potential protective factors against the discussed consequences of interparental conflict and divorce, and note implications for professional decision-making when working with the population. Lastly, this paper will touch on areas where further research is needed.

Literature Review

Defining the Social Problem

In order to analyze the impacts of parental conflict, separation, and divorce on children, the social problem of divorce needs to be defined. Almost half of first marriages within the United States end and divorce, and half of these marriages have minor children involved (Cherlin, 1992; Popenoe, 1996, as cited in Potter, 2010). Because of this prevalence, substantial research has been conducted on divorce and the potential aggravating and mitigating factors that contribute to the consequences of divorce on children.

Historically, a shift in Western culture brought about changes to the family system. The major theme underlying this shift was an increase in individualism and a desire for a higher quality of living; in turn, more women began participating in the workforce. Subsequently, changes to the family system included a rising age at marriage, increased nonmarital cohabitation, increased nonmarital births, and increased divorce rates (Amato, 2014).

In the United States, the values of self-fulfillment and self-actualization are highly important, and as a result, separation and divorce are often seen as necessary. Throughout history, family moralists have painted divorce in the light of being highly negative, emphasizing the gender roles of both parents and how divorce victimizes children (Coltrane & Adams, 2003). Researchers describe how divorce is an emotionally charged issue since members of society are a member of a family and often plan to have their own nuclear family someday (Bhrolcháin, 2001). The divorce rate in the United States is not shocking, considering how highly marriage is valued and how often people marry. Americans have been found to be more likely than Europeans and Japanese to share with polls that they value marriage highly, and also continue to get married at a higher rate than nearly any other industrial country (Coontz, 2007).

While divorce has been the focus of research on potential impacts for children, interparental conflict within parental relationships, whether they are married or not, has become a focus for research. There have been some findings that support the idea that interparental conflict can lead to further maladjustment for children than the ending of a marriage (Lansford, 2009, as cited in Zemp et al., 2016). It has also been discovered that when it comes to interparental conflict, it is not a matter of whether or not couples argue, but how they argue; disagreement is inevitable, but children need to either see or understand that resolution is reached following conflict (Zemp et al., 2016).


The population affected by this social problem is vast. It includes all children that have experienced high levels of interparental conflict, parental separation, parental divorce, or parental alienation. With the high levels of split households and single-parent households in the United States, this makes research on the impacts and outcomes for these children very important and crucial to the judiciary and clinical decision-making for the population.

Theoretical Background

Attachment theory was first developed by John Bowlby to explain how separation caused anxiety in children and highlight how human’s primary instinctual responses crave social interaction; John Bowlby saw attachment as a biological need and emphasized the great importance of the mother-infant bond to healthy development (Bowlby, 1958, as cited in Fitton, 2012).

This attachment also serves as a promoter of affect regulation in children (Fitton, 2012). These initial attachment relationships serve as a guide to how individuals will go on to attach in adult relationships, both intimate and non-intimate (Winnicott, 1971, as cited in Fitton, 2012). John Bowlby worked closely alongside another scholar, Mary Ainsworth, to reformulate attachment theory. Ainsworth conducted one of the first studies utilizing attachment theory, where it was found that the secure attachment of the infants was dependent on the amount of sensitivity provided by the mother (Bretherton, 1992).

Ainsworth went on to work with other researchers to develop a model of attachment theory that defined three specific types of attachment styles after conducting further research with infants.

Anxious attachment style was shaped by a person’s worrisome thoughts about if people they are attached to will be readily available as they need them, so in turn, they anxiously attend to the relationship (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2015, as cited in Yip et al., 2018). Avoidant attachment style was marked by distrust in the relationship and the individuals’ need to preserve their independence (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2015, as cited in Yip et al., 2018). Lastly, secure attachment style was defined by a person’s assurance in the relationship and the other person’s capability to fulfill their emotional needs (Brennan & Shaver, 1995; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2015, as cited in Yip et al., 2018).

Interparental Conflict/Divorce and Parent-Child Attachment

With attachment theory focusing on the relationship between an infant and their primary caregiver, much of the existing literature researching attachment and interparental conflict or divorce is conducted with young children. Because of this, researchers began to look at many different age groups of children and the potential consequences of conflict, separation, and divorce on parent-child attachment.

A study in 2005 analyzed preschool-age children and the potential influence of divorce on their attachment to their mothers and found that the divorced family children had lower attachment security when compared to their peers from intact families (Nair & Murray, 2005). When it came to interparental conflict, researchers found that children who reported experiencing high levels of interparental conflict also experienced high levels of distress reactions and an inability to cope. The insecurely attached children did not use effective coping strategies when faced with interparental conflict when compared to their securely attached counterparts (Camisasca et al., 2017).

The intergenerational transmission of attachment patterns and divorce has been an area of interest within attachment studies. With most of the existing research on the topic being on mothers and their very young children, Bernier & Miljkovitch (2009) saw a need to analyze the potential transmission from divorced fathers to children four years old through 15 years old. It was discovered that full-custodial fathers with more preoccupied attachment patterns had children that showed ambivalence in their attachment patterns (Bernier & Miljkovitch, 2009).

As the topic continued to be researched, scholars began to investigate the potential for more long-term consequences of interparental conflict and divorce. In 2009, Crowell, Treboux & Brockmeyer hypothesized that young adults who experienced parental divorce and had insecure attachment styles would be more likely to experience divorce in their own marriage endeavors. They found that divorce proneness was transmitted through the young adult’s understanding of attachment and close relationships, not caused by divorce. Parental divorce did not lead to divorce in the early years of the young adult’s relationships, but it was associated with an insecure attachment style (Crowell et al., 2009). Research has also shown that high levels of reported parental conflict in young adults led to more fearful romantic attachment styles (Platt et al., 2008).

Many researchers utilized universities to find samples to conduct attachment studies on. Carranza, Kilmann, & Vendemia (2009) looked at certain parental characteristics following divorce and how this impacted the children’s attachment patterns.

They revealed that young adults found to have preoccupied attachment styles reported that their mothers used anxiety or guilt to discipline them, and that fearful-avoidant attachment was associated with reports of both parents not providing consistent love and affection (Carranza et al., 2009). Another study that utilized the university student population found that student’s level of parental attachment and gender were related to how they processed parental conflicts. They also discovered a relationship between high levels of attachment and higher levels of reported self-esteem, life satisfaction, and seeking the support of parents during stressful life events (McCarthy et al., 1998).

Longitudinal studies have proven to be useful in studying the potential long-term consequences of interparental conflict and divorce on individuals. One study followed the mother-child relationship over 25 years following divorce. Their findings suggested that because of the changes to the household following divorce, it can take mothers and their children many years to adjust financially and emotionally. They concluded that because of this adjustment period, the mother-child relationship suffered (Wallerstein et al., 2013).

There are a few different areas of interparental conflict, separation, and divorce literature where research has been limited so far. One specific area is within the realm of remarriage and its’ impact on the parent-child relationship and attachment patterns. Chapman (1991) stated that a challenge faced by parents when adolescents go through the adjustment to parental remarriage is navigating the pain they experience from the change and the proximity-seeking behavior that is brought on by the threat of losing their other parent while trying to form a bond with their new step-parent simultaneously.

The author also found there to be a specific, potential vulnerability with adolescent-aged children in relationship building with their parent and step-parent (Chapman, 1991). Another area that calls for further research is that sibling attachment following divorce. One assessment of this topic in 2011 reviewed the available research on sibling attachment following divorce and developed key questions for professionals to ask when making custody decisions. They suggested that the sibling’s attachment style and risk for developing an attachment disorder if their current caretaker situation was altered be analyzed (Shumaker et al., 2011).

Negative Outcomes of Interparental Conflict/Divorce

One of the negative outcomes considered in the review of the literature was on the social and psychological well-being of children who experienced high levels of parental conflict or divorce. One study found that young adults who reported high levels of parental conflict during their adolescence and others who reported having divorced parents presented poorer communication in their current intimate relationships (Herzog & Cooney, 2002). Researchers also concluded that the adult offspring participants that reported high levels of interparental conflict, for both divorced and married parents, displayed poorer communication in non-intimate relationships (Herzog & Cooney, 2002). Another study investigated how parental conflict following separation impacted a child’s development and found that the level of parental conflict served as a moderator between the children’s emotional security and psychological effect when they were fraught with adult problems (Francia & Millear, 2015).

Although much of the focus of existing research is on divorce, interparental conflict within marriages and partnerships has been found to be just as impactful on children. Research conducted in 2012 followed children from kindergarten into early adolescence and found that interparental conflict predicted emotional insecurity in the children, and this related to internalizing and externalizing problems when the children reached adolescence (Cummings et al., 2012).

Gendered Aspect of the Research

The majority of the existing research has considered the gender of the participants when analyzing the influence of interparental conflict and divorce on attachment and other negative outcomes. Although “sex” of the participants would be the more appropriate definition, gender will be used because this is what was used in the literature.

One study found there to be a greater influence of interparental conflict on the female’s current intimate and non-intimate communication skills when compared to their male counterparts (Herzog & Cooney, 2002). Another study in 2009 made a focus of their study to be how gender influenced attachment in young adults who experienced parental divorce. They discovered that the females emotionally attached to both their parents and males emotionally attached solely to their mothers reported secure adult attachment (Carranza et al., 2009).

Another gendered aspect of the research on parent-child attachment and child outcomes following high levels of interparental conflict and divorce is that of the focus on the relationship between mothers and children, sometimes with total exclusion of the father-child relationship. Murphy, Martin, and Martin (2018) did a study on the mother’s stress level following divorce and how this stress level impacted the parent-child relationship as reported by the mother. The researchers entirely excluded the fathers from the study, and it was not noted whether this was due to their lack of presence in the child’s life following divorce.

Protective Factors

While there is a vast body of research about the consequences of interparental conflict and divorce on children, there is a growing interest in research on what factors may serve mediating roles against the possible consequences for children. In 1996, researchers wanted to see how high levels of interparental conflict within a marriage influenced the behavior of children and whether high levels of friend and classmate support would serve as a buffer against the consequences of the conflict at home. They found that children that reported high levels of interparental conflict had more behavioral problems than those who did not experience the high levels of conflict; they also found that these behavioral problems were diminished for children who had substantial support through peer friendships (Wasserstein & La Greca, 1996).

Research continues to show that certain protective factors can moderate the relation between divorce and negative outcomes for children. When the children experience no change to their standard of living post-divorce, this has shown to lead to a reduction in problematic outcomes for the children. Researchers also found that when parents maintain positive co-parental relationships and do not involve children in disputes, the children are less likely to experience problematic outcomes (Amato, 2014).


Cite this paper

Divorce on Child Attachment and Outcomes Argumentative Essay. (2020, Sep 10). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/divorce-on-child-attachment-and-outcomes/



Can attachment style change after divorce?
Yes, attachment style can change after divorce as it is influenced by life experiences and relationships. However, it may require conscious effort and therapy to develop a more secure attachment style.
How does divorce affect a child's personality?
The child's personality can be greatly affected by divorce. The child may become more withdrawn and lose interest in activities that they once enjoyed.
How does divorce affect attachment styles?
Divorce affects attachment styles in that it can create a sense of insecurity and mistrust in relationships. This can lead to difficulty in forming and maintaining close relationships.
What are the effects of attachment parenting?
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