Sociology, the study of human social relationships and institutions, is a vital science in understanding and mediating interactions between individuals and groups of people. Humans are naturally social creatures, and the mutual influence people exhibit on each other while living in a society is complex. C.W. Mills, an American sociologist of the XXth century, studied the behavior of individuals within political, military, corporate, and social environments. According to Mills, sociological imagination, the “vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society” (Crossman, 2020), is a concept that can be applied to any behavior. Using Mills system, alongside other sociological concepts and theories, facilitates analyzing current and past situations and preventing future conflict and its consequences.
In the following essay, sociological theories will be used to explore the topic of divorce and the effect it has on the children involved. This type of familial conflict is extremely common globally and in the United States specifically and varies in the level of complication, tension, and the degree of involvement of children. The personal experience used as an example in this paper is a high-conflict hostile divorce proceeding with a high level of involvement of a young child. However, statistics and examples of other situations will also be used. Although there is a level of psychological consequences of divorce, the sociological effects on social skills and the understanding of social interactions should not be understated. The effects of divorce on the child in the example, as well as possible solutions and preventive tactics, will be discussed using concepts such as social exchange theory, conflict theory, and structural functionalism.
As a child, one rarely expects for their parents to separate, essentially breaking the established family institution, and it is generally accepted by society that this event can be traumatic for the young person. However, what is often disregarded are the events leading up to the divorce, which can often be just as, if not more, traumatic and damaging socially. As a child, one mimics a lot of the behaviors they see at home, which can make social interactions challenging when the parents are not interacting in a healthy manner. When my parents got divorced, I was left with questions that no one was willing to answer. In the short term, I felt alienated from my peers and unsure of how to act in many social situations. However, there were many other long-term effects that the divorce had on me, which I did not realize at the time.
It took me years to reprogram my brain to be able to ask for and accept the treatment I deserve in interpersonal relationships, both romantic and platonic. Furthermore, it was difficult for me to learn to express my own feelings in a way that was not abusive to the people in my life and to interact with others in a healthy and productive way. Growing up in a toxic environment that never reached a peaceful resolution but was abrupted with little explanation available to me, this was the model of behavior that I copied for years after. Instead of understanding that social conflict can be resolved by compromise, I was inadvertently exposed to the absolutist views of my parents. Today, as a grown woman, I have the tools to sociologically analyze the events of my childhood and to understand the practices that could have made them less traumatic.
Sociological imagination is a useful tool for understanding the reasons behind the divorce. As a child or a non-self-reflective adult, it is easy to not consider the larger sociological issues behind the events that happen in one’s life. However, it is vital to understand that both concepts, the individual experience, and the larger social issues, in order to analyze human behavior properly. While there are numerous psychological factors for divorce, sociology becomes prominent when demographical factors such as socio-economic standing, gender relations, and community support are considered. Analyzing the situation from such a standpoint facilitates the understanding of such negative life events for both the couple directly involved and other people, such as the children and other family members. Furthermore, providing the sociological support necessary after the fact of the divorce reduces the damage done socially and psychologically to those affected.
There are many sociological factors that can either increase or decrease the risk of divorce and several theories that predict them. In the following sections, social divorce factors will be discussed from the views of structural functionalism, social exchange theory, and conflict theory. Understanding the complex social factors that might lead to divorce is helpful in not only personal processing experiences but in predicting future risks in one’s own relationships.
In sociology, structural functionalism is the school of thought that teaches the interaction between institutions, relationships, norms, and roles in society. In the case of romantic and familial relationships, this theory is especially relevant due to the established gender roles in society and the role the government and other institutions play in marriage and divorce. For example, marriages were considered more stable in the late XXth century if the woman fulfilled the traditional duties as a wife (“How work, gender norms, and money shape the risk of divorce,” 2017). From a functionalist perspective, marriage and family are the building blocks of society, and hence divorce is a negative sign of functionality. Nevertheless, if the marriage is not providing the necessary benefits, such as economic production and socialization of children, then divorce can be viewed positively from such a perspective.
Social exchange theory
The social exchange theory considers human relationships from a cost-benefit point of view. Therefore, according to this theory, a divorce is a result of a malfunction of such a relationship, when those involved no longer provide mutual benefit to one another. From this standpoint, there is a transactional sense to every relationship, and once the benefits expire, there is no longer a need for the relationship to continue. Therefore, divorce can be viewed positively, as it also creates the opportunity to create new relationships with a higher benefit potential.
Conflict theory puts an emphasis on the competition between groups and individuals in society over limited resources. According to this theory, humans are driven by self-interest, societies operate under a scarcity of resources, and conflict is pervasive and unavoidable. At its core, conflict theory refers to the power struggle between the elite and the others, leading to conflict. Since a family is a microcosm of society, according to conflict theory, divorce is the result of the power struggle and competition for resources within the couple. These struggles generate and perpetuate tension within the individuals, eventually resulting in separation.
In the US, the divorce rates differ from state to state, which can be partially attributed to social and demographical factors, such as religion and political affiliation. As of 2021, about 50% of first marriages end in divorce, with the chance rising to 60% for the second and 73% for the third one (“Divorce rate by state 2021”). Furthermore, it is important to note that financial issues, which are a sociological factor, are cited as the third highest reason for divorce (“Divorce rate by state 2021”).
Overall, the reasons for divorce are a complex combination of many factors, and the phenomena can be analyzed from numerous sociological standpoints. A society that strives towards prosperity might assume a lower rate of divorce to be a positive sign. Then, several sociological issues can be addressed to decrease both the chance of divorce and its damaging effects on the people involved. However, it should be noted that a lower rate of divorce is not always a positive sign and can at times point to unhappy family lives with few escape possibilities. Nevertheless, the complex analysis of sociological, as well as psychological, factors behind the rates of divorce and the effects of them on children is necessary to truly understand and process such an event.
Crossman, Ashley. (2020). Definition of the sociological imagination and overview of the book. ThoughtCo. Web.
Divorce rate by state 2021. (n.d.). World Population Review. Web.
How work, gender norms, and money shape the risk of divorce. (2017). Harvard University. Web.