Brangelina No More: Changing Patterns In U.S. Family Structures


When I heard the news about the Brangelina split, I was dismayed. Celebrity marriages don’t usually have long lifespans, but I thought the Pitt-Jolie’s were different. They both shared a global mindset, an interest in humanitarian work, and a commitment to raising their children. Their marriage seemed to be grounded in the more substantial things this world has to offer. What could go wrong?

A lot, it turns out. No family is perfect, even the ones that look like they are.

The Centers for Disease Control collects data on marriage and divorce in the U.S. The data weaves a complex story. Over the past 50 years, what constitutes a family in the U.S. has undergone a dramatic shift. Two married parents raising children are no longer the norm in terms of family composition. Instead what we see is the rise of non-traditional families, headed by single parents, same sex parents, non-married, co-habitating adults. There is no normal.

The CDC attributes this trend to five things:

  • A delay in the age of first marriage
  • A steep rise and then decline in the divorce rate
  • A lower fertility rate
  • An increase in cohabitation
  • A higher proportion of births occurring outside of marriage and within cohabiting unions
  • An increasing number of first births to older women

More open attitudes about marriage and divorce have certainly helped. Today it is not uncommon to live together before marriage or to raise children without being married. These lifestyles used to be stigmatized. Today, there is a growing awareness that traditional lifestyles are not for everyone and that unhealthy relationships are best ended, no matter if there is a ring on one’s finger or not.

But relationships ending are hard, especially for kids. Divorce certainly affects them, no matter how amicable the split. The effects are manifold, from economics to emotional well-being. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports, “The family income of children whose parents divorce and remain divorced for at least six years falls by 40 to 45 percent.”

I wager money is not an issue in the now defunct Pitt-Jolie household. But for most people, it is. So it was helpful when researchers from Georgetown studied the effects of divorce on children from different economic backgrounds in order to create more effective public policy.

They found children in high income families fare best in situations involving divorce while children born into low income households have the most difficult adjustment from two-parent to single-parent or step-parent situations. The study also took into account the age at which the change in family structure took place (preschool vs. middle childhood).

Divorce is just one of the many potential adverse childhood experiences kids can face. We now know a lot about the long-term consequences of adverse childhood experiences, in a way we didn’t before. Kids can get help earlier and receive more effective support, no matter where they fall on the income ladder. This is good news for everyone.

My best wishes to the Pitt-Jolie kids who will have to contend both with their parents’ divorce and with being in the spotlight while they do so. Hopefully they will get the help they need and retain the sense they belong to a family, no matter how it is defined.