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What is Family Dissolution?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Jan 30, 2024
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Family dissolution is when a group of people who have lived together in a domestic manner, typically involving at least one adolescent and two parents, end or change these living arrangements. This term is used relatively loosely, referring to any situation in which a family that once fit the nuclear family model changes drastically in the number of people or locations involved. Not only is family dissolution a term used for divorce, it is also used for desertion by a parent or the death of a parent. While family dissolution is used very loosely in a variety of settings, there are also legal issues, such as custody, surrounding family dissolution that make definitions more important.

Many families end by dissolution of marriage or divorce. Even in no-fault divorces, parents typically restructure the methods used to rear children and the locations used to raise them. For instance, what was once a single household may become two households. Additional parties, such as stepparents, may become involved in the family as well. Depending on the situation, the former familial unit may continue to act as a single unit or fully divide into two separate bodies.

Death and desertion, where one party leaves the family with no ability or intention to return, can also dissolve a family. These events are usually less legally complex for the family remaining, although they are often more sad for those involved. Both death and desertion may result in the addition of family members when the remaining parent remarries.

There are also unique situations that result in family dissolution. For instance, some single parents who are enlisted in armies are forced to leave their children. Also, a parent going to prison can dissolve a family. Any number of infractions can cause government officials to remove children from a household as well. In some cultures, duties such as military service supersede parental obligations, resulting in the dissolution of many families.

Single parent families and other unique situations are still considered families by those who live in those situations and many others. Family dissolution, then, mainly refers to a change in family state. The family does not cease to exist as might be implied by the term dissolution, but rather it changes enough that it is no longer precisely the same family. There are a variety of social and emotional effects involved when one thinks of these families as broken, so it is advisable to think of them as merely different. Even dissolved families can be emotionally satisfying and loving.

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Discussion Comments

By orangey03 — On Dec 12, 2011

I grew up with two biological sisters and two stepsisters. Our dad left when we were young, and we were happy when our mother remarried, because we missed having a dad.

My stepdad brought his two daughters to live with us. We all grew up together, and I was so happy to have a full house.

When I was thirteen, my stepdad died. I was more devastated then than when our dad left, because he had left by choice, but my stepdad could never come back, even if he wanted to.

To make matters worse, my stepsisters went to live with their biological mother after that. We lost so much that we nearly grieved ourselves to death. Those girls had been like daughters to my mother, and she had to be on medication for awhile just to survive.

By Oceana — On Dec 12, 2011

To kids whose biological parents have left them, adoption dissolution can be so devastating that they have emotional and mental issues from it for the rest of their lives. My neighbor adopted a four-year-old boy whose parents gave him up at the age of three, just because they didn't like all the responsibility that came with having a child.

He was so happy to have a mother that wanted him. There was no father in the picture, but he was okay with that.

Unfortunately, my neighbor got arrested for a crime that I believe she did not commit. However, the adoption was dissolved after she was convicted, and the boy was yet again placed in foster care. That poor boy will have issues as an adult.

By julies — On Dec 11, 2011

I do agree that family dissolution is never easy, but in some situations it can almost be a relief.

My sister was married to a man who was physically and emotionally abusive. She put up with this when it was directed towards herself, but when he began acting this way towards the kids, she had enough.

It took a lot of courage for her to leave and build a better live for herself and her kids, but she knew that is what she needed to do.

Today her kids are happy and well adjusted. I really don't think they would be if she had stayed much longer in a relationship that was abusive towards her and the kids.

By OeKc05 — On Dec 10, 2011

@andee – You're right about kids following in their parents' footsteps. My cousin got married and divorced three times, and he had children by all three wives. These kids grew up to have dysfunctional relationships, many involving illegitimate children, who wound up in a single parent household, until the next one would come along.

I think that living in a home with so much family dissolution taught the kids that you don't have to tough it out and work through your issues when things get rough. You can just leave and find someone you get along with better.

So, they had no idea how to handle fights with the opposite sex. They had a lot of rage, and they were quite selfish and uncompromising.

By SarahSon — On Dec 09, 2011

I know how hard going through a divorce is for kids, but I think it is even harder when one parent totally deserts their family.

My ex-husband just walked out on me and our two kids when they were just 4 and 2. They grew up not knowing or even remembering their Dad, and he made no attempts to get in touch with them.

This feeling of being deserted can be even more damaging to their self esteem and really affect them - especially when they become teenagers.

This was a very abrupt family dissolution that had lasting effects that would shape and change my kids for the rest of their lives. I don't think family dissolution is ever easy, but sometimes it is much harder than others.

By wavy58 — On Dec 09, 2011

I felt really bad for my half-sister, because she had to go through family dissolution twice. Our mom left her dad when she was five, and then she remarried a year later. Two years after that, I was born.

Having a new baby in the house created quite a strain on my young sister and between my parents. She started misbehaving on purpose to get attention, and she fought with my dad so much that it strained his relationship with our mom.

They divorced when I was seven months old. Though my sister had gained me as a new family member, she lost the only father figure in her life for the second time.

By andee — On Dec 09, 2011

Family dissolution by divorce has been all too common in my family. My husband has 4 siblings and every one of them has been married and divorced, including my husband.

This is emotionally hard for everyone involved, but especially the kids. Even though you really hope your kids won't follow in the same footsteps, statistics show this is very likely.

For our kids, this has made them really seriously stop and think about who they want to marry. Having gone through this themselves, this is the last thing they want to put their kids through.

I had my kids go to counseling to help them work through the issues and emotions. I always told them that even though the family has legally dissolved as far as both parents not living under the same roof, we will always be a family.

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