It’s a classic story: Man meets Woman, they fall in love, get married and have children.
While the classic version of the story was thought to end with “they live happily ever after,” the 21st century twist is more likely to be: Man and Woman get divorced, enter into other relationships and have children with their new partners.
However, research by UAlberta sociologist Lisa Strohschein shows that shifting and turbulent family dynamics can have a negative impact on people’s health and personal relationships, particularly in children as they transition into adults. She studies families in flux, and the impact of those changes throughout people’s lives.
“How are people coming to terms with the complexity of what family means to them?” says Strohschein. “It’s easy to understand when you have a mother and a father and they’re in a committed relationship…. The rules associated with that are fairly straightforward.
“But as families change, as relationships end and new ones begin, it becomes difficult for people to know and understand what those relationships are to one another. If your father finds someone else, what do you call the woman he is now married to or living with? And that’s just what do you call that person, there’s all kinds of [questions] about how you negotiate that relationship as well.”
Factors that contribute to changing family dynamics include a high divorce rate, a growing preference for cohabitation over marriage and parents who have children with more than one partner (called multi-partnered fertility). As children grow up in families that reflect these complex marital histories, Strohschein notes that researchers have had to challenge the dominant assumption that families occur in single households; in fact, families now extend into multiple households in increasing numbers.
Strohschein is interested in studying the long-term implications of children living in multiple households — an area of research that has largely been unstudied in Canada so far.
For example, children whose parents have gotten divorced may live in two households, sharing equal time with their mother and father. Strohschein is interested in studying the long-term implications of children living in multiple households — an area of research that has largely been unstudied in Canada so far.
The idea that a family can span more than one household is not just limited to children’s experiences following divorce. One family model that is gaining popularity is LAT (living apart together) households — couples that are in committed relationships but live apart. LAT relationships are common in people that are divorced, who have complex marital situations and may not want to jeopardize the relationships they have with other family members by living with their new partner.
“[It’s] the disappearance of the nuclear family. Even though it’s still the dominant form, we’ve seen the proliferation of all these other types of households,” explains Strohschein. This could have a major impact on public institutions — such as court systems, censuses, schools and governments — that measure families as isolated units. Strohschein suggests that public institutions will have to reorient how they define or understand families in order to make informed decisions about how resources are distributed.
“For example, you have a LAT household; one of those people is critically injured in a hospital and unable to express their own wishes. Who should get the final say as to what happens with this person’s care? Is it the LAT partner or is it the adult children?” explains Strohschein. “As family life gets more complex, these negotiations get even more difficult.”
“It’s the disappearance of the nuclear family. Even though it’s still the dominant form, we’ve seen the proliferation of all these other types of households.”
Even the way we perceive divorce has shifted, says Strohschein. Divorce used to be regarded as devastating for those involved; now it’s more common-place and people tend have more casual reactions to divorce, something Strohschein refers to as “the Gwyneth Paltrow response.”
Earlier this year, Paltrow and her husband, Coldplay singer Chris Martin, famously announced they were going to “consciously uncouple” — a term that almost trivializes the impact of divorce. “How will divorcing parents be able to shield their children from harm, when they themselves cannot predict or know what will happen?” adds Strohschein.
In order to help parents in this difficult situation, she is one of the research advisors helping Health Canada update its divorce brochure, available to all parents who are going through the divorce process. The previous brochure was published in 2003, and Strohschein was consulted on introducing an updated section providing advice for someone going through a second — or even third or fourth — divorce.
“You get the opportunity to see what was done 10 years ago, and you go ‘hey, we’ve actually learned a lot.’ Now it’s time to make sure that your research, that knowledge, gets transferred so that parents get the very best information.”