Ego Development and the Impact of Late Parental Divorce on Adult Children

torn-paper-heartThe impact of late-life parental divorce on adult children—an area of divorce that historically has received near-cursory attention but is gaining steam among researchers—is unique for each individual and varies from minimal to severe. Multifarious factors affect impact of divorce on adult children. Why does parental divorce barely throw one adult child off balance, while another adult child is powerfully impacted, perhaps altering ability to function?

This is a complex question with no single answer. One way to think about this is to look at the relationship between impact of divorce on adult children and development of ego strength. A 2012 doctoral dissertation collected data from 167 qualifying participants and found a significant relationship between two ego strengths and impact of divorce on adult children (Murphy). Using Erik Erikson’s theory of human development in eight life stages and corresponding ego strengths, data show an inverse relationship between two specific Eriksonian ego strengths: competence and love. What is ego strength and how are competence and love defined as ego strengths?

Erikson (1902-1994), a developmental theorist and ego psychologist, defined the ego as malleable rather than fixed. According to Erikson, in addition to working as a mediator between impulses (id) and moral beliefs (superego), the ego absorbs attitudes and skills as an individual develops. As individuals pass through life stages, conflicts arise. Resolution of conflicts, or crises, is again unique to every crisis and every individual, meaning that two people may experience the same event at the same time in their lives and experience very different resolutions. Unresolved crises at any stage of life potentially reactivate when a new crises emerges. A basic conflict is resolved along a continuum from positive to negative, which in turn influences outcome (Berk, 2010). Erikson’s life-stage model was built on optimism. Optimism because his theory suggests individuals can always go back to earlier crises and rework a better resolution and stronger ego strength.

Within Erikson’s framework, the ego is a mediator that absorbs individual culture, and it is malleable. For each of the eight life stages, there is a corresponding ego that develops. Stage four of psychosocial development is between approximately ages 6 and 11 years old, when a child begins to develop awareness of certain skills and knowledge. At school, a child will begin to develop capacity to cooperate and work with peers and adults. New skills are tried out. A sense of competence begins to emerge if the child feels success. Alternatively, a sense of inferiority may emerge if the child’s efforts are negatively experienced at school, home, or with peers. Again, there is a continuum from positive to negative outcome. Competence is Erikson’s ego strength that evolves at this stage. In the 2012 doctoral dissertation study of the relationship between impact of divorce on adult children and ego strength, there was a significant relationship between competence and impact of divorce. That is to say as scores on competence increased, impact of divorce decreased.

Erikson’s stage six of development is during young adulthood, ranging from about age 19 to 40 years old. This is the stage where young adults begin to establish intimate ties to others. While close relationships may have been present in adolescence, it is at this stage where selflessness develops along with mutuality and commitment. It is at this stage of young adulthood where Erikson’s ego strength love develops. This is when a mutually intimate relationship endures disappointment. Intimacy can be at risk if there are earlier disappointments in relationships. Again, in the 2012 doctoral dissertation study of impact of divorce and ego development, as scores on love increased, impact of divorce decreased. Inversely, as scores on impact of divorce increased, scores on both competence and love decreased.

So what does all of this mean? It is a first step in understanding variances in impact of divorce on adult children. No known previous studies on the relationship between impact and ego development means this is a fertile area for much more research. In the meantime, the 2012 study is a step toward understanding and validating the adult child’s experiences when his or her parents divorce. It opens the door to understanding how impact on adult children is a continuum from no meaningful impact to severe.

Demographic results from the 2012 study show that of the 167 participants, more than 83% reported their parents being married between 25 and 39 years. With a minimum age of 23 years at the time of their parents’ divorce as a requirement for study participation, 54.5% were between the ages of 35 and 59. As a testament to the significance of their parents’ divorce, 17 participants who completed the survey were between the ages of 50 and 59.

For psychotherapists, this study affords a perspective on the significance of parental divorce in adult years of the child. It can be a reminder to not fall into common assumptions about adult children and parental divorce. Looking through the prism of developmental theory, rich contextual information can be accessed and perhaps unlock a deeper understanding of how the past continues to influence the present.


  1. Berk, L.A. (2005). Infants and children (5th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson
  2. Murphy, M. (2012). Parental divorce: Relationship between ego strengths and impact of divorce on adult children from an Eriksonian perspective (Doctoral dissertation).   Retrieved from

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mary Murphy, EdD, LICSW

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Anne

    July 30th, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    I am the adult child of parents who divorced when I was well into my 30s and for anyone who thinks that it would have little impact on adults, you have clearly not been through htis. To say that this thrwe me for a loop is to put it lightly. I honestly had no idea grwoing up that anything was wrong with my parents marriage, I guess they put on a really good show for me and my brothers but I guess that was at the expense of their own happiness. They waited until we were all older and established before doing this but now I think that I am even more lost than I would have been had they done it sooner. I feel like I have lost the evry model I had tried to pattern my own family after and while that sounds selfish there is a part of me that wonders why they wouldn’t have just wanted to keep up the show longer. Wouldn’t it have just been easier for the whole family?

  • EMIL

    July 30th, 2013 at 11:46 PM

    It is common thought that divorce when children are old and mature enough does not impact them as much as it would to children that are young.

    @Anne:I don’t think your parents meant any harm to you.They thought this would be the best thing.And being together to put up a show would immensely hurt both of them.What could have been done would be to have a family talk and then take steps.Keeping an adult child in the loop should be something every divorcing couple should do.

  • Melanie

    August 1st, 2013 at 8:58 AM

    My mom and Stepdad have been married for 29 years and are now calling it quits. Even though their marriage has been rock and substance abuse a huge part of the failure, I am still being affected more deeply that I ever thought it would. I saw it coming and I’m still in shock that its here. I live with Mental illness in bi-polar disorder and have been doing really well without meds for years. This is leaving me in a panic and feeling like I’m heading back down a dark path. Hearing that I’m not alone and that I have a right to grieve is SO liberating!

  • Garrison

    August 1st, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    I would never wish for anyone to go through their whole lives so unhappy just for me. I would wnat them to end it in time to actually still have some of their lives left to live and enjoy. I live my life for me, and I think that they should be allowed to live their for them.

  • Serenity

    February 3rd, 2014 at 6:43 PM

    Late life divorce has immediate and lasting effects on the whole family. I have a blog and a new book that may help some adults to not feel alone and to gain perspective on all the stages of grief they may encounter!!!

  • Serenity

    February 3rd, 2014 at 6:44 PM

    Help and Hope for Adult Children of Divorce

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