Till Death Do We Part: Family Dissolution, Transition, and Consumer Behavior

ABSTRACT - The effect of marital dissolution on family consumption behavior is examined through a consideration of the Andreasen model, which links life status changes to changes in consumer behavior. A series of propositions are offered which enhance the Andreasen model by exploring the dimensions along which individuals evaluate life status changes, their effects upon stress, and the relationship between stress and consumption. Modifications of the Andreasen model are suggested which more fully integrate stress with life status changes and consumption behavior.


Ritha Fellerman and Kathleen Debevec (1992) ,"Till Death Do We Part: Family Dissolution, Transition, and Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 514-521.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 514-521


Ritha Fellerman, University of Massachusetts

Kathleen Debevec, University of Massachusetts


The effect of marital dissolution on family consumption behavior is examined through a consideration of the Andreasen model, which links life status changes to changes in consumer behavior. A series of propositions are offered which enhance the Andreasen model by exploring the dimensions along which individuals evaluate life status changes, their effects upon stress, and the relationship between stress and consumption. Modifications of the Andreasen model are suggested which more fully integrate stress with life status changes and consumption behavior.


Divorce is a fact of life. Few current trends affect our culture as profoundly or as pervasively as family dissolution. With approximately 49 percent of marriages ending in divorce (Glick 1984), the growing awareness that permanence is not an intrinsic part of the family relationship can be expected to have significant and long-term effects upon personal and family decision-making behavior. Researchers in a variety of fields have been studying the effects of divorce for decades; however, the impact of family dissolution upon consumer behavior has been virtually ignored in consumer research.

The ultimate result of divorce is family dissolution and the evolution of a new family structure. The increasing rate of family restructuring has led many consumer researchers to turn their attention away from the traditional family life cycle model to more transition-based models of family consumption (Bristor and Qualls 1982). In an attempt to conceptualize the effects of life transitions upon consumption behavior, Andreasen (1984) has proposed a model in which life status changes function as antecedents of stress and shifts in consumption. Andreasen's recognition and incorporation of stress in a transition-based consumption model provides a particularly useful tool for examining the effects of divorce on family consumption behavior. Focusing in greater depth on a specific type of status change such as divorce, which affects a significant portion of the population, allows the robustness of the Andreasen model to be tested and conceptually enhanced.

After careful consideration, our paper has been limited to the examination of the effect of divorce upon consumption behavior in families with children. There are two reasons for limiting the scope of this paper. First, approximately two-thirds of divorces involve children (McLanahan and Garfinkle 1989). Second, in the case of the childless couple, the effect of divorce is to dissolve the family unit and to create two new households; the original family as a social unit no longer exists. In this case, the consumption behavior of each individual is likely to resemble that of other single adults.

However, when children are involved, the bonds between parents and their children significantly affect the consumption behavior of both new households. At one extreme, which occurs when a spouse abandons the children, family dissolution results in that spouse experiencing consumption behavior resembling that of other single adults, and a family unit whose consumption behavior reflects the chronic stress caused by the greatly reduced financial resources and role overload experienced by the remaining parent. At the other extreme, which occurs when children split their time living with each parent under joint custody agreements, the family unit may not dissolve as much as it evolves into two separate family units sharing the same children. In this situation, the consumption behavior of each household may share characteristics of both married and single population segments. Family dissolution is not just complex, it is also multidimensional. Obligations resulting from kinship ties to children from former relationships can carry over and affect the consumption behavior of subsequent family units formed by the original partners.

In consumer research, the traditional tool for examining the consumption behavior of the family has been the family life cycle model. The model purports that the family unit passes through a series of stages, each of which has its own set of purchasing patterns. However, the model is only effective when the rate of change in the family structure is relatively low, resulting in the same family existing over a significant period of time. In spite of attempts to modernize the family life cycle model by expanding the number of family type categories, studies using family life cycle categories may fail to capture as much as 34 percent of subjects interviewed (Bristor and Qualls 1982). Many of these non-traditional family units exhibit marked differences in consumption behavior from traditional family units (Derrick and Lehfeld 1980). The family life cycle model has become a casualty of increasing divorce rates and other social and demographic trends. Any model which hopes to be relevant to the study of the contemporary family must be transition-based, such as the model proposed by Andreasen (1984). The purpose of this paper is to examine the literature on family dissolution and transition from the perspective of the Andreasen model, discuss limitations of the model, and propose several refinements which are suggested by research in family dissolution. For a graphic representation of our suggested enhancements to the Andreasen model, see Figures 1 and 2.




Referring to the "teachable moment", Andreasen (1984) has suggested that the probability that a consumer will change their perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors is directly proportional to the amount and type of life status change the consumer has recently undergone or is currently undergoing. Furthermore, each type of status change leads to specific consequences which are: 1) unique to the type of change, 2) occur in virtually all households experiencing the change, and 3) are relatively predictable.

Andreasen proposes that the number of status changes and the impact of each change are positively related to the total magnitude of change experienced by the household. The magnitude of the change is positively related to shifts in lifestyle which in turn leads to shifts in consumption behavior. Andreasen also states that measures of status change should be seriously considered as predictor variables in marketing, particularly when developing market segments.

Andreasen should be credited for introducing stress as a factor to be considered in consumer behavior. He asserts that the perception of stress occurs when an individual evaluates a status change and concludes that its consequences are negative. Stress leads to lower levels of satisfaction with life in general, and products, in particular. Andreasen hypothesizes that there is no direct relationship between stress and changes in consumption behavior, since some consumers may resist changing consumption as a means of coping with chaos elsewhere in their lives. Those who do elect to change consumption behavior, however, will experience more satisfaction with their product and service purchases.

One of the limitations of the Andreasen model is that it does not take into account the dimensions upon which individuals evaluate life status changes, which may result in positive or negative evaluations, and thus varying consumption behavior. Understanding these dimensions may enhance the explanatory power of the model and our understanding of the consumption outcomes. Nor does the model account for the temporal nature of the life status change, or the type of stress experienced by the individual or household over time. An individual or household may experience quite traumatic levels of stress in anticipation of and during the transition process. However, changes in life status can also lead to lifestyles which are simply more stressful. After the period of transition, the adaption to a new lifestyle means an adaption to the stressors which make up that lifestyle, and implies a shift in consumption as a means of coping with those stressors. Another limitation of the Andreasen model is that it underspecifies the relationship between stress and consumption; research on family dissolution and transition indicates that there are direct relationships between stress and a much wider range of consumer constructs than outlined by the model.



Since each type of status change should lead to specific consequences which are unique to that change, the consequences of divorce should be specific to the divorce outcome ( i.e., the division of property, custody agreements, and child support awards). Family dissolution can lead to significant changes along multiple psychological, social, and economic dimensions, and thus it is likely to have a profound impact upon the consumption of new family units. The pervasiveness of divorce throughout our culture, the size of the population which is affected, and the possibility that the consumption behavior and needs of this segment are poorly understood make divorce and family dissolution a fertile area in consumer research for academics and researchers alike.


Research on family dissolution suggests possible refinements to the Andreasen model by providing insight into the way individuals evaluate the consequences of a status change. The research indicates that the primary dimensions along which individuals evaluate the consequences of a life status change are: 1) the impact on their economic well-being, 2) the impact upon personal responsibilities, and 3) the impact on social support structures, such as kinship ties.

It is suggested that the most negatively evaluated status changes may be those in which the individual or household is faced with increased responsibilities and decreased resources, such as in the case of families which are headed by divorced parents. Census data indicates that 36 percent of households headed by a single divorced parent live at or beneath the poverty level (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991). The majority of mothers retain sole custody of their children. The survival of many divorced mothers depends upon child support; however, only 60 percent of divorced mothers heading a single-parent household receive a child support award (Teachman 1990). Of those who are awarded child support, only about 44 percent receive payment (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991). The reduction in economic resources means that these households do not have the option of purchasing many of the goods and services that other households routinely use to deal with multiple responsibilities, such as hiring household help or dining out. The result is role overload, an increased perception of time urgency, and chronic levels of day-to-day stress. Propst et al. (1986) state that a large body of family dissolution research suggests that the higher levels of stress reported by divorced mothers is a result of financial difficulties. Single mothers may be more vulnerable than others to stress simply because they have fewer economic resources to cope with problems when they occur.

While the majority of divorced women experience substantial decreases in economic resources, men tend to experience stability or increases in economic resources (Kitson et al. 1989; Pett and Vaughan-Cole 1986). The combination of increased economic resources and decreased family responsibilities may lead some men to evaluate the consequences of divorce more favorably than women, and thus to experience less stress over time. Research on the gender effects of stress following marital dissolution has been sparse and inconsistent; however, Leupnitz (1986) found that when parenting is shared by joint custody arrangements, mothers experienced less stress.

A unique aspect of divorce with regard to the Andreasen model is that it is a transition which causes the household to dissolve and reform into two new households. Therefore, in the evaluation of the consequences of divorce, a key component is the strength of kinship ties between children and their parents. While most life status changes do not result in the termination of the household, the importance of kinship ties following family dissolution underscores the influence not only of the emotional bonds within the family unit, but also of the family's social support structure in the community. Strong family ties and a network of friends who can be relied upon in times of crisis can mitigate many of the effects of life status transitions.

Many fathers continue to be actively involved with their children following family dissolution. The greater the father's role in his children's lives, the greater is his involvement with his children (Greif 1979). A key point obscured by the grim statistics on family dissolution is that non-custodial parents are not a homogeneous group. While Weiss (1975) found that reductions in visitation frequently occur over time, several studies indicate that, at least for certain demographic segments of divorced males, kinship ties remain intact and carry over into subsequent relationships. Although children from black and lower-income homes suffer the most economically, better educated men with greater socioeconomic resources tend to continue to provide for their children after marital dissolution (Teachman 1990). Weiss (1975) suggests that the three variables affecting the strength of kinship ties between divorced fathers and their children are social class, distance, and the ages of the children.

Research in family dissolution offers a unique opportunity to study the process by which households evaluate the consequences of a life status change. Changes in resources, responsibilities, and social support structures, such as kinship ties, are often dramatic, and may occur simultaneously, thus providing insight into how the interaction of these dimensions affects evaluations of status changes. Also, the effects are long-term and enduring, allowing researchers to study the links between status changes, stress, and consumption behavior suggested in the Andreasen model. This discussion leads to the following set of propositions:

P1: Households evaluate the consequences of a life status change according to the impact upon economic resources, upon personal responsibilities, and upon social support structures, such as family ties.

P2: Changes in resources, responsibilities, and social support structures interact to affect evaluations of the consequences of a status change.

P3: Increases in the level of economic resources brought about by a status change positively affect the problem solving capacity of households who face increases in responsibilities; decreases in the levels of resources brought about by a status change negatively affects the problem solving capacity of households in similar circumstances.

P4: In the long-run, households who experience decreased economic resources and increased responsibilities following a life status change experience greater levels of daily stress, which results in a negative evaluation of the change; households who experience increased economic resources and decreased responsibilities following a life status change experience lower levels of daily stress, which results in a positive evaluation of the change.

P5A: The strength of emotional bonds within the household and the quality of the household's structure network positively affects the ability of the household to cope with stress.

P5B: Life status changes which positively impact an household's kinship and/or social support structure positively impact the family's ability to cope with the change; life status changes which negatively affect a household's kinship and/or social structure negatively impact the household's ability to cope with the change.


Family dissolution research indicates that the relationships between stress and life status changes, changes in lifestyle, and the evaluation of status changes may be more complex than originally perceived by Andreasen, and suggests several links which are not specified by the model. First, the anticipation of divorce is highly likely to be stressful. (Bloom and Caldwell 1981). Divorce or separation seldom comes as a complete surprise to partners; generally spouses carefully think over the pros and cons of marital dissolution, discuss family problems with friends and relatives, and/or consult with family counselors prior to dissolution. If stress can occur with a life status change, then stress can also occur prior to a complete evaluation of the consequences of that change because some of the consequences cannot be known prior to transition. In other words, part of the stress associated with a life status change may be caused by fear of the unknown.

Second, Andreasen views stress as a single dimension. Stress may actually be broken into two dimensions: disequilibrium and equilibrium stress. Disequilibrium stress can be interpreted in terms of crisis and recovery. As individuals move from familiar to unfamiliar life status positions they temporarily experience higher levels of stress, which decline with time and adaptation to the transition. The transition process brought about by marital dissolution can be especially traumatic. Following family dissolution, individuals may be simultaneously required to cope with the loss of a key relationship, changes in social status, dividing up property, moving, purchasing new household goods, work, financial difficulties, domestic responsibilities, and childcare. It is not surprising that divorce is rated among the most traumatic events to which to adjust (Dohrewend et al. 1978). In extreme cases, when a traumatic transition such as death of a family member or divorce is unexpected, disequilibrium stress may be so severe that it produces a state of shock which impedes assimilation and evaluation of the status change (Kitson 1982; Parks and Weiss 1983).

Equilibrium stress is the day-to-day level of stress associated with one's particular lifestyle. Cohen, Kamarck, and Marmelstein (1983) contend that stress occurs when two conditions are met: 1) that the situation is evaluated as threatening or otherwise demanding, and 2) that insufficient resources are available to cope with the situation. These antecedents of stress are part and parcel of the lifestyle of the divorced custodial parent. A substantial body of research has found that single parents experience more anxiety, depression, and dissatisfaction with their lives than those in dual-parent families (Bachrach 1975; Fine, Schwebel, and Myers 1985; Weiss 1979) . Wallerstein (1986) found that a significantly larger percentage of women than men continued to experience symptoms of stress for as long as 10 years after marital transition. The high level of stress commonly experienced by single divorced parents have led some researchers to question whether divorce should be treated as a life crisis or a chronic stressor (Kitson et al. 1989). This suggests that divorce may signal an increase in levels of equilibrium stress which can extend for years beyond the period of marital transition. This discussion leads to the following following propositions:

P6: Stress can occur in anticipation of a life status change and thus prior to the life status change.

P7: Stress can be broken down into two dimensions: 1) disequilibrium stress, which occurs during the period of transition and declines after adaption to the transition, and 2) equilibrium stress, which is the level of daily stress associated with one's lifestyle.

P8: Stress can impede the evaluation and assimilation of a life status change.


Although Andreasen hypothesizes that there is no direct relationship between stress and consumption behavior, other consumer researchers, such as Celuch and Showers (1990), make a convincing case to the contrary. Offering several examples of how stress can directly affect consumption, Celuch and Showers contend that the antecedent conditions of daily stress are more predictive of consumption behavior than infrequently occurring life status changes which are the focus of the Andreasen model. The contribution of research on family dissolution is that it suggests that both conceptualizations can be reconciled and are, in fact, mutually enhancing. By broadening the focus of the Andreasen model beyond the period of transition to include the effect of status changes on daily levels of stress, insights can be gained into the process of how changes in life status bring about changes in consumption. Examining how specific status changes affect the antecedent conditions of daily stress allows predictions to be made about how certain demographic trends, such as divorce, may affect the consumption behavior of significant segments of the population.

Celuch and Showers also contend that stress can be directly linked to changes in consumption behavior as a result of two types of coping behaviors, mood regulation and problem solving. An obvious example of consumption behavior used to regulate mood is the use of products such tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. In a study on marital dissolution and psychological well-being, Doherty, Su, and Needle (1989) found that women tend to increase their use of alcohol and other mood-altering substances following marital dissolution. A less obvious example of consumption behavior used to regulate mood is the use of mental health services. Divorced single mothers form the largest group of mental health consumers in the United States (Gutentag and Belle 1980).

Stress can also affect consumption behavior when a consumer uses products or services to solve the problems causing stress. Some individuals may change consumption behavior in order to solve anticipated problems. Several studies indicate that the contemplation of marital dissolution may lead a shift to autonomous decision-making and consumption behavior prior to the actual separation of the couple. Gerner, Montalto, and Bryant (1990), found that women increased their participation in the workforce in the year or two prior to divorce. During a study on marital dissolution conducted by Kitson, Babri, and Roach (1985), several female respondents informally told them about opening personal bank accounts, saving money, putting the title for a new car in their names, establishing their own credit records, and/or returning to school.

Family dissolution can lead to role overload, which is an antecedent of chronic day-to-day stress. In interviews with over 200 single parents, Weiss (1979) found that, although parents reported that they were managing their responsibilities at home and at work, most described their situation as burdensome. In a study by Fine, Swebel, and Myers (1985), 60 percent of mothers reported that their children saw their fathers less than once a month, and that their former spouses offer little assistance with daily activities. Over half of the mothers reported that the worst part of being a mother was the 24-hour-a-day commitment. Pearlin and Johnson (1977) found that symptoms of stress experienced by single divorced mothers were positively correlated with the number of children in the household, and negatively correlated with the ages of the children.

When role-overloaded divorced parents attempt to reduce stress by cutting down on household tasks or reallocating them among family members, changes in consumption may occur. Comparative time-studies of married and single mothers indicate that marital status affects how time is allocated between housework, workforce participation, childcare, leisure and other activities (Mauldin and Meeks 1990; Sanik and Mauldin 1986). The reduction in time spent on housework which has been noted by many researchers may be due to reallocation of tasks to children within the family unit. Weiss (1979) reported that children in single parent families often assume more responsibilities in the household than do children in families with both parents intact.

For single-parent families in which children assume increased responsibilities for household tasks, it seems likely that those children also become more influential in making decisions regarding household purchases. Ahuja and Schuster (1991), in summarizing the conclusions of five marketing studies examining parental perceptions of children's influence in family decision making, found that single parents depended more on their children for help in the home, and that these children had more influence upon purchase decisions within the family unit.

When childcare is unaffordable, single parents may be forced to shop with children in tow. Shopping may become more stressful and result in less browsing behavior and fewer stores visited. Colletta (1983) found that working mothers reported shopping often with their children, that shopping was more stressful, and that it frequently resulted in impulse purchases of things which the children demanded. Single parents may rely on older children to go to the store to pick up items which are needed. When this occurs, although the actual consuming unit has not changed, the individual who makes the brand purchase decisions has. Several manufacturers are already experimenting with products for children which have traditionally been promoted to adults, such as microwave meals and bathroom cleansers. The preceding section leads to the following propositions:

P9: Stress is directly linked to consumption through the coping behaviors of mood regulation and problem solving, and thus affects consumer behavior throughout the consumption experience, from purchase selection to post-purchase evaluation.

P10: Changes in consumption as a result of coping behavior lead to changes in lifestyle.

P11: The change in daily levels of equilibrium stress following a status change is a better predictor of consumption behavior than disequilibrium stress experienced during the transition process.


This paper has focused in depth on a specific type of life status change which occurs frequently and whose impact causes a dramatic change in the family structure. A review of the family dissolution literature suggests several refinements to the Andreasen model. An important consequence of a life status change is its impact on equilibrium levels of daily stress associated with an individual's or household's lifestyle. Research on family dissolution suggests that levels of daily stress directly affect consumption through the mechanism of coping behaviors. Studies of households headed by single parents appear to be particularly promising in this regard.

The increasing trend toward joint custody agreements presents a challenge to researchers interested in studying the effects of family dissolution on consumption behavior. For example, how does a researcher define a family when spouses divorce, and their children split their time living with both parents, perhaps as part of blended households with their parent's new partners who also have similar childcare arrangements. The existence of ongoing relationships between divorced parents and their children is likely to be reflected in the consumption behavior of both households. When parenting is shared by joint custody arrangements, mothers have more time for personal and social activities, and thus experience different consumption patterns (Leupnitz 1986). Traditionally, family life cycle categories have lumped non-custodial parents in with other single adults, yet, when non-custodial parents are actively involved with their children, their consumption behavior is likely to be markedly different from other single adults. In one study on joint custody, all of the fathers had set up living space with special toys and clothing for their children; their children did not bring suitcases when they visited (Greif 1979).

A particularly useful tool for measuring the effect of family dissolution upon household consumption would be the development of a child burden index measuring the number, age, gender of the children in the household, as well as the level of involvement of the non-custodial parent. Variables measuring involvement might include the amount and regularity of financial assistance, length and duration of visitation, and the type of visitation (telephone calls, daily outings, extended visits, participation in school activities, care of sick children, etc.) Celuch and Showers (1990) suggest including measures of perceived time urgency as a predictor of stress induced changes in consumption behavior. These measurements could then be correlated with a wider variety of consumption activities in order to more fully capture the effects of family dissolution on the consumption behavior of households headed by both former spouses. Variables which seem likely to be affected by the present or absence of role overload include comparison shopping, browsing behavior, impulse purchases, frequency and duration of shopping trips, the relative influence of children upon the consumption behavior of the household, and types of products and services purchased.

Another issue is the long-term effect of family dissolution on overall consumer trends. When a household unit is dissolved, it reforms into two households whose members carry information about the effects of the transition into their new relationships. If a transition, such as divorce, affects how an individual makes decisions, is there a cumulative effect of multiple status changes of the same type upon decision-making? Individuals may experience several divorces over the course of a lifetime, first as a child when parents divorce, then as an adult when they divorce. Do individuals who experience multiple family dissolutions exhibit consumption behavior that reflect their experience that permanence in not an intrinsic part of the family relationship? Some assets may be divided up only with difficulty should a divorce occur. If the accumulation of assets such as a house or business---or even the birth of a child---can result in loss or increased financial liability should a marriage dissolve, individuals who have experienced multiple family dissolution may be less inclined---or unable to afford---to engage in some types of consumption. Divorce financially batters people, and makes it difficult to build up assets over time. A long-term effect of the instability of the family unit may be a cultural shift to more autonomous and hedonic types of consumption.


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Ritha Fellerman, University of Massachusetts
Kathleen Debevec, University of Massachusetts


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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