Divorce as it Influences the Intimate Relationships of College Students

Matthew Bruce, Renae Flora, & Christine Stacey

Huntington College


The current study seeks to bring some clarity to the debate over what about divorce causes detriment to the child. The entire population of full-time undergraduate students at a small midwestern liberal arts college was examined concerning the occurrence of divorce and its effects on later intimate relationships. Students received surveys, which included an assessment of the student�s parental situation and the Miller Social Intimacy Scale. The relationship between these two variables was measured using a two-tailed t-test. Additionally, the strength of the relationship between the age of parental divorce and the individual�s level of intimacy was measured using the Pearson r correlation coefficient. It was predicted that participants who have experienced divorce would have less intimate relationships.



Annually close to one million American children experience a parental divorce (Kail, 2002). �Equally unsettling is that children raised in intact families are still part of a �high-divorce society� and are therefore surrounded indirectly by the consequences of other families� disruption� (Kirk, 2002, p. 63). Because divorce is so prevalent, many researchers have begun to explore how the different facets of divorce affect children, both immediately and in the long-term. Several studies suggest that the disruptions, conflict, and stress associated with divorce do affect children in a variety of ways (Amato & Keith, 1991; Morris & West, 2001; Mullet & Stolberg, 2002; Short, 2002; Sinclair & Nelson, 1998; Wilke, 1991). A range of variables other than the divorce experience itself that may influence the future intimacy of the offspring include the quality of the parental marital relationship, the amount of conflict in the home, and the quality of the parent-child relationship (i.e., attachment) (Guttmann & Rosenberg, 2003).

One rapidly emerging area of interest surrounding the study of divorce is the role of parental conflict. Juxtaposed against the view that divorce in and of itself is traumatic is a more recent theory holding that the amount of conflict ultimately is what negatively influences the children. Those who have experienced divorce often report higher levels of family conflict (Short, 2002; Toomey & Nelson, 2001). A study examining the effects of divorce in college students and their level of relationship competence found that more family conflict predicted not only lower levels of self-esteem but also greater fear of intimacy (Kirk, 2002). Toomey and Nelson (2001) highlighted a few other key factors in the case of parental conflict. They noted that if the level of parental conflict before the divorce was low, then the divorce itself would have more detrimental effects. Another important consideration they expressed was the importance of the amount of parental conflict that the child actually witnesses or perceives.

A number of studies have explored parental conflict and the impact it has on future romantic relationships in children of divorce. For college students who have had a longstanding experience of parental conflict, the level of intimacy in their romantic relationships declined. These students also tended to be more cautious about intimacy in future relationships (Burgoyne & Hames, 2002; Ensign, Scherman, & Clark, 1998). In an in-depth qualitative study, Mahl (2001) interviewed 28 college students who had experienced divorce to learn about their present romantic relationships. The study found that their thoughts on how to maintain a relationship were greatly influenced by the event of divorce. Many interviewees attributed their reasons for turmoil and break-ups in their romantic relationships to seeing problems their parents encountered in their own marriages.

Is parental conflict following the divorce as detrimental as that which takes place when the marriage is still intact? Morris and West (2001) examined the relationship between post-divorce parental conflict and adult children�s willingness to be intimate in their own relationships. They found that higher levels of post-divorce conflict correlated with higher levels of perceived risk in intimacy.

Another growing area of research regarding the effects of divorce on future intimacy is the confounding influence of early parent-child attachment. Evans and Bloom (1996) measured a number of variables and how they differed among children from intact and non-intact families. Of these variables, only ego-identity and attachment styles were found to be statistically significant. They stated that these findings merited future research in this area. Research since has shown that attachment to parents will often affect children�s ability to share intimacy later in life. Studies by Sinclair and Nelson (1998) as well as Van Schaick and Stolberg (2001) found that college students who presently experience higher levels of intimacy also expressed a higher level of attachment to their fathers. Hayashi and Strickland (1998) cite Bowlby�s (1969) work on attachment styles to argue that attachment is more important than the event of divorce. They concluded that if a child has made positive attachments early in life then a parental divorce would not inhibit them from having positive intimate relationships as they develop.

A further mitigating variable between the effect of divorce and a child�s future intimate relationships was that of outside stable relationships. Kirk (2002) suggested that quality friendships helped to moderate the effects of divorce and family conflict. These non-familial relationships acted as a moderator, decreasing a person�s fear of intimacy.� Friendships help to provide significance and security when parents do not.

The respondents of the Burgoyne & Hames (2002) study said their views on marriage had certainly been influenced by family history, �but most of those who had experienced their own long-term relationships felt that they had learned as much, if not more, from these as from their family experiences� (p. 98). Riggio (2001) stated that the process of learning about relationships could actually take place through other family members. When children experience divorce at a younger age they tend to cling to their siblings for comfort. These relationships act as a buffer to the crises that are taking place in the family.

Aside from issues such as level of family conflict, parent-child attachment styles, and buffering relationships, there were several studies that found that the event of divorce, and thus the absence of a two-parent family, was the main cause of the detrimental effects on a child�s future intimate relationships. Mullett and Stolberg (2002) found that women who have experienced divorce reported a lower level of intimacy within their dating relationships. Lower levels of intimacy, unhealthy communication patterns, and other reported effects of divorce not only affect the child but also become the key components in predicting divorce for that child.

Kirk (2002) found that family structure, intact or divorced, did not directly affect the participants� fear of intimacy. However, family structure was a predictor of expectations of future relationships. Compared to those who were from intact families, students who had experienced divorce had significantly greater fear of experiencing divorce in their own lives as well. Wilke (1991) discovered in his dissertation that those from intact homes had a higher level of intimate relationships than those from divorced families. Also, as those from divorced families perceived a decrease in family cohesion, their level of interpersonal intimacy decreased as well.

Van Schaick & Stolberg (2001) studied the impact of paternal involvement and parental divorce on young adults� intimate relationships. They found that children of divorce are thought to be more at risk for poor intimate relationship outcomes for two reasons. �First, the divorce itself has been shown to lead to relationship problems in many young adults. Second, paternal involvement for children of divorce is often considerably less than for children whose parents are married and residing in the same home (Furstenburg, 1983; as cited in Amato & Keith, 1991, p. 117).�� Further, �Young adults from divorced families suffer more negative relationships outcomes independent of parental involvement� (p. 99-100).

We hold that children do reap many benefits from having both a mother and a father. Therefore, any deviation from this two-parent family structure prevents a child from fully developing into an adult capable of intimacy. Unhealthy parental conflict will certainly have detrimental effects on a child as will the lack of a secure attachment with a parent. Outside relationships can indeed help to restore a child�s capacity for intimacy but this was never intended to replace the bonds existent in a family. Although these have all been areas of interest surrounding the research of divorce in the last decade, our hypothesis is that it is the divorce itself that is the most detrimental factor. To address these common trends in divorce research, this study will examine the relationship between family structure (intact and divorced) and the quality of intimate relationships for undergraduate students.



All full-time undergraduate students at Huntington College (a small Christian liberal arts school in the Midwest) were solicited to participate in this study. A complete list of students (including nontraditional undergraduate students) enrolled as of March 3, 2004 was obtained from the college Registrar.� A complete population (n=723) was used as a sample, of which 243 responded. Eighty-six males and 159 females aged 18 to 26 comprised the respondent group for the study.


The Miller Social Intimacy Scale (MSIS) was used as the dependent measure for the present study. This popular instrument in the research of intimacy has been rated as very reliable by a number of studies (Corcoran & Fischer, 1987; Downs & Hillje, 1991; Hook, Gerstein, Detterich, & Gridley, 2003; Miller & Lefcourt, 1982; Mullet & Stolberg, 2002; Sinclair & Nelson, 1998; Toomey & Nelson, 2001). Miller and Lefcourt (1982) developed the measure a few decades ago to fill the void of adequate intimacy scales. The MSIS consists of 17 items based on a 5-point Likert scale. The scale asks participants to complete the questions thinking of their most intimate relationship in an attempt to measure a person�s maximum level of intimacy. This is achieved through questions such as �How often do you show him/her affection?� or �How often do you confide very personal information to him/her?� The first six questions are rated from �very rarely� to �almost always� and the final seventeen from �not much� to �a great deal.� Scores can range from 17 to 85, with the highest score representing the highest level of intimacy.

Miller and Lefcourt (1982) thoroughly assessed the reliability of the MSIS soon after it was developed. Using the Cronbach alpha coefficient they found its internal consistency to be high (alpha = .91 and .86) showing that the scale assesses a single construct. The scale�s test-retest reliability was also strong (r = .96 and r = .84, p < .001) as measured at one and two month intervals after the original study. Miller and Lefcourt (1982) also tested the scales convergent, discriminant, and construct validity. Convergent validity was measured by having participants take the MSIS and the Interpersonal Relationship Scale (IRS) (Schien, Guerny, & Stover, 1971, cited in Guerny, 1977) and then the MSIS and the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Participants who scored high on the MSIS were expected to also score high on the IRS, and this did occur (r = .71, p <.001). Participants who scored high on the MSIS were expected to score low on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, and this was also found� (r = -.65, p <.001). For discriminant validity, Miller and Lefcourt (1982) had participants take the Fitts� Tennessee Self-Concept Scale, the Jackson�s Personality Research Form, and the Marlowe-Crowne Need for Approval Scale in addition to the MSIS itself to specify what exactly was being measured by the MSIS. Finally construct validity was examined by having participants use the MSIS to first assess an extremely close friend and then a more casual friend. The MSIS was deemed valid in construct, discriminant, and convergent validity. It was chosen for use in this particular study not only because of its acceptance as a reliable and valid measure but also because it provides an excellent conceptualization of the study�s dependent variable.


Surveys were sent to each participant through the college�s campus mail. Each mailing consisted of three pages, tri-folded and stapled together with the recipient�s name on the outside. The cover page was a letter informing the participant about the general study. The participants were asked to take part in a research study by completing the two attached surveys (the independent and dependent measures). In addition to requesting the participants to return the questionnaires, an explanation was included on how to fold and send the surveys back to us through campus mail in order to maximize convenience. Also included in this letter were a description of the incentives involved and an explanation of how to enter the drawing for the prizes as well as how to request the final results of the study. A sample letter is displayed in Appendix A. The incentives included two $5 gift certificates to a popular coffee house, two movie passes to the local movie theatre, and a coupon for a free Papa John�s pizza. All of the names of those requesting to be in the prize drawing were compiled, and the gifts were distributed to the four randomly chosen participants.

The mailings were constructed in such a way as to assure anonymity and confidentiality. The participants were given the option to return the instruction page with their name to enter the raffle or obtain results. The surveys and the request for entering the prize drawing and obtaining results were constructed so that each part could be mailed back separately to a different researcher.


The number of surveys returned totaled 245 out of 723 mailed (a 33.9% response rate). Of these 245 surveys, 205 were from intact families (an astounding 83.7%), leaving 40 from divorced families (16.3%). Male respondents composed 35.5% of the sample (n = 86), with the remaining 64.5% being females (n = 159). The mean age of participants was 20.06 (SD = 1.23). Nearly half (49%) of the participants were involved in a dating relationship, the majority designating their dating partner as their most intimate relationship on the Miller Social Intimacy Scale (t = .33, 245 d.f., p<.05). Using an alpha level of .05 and 243 degrees of freedom a two-tailed independent t-test obtained a t of .33. When this was compared with the critical t of 1.97, the null hypothesis was retained. Both sample groups had virtually the same mean (divorced M = 73.10, SD = 6.93 and intact M = 73.50, SD = 7.09) on the intimacy scale.

Since the null hypothesis was retained, a number of post hoc analyses were run to probe possible influential variables. A two-tailed independent t test was run to examine the relationship between gender and intimacy. Female participants scored significantly higher on the Miller Social Intimacy Scale than male participants (t =� 2.54, 243 d.f., p > .05). Regardless of family situation, females had a higher mean intimacy score (M = 74.16, SD = 6.74) than male participants (M = 71.72, SD = 7.85). The relationship between the participants� dating status and intimacy score was also examined. Another two-tailed independent t test compared these variables and the results were very significant with an obtained t value of 9.98 and a critical t value of 5.07 (243 d.f., p > .000001). Of the variables examined in the study, divorce was unexpectedly the least related to intimacy, with factors such as gender or dating status apparently being more significant.


The primary goal of this study was to determine if the level of intimacy of college students differed based on whether the student had experienced parental divorce as a child.� The question guiding the study was whether or not divorce as a single variable was significant in determining differences in intimacy levels. It was predicted that those from a divorced families would have lower intimacy scores than those from intact families. Results of the study indicated no significant differences in students of divorced versus intact families. The results are similar to Sinclair & Nelson (1998) who found no difference in levels of intimacy in students who experienced divorce and those who did not.

Working from the assumption that the parental relationship does in fact have some effect on children�s development of intimate relationships, it does not appear that parental divorce in and of itself has a profound impact on children�s future intimate relationships. Our post hoc analyses revealed that being female and being involved in a dating relationship were significant factors in determining the intimacy level of individuals, regardless of having experienced parental divorce or not. Our results tend to support the existing research that suggests other influential variables in determining children�s intimacy levels. Because divorce alone is not significant in determining a child�s future level of intimacy in relationships, factors such as parental attachment, parental conflict, and outside relationships should be considered (Guttmann & Rosenberg, 2003). Although one may reason that growing up in a single-parent home, along with the emotional impact of experiencing parental divorce, would negatively impact children�s future relationships, it appears that it is actually the combined experiences and other relationships one is exposed to that hold great influence (Burgoyne & Hames, 2002; Ensign, Scherman, & Clark, 1998; Hayashi & Strickland, 1998; Kirk, 2002; Riggio, 2001). The present study�s findings lend support to this view that outside factors are the most important contributory factors to the impact of divorce on children.

Perhaps the event of divorce has become so commonplace in our society that children learn to accept its occurrence as normal. If half of a child�s friends have also experienced divorce, the event probably wouldn�t be perceived as traumatic. Therefore, it seems like a child would make intimate connections with their peers and move on. The age of the population could also be a variable to consider. Divorce may have had a more intense impact on younger children, but by the late teens and early twenties, they have become more autonomous and capable of forming relationships independent of the family.

The demographics of the sample merit consideration as well. Being that Huntington College is a small Christian school the atmosphere could be one more conducive to developing intimate relationships compared to a large state university. The nature of the Christian religion is also one that encourages intimate relationships, which may lead to higher intimacy scores. People living in rural Indiana as opposed to more urban or suburban settings may also view intimacy differently. The slower pace of the Midwest may encourage more relationships than activity.� Taking all of these factors into consideration, it would be beneficial to compare the results of this study with other private, Christian college/university populations and public university populations.�

There were a number of variables that could have potentially influenced the validity of the study. Because it was more quasi-experimental in nature, the risks of experimenter-participant interaction are reduced. Since divorce was the independent variable, it would be impossible to manipulate without violating research ethics. Therefore this study acts as more of an indirect field observation because it intends to discover what factors have already been at work. As a result, external validity problems such as combination of experimental setting and treatment, history and treatment, time of measurement and treatment, or causal time-order were unable to be controlled. Every participant who experienced divorce went through a unique set of circumstances. This study was simply too broad to account for every one of them. It is clear from the results that intimacy is not simply a matter of being from a family of divorce or not, making diffusion or imitation of treatment a problem. There seems to be too many confounding variables for both the intact and divorced group to know what the major influences are on a child�s future intimacy levels. However, this study makes it clear that efforts should be invested in examining the varying experiences a child undergoes.

Careful precaution was taken to preserve the generalizability of the results. The entire population was chosen as a sample so that every member might have an opportunity to participate. The results should, therefore, be representative at the very least of the Huntington College population. Feasibly, the findings could be projected onto smaller Christian colleges. It is also interesting to note that the divorce rate at Huntington College (16%) is well below the national average, including the average for Christians. This study then provides valuable information but is also limited by its generalizability.

Another potential internal validity issue is the extent to which the Miller Social Intimacy Scale is able to measure the intended variable in this study. For instance, it uses self-report, which is surely not a standardized measure of intimacy. Romantic relationships abound in college and may skew the perception of true intimacy. More relevant to the study, a college student whose parents have been divorced may be coping with the divorce by involving himself or herself in an allegedly �intimate� relationship.� The MSIS would not be capable of penetrating this veneer. Another possible flaw is the ability only to assess one intimate relationship. Therefore, it is open to question whether or not the MSIS is the most accurate measure to be used in comparing the relationship of these two variables.�

Since the hypothesis of this study was not supported, it should encourage more studies on other possible influences on intimacy following divorce. Variables that are present even in intact families (such as level of parental conflict and how this affects children) should be studied.� Further study is also encouraged regarding the positive coping relationships utilized by persons who have experienced divorce.� The study of divorce is extremely broad in scope. It involves major factors such as the nature of a child�s developmental process, family dynamics, genetics, and personality. Although the research hypothesis was not upheld, this study is a valuable addition in the study of divorce, especially in directing future research.



Amato, P. R., & Keith, B. (1991). Parental divorce and adult well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53, 43-58.

Burgoyne, C. B., & Hames, R. (2002). Views of marriage and divorce: An in-depth study of young adults from intact and divorced families. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage,37(1/2), 75-100.

Bowlby, J. (1969). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. British Journal of Psychiatry, 130, 201-210.

Corcoran, K., & Fischer, J. (1987). Miller Social Intimacy Scale. Measures for ClinicalPractice (pp. 230-232). New York: The Free Press.

Downs, A. C., & Hillje, E. S. (1991). Reassessment of the Miller Social Intimacy Scale: Use with mixed- and same-sex dyads produces multidimensional structures. Psychological Reports, 69(3 pt. 1), 991-997.

Ensign, J., Scherman, A., & Clark, J. J. (1998). The relationship of family structure and conflict to levels of intimacy and parental attachment on college students. Adolescence, 33(131), 575-582.

Evans, J. J., & Bloom, B. L. (1996). Effects of parental divorce among college undergraduates. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 26(1/2), 69-93.

Gurney, B. C. (1977). Relationship enhancement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Guttmann, J., & Rosenberg, M. (2003) Emotional intimacy and children�s adjustment: A comparison between single-parent divorced and intact families. EducationalPsychology, 23(4), 457-472.

Hayashi, G. M., & Strickland, B. R. (1998). Long-term effects of parental divorce on love relationships: Divorce as attachment disruption. Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, 15(1), 23-28.

Hook, M. K., Gerstein, L. H., Detterich, L., & Gridley, B. (2003). How close are we? Measuring intimacy and examining gender differences. Journal of Counseling & Development, 81(4), 462-474.

Kail, R. V. (2002). Children. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.�

Kirk, A. (2002). The effects of divorce on young adults� relationship competence: The influence of intimate friendships. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 38(1/2), 61-89.

Mahl, D. (2001). The influence of parental divorce on the romantic relationship beliefs of young adults. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas, Austin.

Miller, R. S., &� Lefcourt, H. M. (1982). The assessment of social intimacy. Journal of Personality Assessment, 46(5), 514-518.

Morris, M. H., & West, C. (2001). Post-divorce conflict and avoidance of intimacy. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 35(3/4), 93-105.

Mullett, E., & Stolberg, A. L. (2002). Divorce and its impact on the intimate relationships of young adults. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 38(1/2), 39-59.

Riggio, H. R. (2001). Relations between parental divorce and the quality of adult sibling relationships. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 36(1/2), 67-84.

Short, J. L. (2002). The effects of parental divorce during childhood on college students. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 38(1/2), 143-155.

Sinclair, S. L., & Nelson, E. S. (1998). The impact of parental divorce on college students� intimate relationships and relational beliefs. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 29(1/2), 103-129.

Toomey, E. T., & Nelson, E. S. (2001). Family conflict and young adults� attitudes toward intimacy. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 34(3/4), 49-71.

Van Schaick, K., & Stolberg, A. (2001). The impact of paternal involvement and parental divorce on young adults� intimate relationships. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 36(1/2), 99-121.

Wilke, S. D. (1991). The impact of parental divorce and family of origin dynamics on young adult�s intimate relationships. Dissertation Abstracts International, 54(8-B), 4485-4486.


Appendix A

Dear student,

����������� You have been selected to take part in a research project conducted by three crazy psychology majors for an upper level research class. Dr. Priest is forcing us to do this insane project under consequence of death, and we would greatly appreciate your participation! Included in this mailing are two surveys we would like you to complete and return to us through campus mail ASAP. BUT THERE�S MORE�. Along with returning the surveys, we invite you to return this page separately to enter a PRIZE DRAWING. We are giving away two $5 gift certificates to Coffee D�Vine, two movie passes to Huntington 7, and a coupon for a free Papa John�s pizza.

Here�s what you need to do:� �����

  1. Complete the surveys on the following pages. Tri-fold those two pages together so that Matt Bruce�s name is on the outside and put them in campus mail. (Your name is not needed on these pages).
  2. Fill out the information below and tri-fold this page so that Renae Flora�s name is on the outside. Return it through campus mail.

����������������� ����������������� ����������������� ����� Thanks a million :-)

����������������������� ����������������������� ����������� �Matt Bruce, Christine Stacey, Renae Flora


Name: _________________________________


____ I would like to enter the incentive drawing :-).

If you would like the group results of this study, please send a written request to Christine Stacey.






A number of phrases are listed below that describe the kind of relationships people have with others. Indicate, by filling in the appropriate letters in the answer field, how you would describe your current relationship with the person to whom you are closest. This person can be of either gender and should be someone whom you consider to be your closest friend at this time. While it is not necessary to specify the name of this friend, please indicate his/her gender in question 1.


1. Gender of the person you are closest to:���� M____���� F____


2. Your marital status:����


����������� Single____���� Dating____���� Married____���� Separated or divorced____���


3. Is the friend you describe your dating partner/spouse?���� Yes____���� No____



   Some of
the time

    Almost always

When you have leisure time how often�do you choose to spend it with him/her alone?


How often do you keep very personal�information to yourself and do not share it with him/her?

6. How often do you show him/her affection?


How often do you confide very personal�information to him/her?


How often are you able to understand his/her feelings?

9. How often do you feel close to him/her?�



A great

How much do you like to spend time alone with him/her?


How much do you feel like being encouraging and supportive to him/her when he/she is unhappy?

12. How close do you feel to him/her most of the time?


How important is it to you to listen to his/her�personal disclosures?��


How satisfying is your relationship with�him/her?

15. How affectionate do you feel towards him/her?�


How important is it to you that he/she�understand your feelings?


How much damage is caused by a typical�disagreement in your relationship with him/her?


How important is it to you that he/she be encouraging and supportive to you when you are unhappy?


How important is it to you that he/she show�you affection?


How important is your relationship with�him/her in your life?










Gender:���� M____���� F____


Age:���� _____



Have your biological parents ever been divorced?���� Yes____���� No____



If you answered �no� to the previous question please stop now and return the survey


through campus mail.


If you answered �yes� to the previous question, please respond to the following:



What was your age at the time of the divorce?���� _____ years old


With which parent have you lived the majority of your life?���� Mother____���� Father____


Did the parent with whom you reside/resided get remarried?���� Yes____���� No____


�������� If yes, what was your age at the time this parent got remarried?���� _____ years old





** Please return these two surveys (2 pages) through campus mail. Tri-fold these pages together so that Matt Bruce�s name appears on the outside. Thanks for your participation in our study :-)!




©2002-2021 All rights reserved by the Undergraduate Research Community.

Research Journal: Vol. 1 Vol. 2 Vol. 3 Vol. 4 Vol. 5 Vol. 6 Vol. 7 Vol. 8 Vol. 9 Vol. 10 Vol. 11 Vol. 12 Vol. 13 Vol. 14 Vol. 15
High School Edition

Call for Papers ¦ URC Home ¦ Kappa Omicron Nu

KONbutton K O N KONbutton