The Role of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Adult Divorce and Separation

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Background: Healthy marriage promotes better health outcomes compared to negative marital experiences. Previous research has shown that exposure to trauma prior to age 18, or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), increases the likelihood of poor health in adults. These negative experiences impact future relationships and contribute to increased risk for depression, substance abuse, and lowered immune system. This study used ACE scores by category to investigate the effect of ACEs on the risk of divorce or separation and explored the hypothesis that children who have experienced ACEs are more likely to report being divorced or separated in later life. Methods: ACEs examined individually included those considered as abuse (swearing, physical abuse, forced to touch, and sex) and those categorized as household dysfunction (parent/guardian depression, alcohol, or substance use, incarceration, family abuse, and parental divorce). Descriptive statistics were completed in SAS with the 2011 and 2012 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data. All ACE categories were found to be significant using chisquare (p<0.05). Final analysis using Stata (N=69,793) compared adults who were divorced or separated to those who were married or widowed. Simple and multiple logistic regressions were completed for ACEs, controlling for income, race, age, education level and gender. Results: Those who experienced ACEs of forced sex or had a parent in prison had double the odds of experiencing divorce or separation (OR=2.46, p<0.001 and OR=2.03 p<0.001 respectively). Exposure to parent/guardian alcohol use in the home was shown to have a less dramatic effect on divorce/ separation, although this was still significant (OR=1.57, p<0.001). Forced touch was found to almost double the odds of divorce/separation (OR= 1.96, p<0.001). Higher income was shown to have a protective effect on marital status (OR=0.60 p<0.001). While age, males, and education level were statistically significant, the variables did not have a meaningful effect on reducing chances of divorce/separated (ORs between 0.87 and 0.96, p<0.001). Conclusion: Those who experienced ACEs as a child were at more risk of being currently divorced/separated. The current study found that adults who were forced to have sex or forced to touch as a child were at increased risk of divorce/separation. Individuals with a parent in prison were twice as likely to experience divorce/separation. Studying the effect ACEs have on marriage could contribute to further understanding ways in which to prevent unhealthy relationships. This in turn could reduce the risk for divorce and adverse health problems in adults who have experienced ACEs. More studies need to be done to fully understand the consequent effects on ACEs and divorce/separation.


Johnson City, TN

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