Divorce has a greater influence on child-parent relationships if it happens in the first few years of the child’s life, suggests new research.

Additionally, the findings, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, revealed that those who experience divorce early in their childhood may have more insecure relationships with their parents as adults than those who witness divorce at a later age.

R. Chris Fraley of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said, “By studying variation in parental divorce, we are hoping to learn more about how early experiences predict the quality of people’s close relationships later in life.”

Fraley and graduate student Marie Heffernan assessed the timing and effects of divorce on romantic and parental relationships and how differences in divorce affects relationships with fathers compared with mothers.

Their efforts were broken down into two studies. In the first one, they examined data from 7,735 participants who took part in a survey about personality and close relationships through a website called yourpersonality.net. Over one-third of the survey participants’ parents divorced and the average age of divorce was 9 years.

The investigators found that people from divorced families were less likely to view their current relationships with their parents as reliable.

Additionally, people whose parents got divorced while they were between birth and 3 to 5 years old were more insecure in their current relationships with their parents compared to those whose parents divorced after childhood.

Fraley explained:

“A person who has a secure relationship with a parent is more likely than someone who is insecure to feel that they can trust the parent. Such a person is more comfortable depending on the parent and is confident that the parent will be psychologically available when needed.”

There was a likelihood of experiencing more anxiety regarding romantic relationships among those from divorced families. However, the association between parental divorce and insecurity in romantic relationships was somewhat weak.

The researchers said this finding is significant because it reveals that divorce does not have a blanket effect on all close relationships in adulthood, instead it affects some relationships more than others. Parental divorce also had a tendency to foreshadow greater insecurity in people’s relationships with their fathers than with their mothers.

In an effort to explain why divorce impacts maternal relationships more than paternal ones, and to replicate the first study’s findings, the researchers repeated their examination with another group of 7,500 study participants.

In this second study, they asked the subjects to document which parent had been given primary custody following their parents’ divorce. The investigators hypothesized that paternal relationships were more strained because after divorce mothers are more likely than fathers to be have custody.

Most participants – 74% – said that they lived with their mothers after the divorce or separation, while 11% said they lived with their dads; the rest lived with other caretakers or grandparents.

Participants were more likely to have an insecure relationship with their father if they lived with their mother, and were less likely to have an insecure relationship with their father if they lived with him. The outcomes were similar with respect to mothers.

It is too early to suggest that the findings of these studies should be used in decision-making regarding child custody. However, the outcomes imply that “something as basic as the amount of time that one spends with a parent or one’s living arrangements can shape the quality of child-parent relationships write.” said Fraley and Heffernan.

Fraley concludes:

“People’s relationships with their parents and romantic partners play important roles in their lives. This research brings us one step closer to understanding why it is that some people have relatively secure relationships with close others whereas others have more difficulty opening up to and depending on important people in their lives.”

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald