Consumer Behavior in Coping Strategies For Divorce

James H. McAlexander, Oregon State University
John W. Schouten, University of Portland
Scott D. Roberts, Old Dominion University
[ to cite ]:
James H. McAlexander, John W. Schouten, and Scott D. Roberts (1992) ,"Consumer Behavior in Coping Strategies For Divorce", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 555-556.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 555-556


James H. McAlexander, Oregon State University

John W. Schouten, University of Portland

Scott D. Roberts, Old Dominion University

When considering the affect divorce might have on consumer behavior, scholars find themselves in surprisingly ill-charted territory. With notable exceptions in the "revised" family life cycle literature (Gilly and Enis 1982; Murphy and Staples 1979; Venkatesh 1980) our understanding of consumer behavior is almost entirely based on the intact family, with divorce being only observed as a variation from the norm. In fact, more than thirty percent of first marriages are affected by divorce (Berman and Turk 1981; Trafford 1982; Weiss 1975). The gap in understanding divorce and its impacts on consumer behavior is therefore something that demands more investigation (McAlexander 1991).

In an in-depth qualitative study of divorce and consumer behavior it is observed that divorce and consumer behaviors are interrelated in many important ways. This presentation explores one facet of that interrelationship, namely, how consumer behaviors appear to be used to assist in coping with the stresses of the divorce transition.


Recent work studying how consumer behaviors function as coping mechanisms during role transitions have offered some interesting early glimpses of the phenomenon. For example, McAlexander and Schouten (1989) identified how consumers maintain and manipulate personal appearance to assist them in coping with difficult life transitions. Roberts (1991) noted in a study involving laid off steel workers that consumption often played a major role in their adjustment to unemployment. Hill and Stamey (1990), in their examination of homeless consumers detail a number of consumer behaviors that assist the homeless in coping with the day-to-day struggle of living in a socially marginal and frequently perilous state.

In the present study, data analysis identifies a number of different ways in which consumer behaviors are integrated into strategies for coping with the stresses that accompany divorce. These strategies were identified as: personal stability zones, situational grouping, anticipatory socialization, and identity experimentation.

Anticipatory socialization is a strategy that allows a person to gradually bridge a discontinuity in advance to and in preparation for the full assumption of a new role. In our sample, examples of the use of anticipatory socialization as a coping strategy include a lawyer, who, while studying for the bar exam, spent extra energy investigating divorce law. Another example was provided by a husband who persistently pushed his wife to enroll in school. He was easing his unannounced departure by surreptitiously preparing her to become a self-supporting single parent.

A personal stability zone can be thought of as a familiar reference point in a time of stress (Hopson and Adams 1976). For individuals involved in difficult transitions, personal stability zones include preserved vestiges of prior roles that are familiar and comfortable. Informants in our study used possessions like old furniture and photographs to connect them to a familiar point in their past. These possessions evoked feelings of connection to their former life structures and engendered a sense of continuity in their lives.

Situational grouping involves seeking mutual support among other people experiencing the same type of transition (Hopson and Adams 1976). For example, some informants in our study joined formal organizations like Parents Without Partners. Membership in such organizations provides opportunities for the divorced to meet and gain emotional support from people experiencing similar situations. In addition, informants found informal support groups within adult student associations, singles bars and their places of employment.

In divorce people sometimes experience a remarkable sense of freedom to experiment with personae and activities formerly unavailable to them within the structures and confines of their marriages. Through identity experimentation they try on and test possible selves (Markus and Nurius 1986) that may prove useful in the reconstruction of post-marriage identities. Such experimentation acts as a coping mechanism to the extent that it satisfies a need to consolidate an ambiguous or emergent identity and create a new, meaningful life structure. This appears to be especially important for informants who felt oppressed or overshadowed by their former spouses. Certain experimental behaviors also function in playlike fashion as an emotional release. Among the goods and services incorporated into the identity experimentation of our informants were illicit drugs, vacations, recreational equipment, new clothing and hairstyles, new automobiles, and new social activities.


Consumer behaviors play an important part in the divorce transition. Since neither the consumer behavior literature nor the divorce literature affords much insight into this topic, the interrelationship between divorce and consumer behavior would seem to be a fertile area for further research. For example, future research might explore how the tenor of the divorce affects and is affected by consumer behaviors, how individual roles played by spouses within the divorce affect consumer behavior. Future research might also offer a more processual examination of consumer behaviors through different phases of the divorce transition. Finally, a fuller understanding of consumer behaviors during the divorce transition may provide helpful insights for service providers, such as lawyers and counselors, who may be interested in easing the divorce transition.


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