Family Trajectories after Divorce: Patterns and Predictors in Germany

Sergi Vidal, Centre for Demographic Studies
Lisa Schmid, University of Cologne, Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology

Divorce rate trends have been an important driver of the diversification of contemporary family landscapes in post-industrial societies, including increasing numbers of lone-parent and step-family arrangements. Despite the enduring importance of non-intact family arrangements to explain the consequences of divorce for adults and children, the heterogeneity in family life courses and the nature and stability of specific family patterns after divorce remains understudied. Adopting a trajectory-based approach to the study post-marital life courses, this research provides answers to the questions: What are the typical family trajectories after divorce? And, what are the conditions and circumstances during marriage that lead to specific family trajectories after divorce? We draw a sample of 1,048 first-marriage divorcees from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP, 1984-2015) and follow their post-marital trajectories of combined partnership and parenthood episodes for 60 months since divorce. To gather evidence of heterogeneity in post-divorce trajectories, we employ sequence analysis methods and cluster analysis. To examine the nature of post-divorce trajectories, we employ discrete-time event history analysis for multinomial outcomes using first-time married respondents (who do not divorce) as a censoring group and typical predictors of divorce. Findings from our study will enable us to better understand post-marital life courses, which have important implications for the study of the effects of divorce.


In most OECD countries, the crude divorce rate doubled between the 1970’s and the early 2010’s (OECD, 2016). Marital breakdowns are found to associate with immediate negative outcomes for the divorcees, including declines in well-being and suffering economic hardship (Härkönen 2014). Also children suffer the consequences of divorce, often associated to custody arrangements and the limited capacity of parents to support children, given the aforementioned hardships that they endure (Härkönen 2014).

The new family landscape of contemporary societies behind recent trends in divorce rates has important implications for the outcomes of divorce. While adults and children in traditional intact families are best off, there is evidence that re-partnering and remarriage can vanish negative consequences associated with divorce (Dewilde and Uunk 2008). The associated literature has highlighted relevant post-marital patterns that impact on the outcomes of divorce such as a decrease of time spent in a union during adult life, and the increasing numbers of children living with one parent or in step-families. Despite recent evidence on post-marital family living, the heterogeneity of divorce and their consequences on adults and children are not yet well understood (Härkönen 2015). Evidence on post-marital living arrangements remains scattered, looking separately into relevant processes such as re-partnering and remarriage, childbearing with multiple partners, and step-families or studying cross-sectional family outcomes after divorce. This is limiting since post-marital living arrangements are not likely to remain constant, but to vary over the divorcee life course.

The current study

Our study closes some of the aforementioned gaps and offers a novel examination of life course trajectories after divorce. We set two research questions: What are the typical family trajectories after divorce? And, what are the conditions and circumstances during marriage that lead to specific family trajectories after divorce? We derive two research objectives from this research questions. First, we examine post-divorce living arrangement trajectories combining partnership and parenthood episodes, to address heterogeneity in the family life courses of divorcees and describe the specific patterns. Second, we examine how traditional determinants of divorce associate with typical post-divorce family trajectories to shed light on the nature of each specific post-divorce pattern.

To inform our study, we will review prior studies on union and childbearing patterns after the end of the first marriage, including research on re-marriage, multi-partner fertility and step families (e.g. Sweeney 2010; Thomson et al. 2014). We will build on a theoretical framework that explains union dissolution motivations and post-marital family outcomes and argue that ex-spouses and the common children with them have implications for the post-marital life course. Divorcees’ need for a new partner, their attractiveness as potential partners, and their opportunities to find new partners are closely linked to the presence of children from previous partnerships and to the intention of childbirth. Thus, it is theoretically important to differentiate between pre- and post-divorce children when examining post-marital family trajectories.

For the empirical analysis we use data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP). We apply sequence analysis methods and compare sequences using a Dynamic Hamming Distance algorithm. We apply cluster analysis to the resulting matrix of distances to generate sequence clusters that represent typical post-divorce trajectories. The cluster solution is decided upon empirical fit as well as theoretical criteria. Heterogeneity of post-marital trajectories will be discussed based on the number and compositions of clusters. To assess pre-divorce determinants of post-divorce living arrangement trajectories, we employ competing-risks event history analysis on the post-divorce trajectory outcome. Models adjust for typical predictors of divorce to assess the factors leading to specific post-divorce trajectories. This enables us to offer explanations for heterogeneity in post-divorce trajectories.

Our study is one of the first to establish the relevant post-marital family life course patterns utilizing a trajectory based approach. We extend previous literature by examining relevant understudied post-divorce partnership forms such as living-apart-together relationships. This study improves our understanding of the heterogeneity of divorce by studying determinants of divorce on specific post-martial life courses.


Dewilde, C. and Uunk, W. (2008). Remarriage as a Way to Overcome the Financial Consequences of Divorce--A Test of the Economic Need Hypothesis for European Women. European Sociological Review 24(3):393–407.

Härkönen, J. (2014). Divorce: Trends, Patterns, Causes, and Consequences. In: Treas, J., Scott, J. and Richards, M. (eds.). The Wiley Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Families. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Inc: 303–322.

Härkönen, J. (2015). Divorce. In: Scott, R. A. and Kosslyn, S. M. (eds.). Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: 1–14.

Sweeney, M.M. (2010). Remarriage and Stepfamilies: Strategic Sites for Family Scholarship in the 21st Century. Journal of Marriage and Family 72(3):667–684.

Thomson, E., Lappegård, T., Carlson, M., Evans, A., and Gray, E. (2014). Childbearing Across Partnerships in Australia, the United States, Norway, and Sweden. Demography 51(2):485–508.

Presented in Session 1111: Families and Households