Social Learning Theory and Divorce’s Effect

Divorce is the second most stressful life event next to the loss of a loved one or family member due to death (Hutchison, 2014). For the last century, the nation’s divorce rate has plateaued around 50% of all first marriages. Every year in the United States, one million children at age 6 or under experience divorce (Wallerstein, 2004). Parental divorce negatively effects a child’s psychosocial development, which can have a lasting impact on the child’s future intimate relationships (Cuevas, 2012). Therefore, many parents will often forego pursuing a divorce, in order to avoid the risk of causing immense stress on their children (Kim, 2011). In fact, while in the divorce process, there is an elevated risk for both parents and children to develop adverse emotional, social, physical, and spiritual consequences (Brenner & Hyde, 2006).

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To investigate how individuals are able to regulate their social influences, and coordinate an effective psychological belief system which allows them to pursue desired goals, we will employ the social learning theory (Bandura, 2001). Social learning theory, developed by Albert Bandura (2001), posits that we all observe and replicate behaviors which we identify as leading to positive outcomes. However, there are a multitude of sociocognitive factors which contribute to a being’s understanding of what constitutes prosocial behavior, which is negatively correlated with problematic behavior (Bandura, Pastorelli, Barbaranelli, & Caprara, 1999). Because humans are lucky enough to be able to learn from observational learning, instead of depending exclusively on firsthand participation, our ability to acquire wisdom and proficiency are exponentially heightened with by learning through social models (Bandura, 2002).

Relevance to Social Work

Social workers seek to promote a healthy environment for the communities and clients they are engaged with. Due to the increased risk of high conflict scenarios that accompany the process of divorce, adults who experienced their parent’s divorce display a tendency to exhibit unhealthy social behavior, and manage relationship conflicts less successfully (Cuevas & Bui, 2016). As a social worker assisting families cope with trauma from a past, current, or future divorce, it is imperative to provide clients with psychoeducation to reduce the risk of long-term negative consequences (Cuevas & Bui, 2016). This information can help a social worker understand the effects of divorce, and the degree to which it can shift the mental health trajectory of offspring as adults and throughout future generations (Amato & Cheadle, 2005). Many social workers will be asked to provide divorced families with support for the reoccurring thoughts and emotions that exist for years after a divorce has already concluded (Wallerstein, 2005).

Social Learning Theory

In its raw form, the social learning theory is applicable to both humans and lower animals, although only humans are capable of understanding its influence over development and learning (Guy, 1968). Human social learning also goes a step further from animals, in that we are able to learn complex ideas through explanations of verbal and physical gesturing (Guy, 1968). Convoluted relationships and thoughts, which would be painstaking or even impossible to replicate via observable action, are instead communicated socially. Social learning theory scientifically categorizes behaviors and responses by trying to understand how they are acquired by the individual (Guy, 1968). The theory explains concepts such as facial queues, which infants learn by observing how others react to events and environmental stimuli. While experiencing new and unconditioned stimuli, infants will examine their parent’s reaction in order to process social events appropriately. In the same way, we are all taught how to behave and react to concepts in our social settings, by entertaining other people’s feedback. Factors beyond the people in our proximity also impact how we learn which behaviors are socially acceptable. These include the media, our own personalities, self-determination, and societal forces (Guy, 1968).

The social learning theory posits that much, if not all, of human learning takes place in the context of a social environment, and is not purely based on reinforcement (Grusec,1992). However, reinforcement does play a part in the process, because humans can observe the benefits and adverse repercussions of a behavior, which will then be replicated or avoided based on a perceived similar outcome (Grusec,1992). Therefore, after observing a person behave in a manner which causes unfavorable consequences, the observer can negate any notions of replicating the behavior, and yet there may be no visible difference in the observer’s behavior before and after the learning concluded (Grusec,1992). Simultaneously during the learning process, the mind proactively generates its own interpretation of the stimuli by subjectively incorporating its personality, social setting, and cultural beliefs (Grusec,1992).

There are four essential types of modeling stimuli, as delineated in Bandura’s social learning theory (Grusec,1992). The first concept is that the observer must be visually attending the behavior as it is being demonstrated firsthand or metaphorically (Grusec,1992). This includes the observer’s ability to hold attention on the event, as well as the observer’s motivation and engagement (Grusec,1992). Second, the observer must be able to remember the concepts presented in the event, which is influenced by the observer’s mental ability to manifest and retain an abstract representation of the encounter (Grusec,1992). The third process, the observer must be able to convert the visual or linguistic image into actionable behavior which mimics the original demonstration (Grusec,1992). The fourth process which influences social learning involves the observer’s desire to imitate or avoid behaviors which closely resemble the modeled behavior (Grusec,1992). The observer’s judgment, values, and self-efficacy come into play to determine whether the perceived behavior should be, or could be effectively reproduced.

Human Interaction

Albert Bandura (2001), theorizes considerably further beyond simply categorizing the human mind as a reflective mirror. His theory delineates brain activity to a form of chemical reaction, in which the human mind is exerting its influence on societal elements, while outside elements are also interacting and transforming our thoughts into alternative phenomena (Bandura, 2001). As we use the multitude of senses which we are equipped with, such as sight, hearing, touch, and speech, people are exerting their influence on the environment (Bandura, 2001). The ultimate goal of this expression of mental manipulation, is to achieve understanding, order, and gratification in our lives, while also avoiding unfavorable outcomes (Bandura, 2001). As we are exposed to environmental stimulus, our bodies seek to analyze, shape, and control the environment (Bandura, 2001). The act of colliding our beliefs, behavior, and thoughts with other people or objects in our environment, creates the foundation for acquiring symbolic, societal, physical, and other proficiencies (Bandura, 2001).

A key element of social learning that our species uses to our advantage, according to Dunbar (2004), is that we are able to understand that other individuals have emotions, thoughts, and motivations that are different from our own. Social learning is important because it allows people to put themselves in other people’s frame of reference, in order to judge their reactions, and act according to the most desirable outcome (Dunbar 2004). This allows us to contemplate another person’s intensions, beliefs, and behavior, in order to plan our actions according to the desired outcome (Dunbar 2004). We interpret other people’s behavior, as if to try to read their mind, to find out what they are thinking, while or before engaging in communication with them (Dunbar 2004). Dunbar (2004) also suggests that there are higher orders of intentionality, which gives individuals the ability to comprehend that a second individual believes something about the first individual’s belief. The cognitive demands of social learning may be why humans have evolved large brains that allow us to maintain close relationships (Dunbar 2004). Language evolved in the human species as a more efficient means of maintaining social relations.

Processing Societal Forces

Bandura postulates that even though unfavorable societal forces like divorce affect a person’s life in a direct way, as in not having both parents in close proximity and harmony, they also includes psychological forces which may actually have more of an impact in shaping a person’s behavior (Bandura, 2001). An individual’s motivation, self-efficacy, hopes, and dreams fundamentally belong to the specific being, however, their encompassing social structure exerts a very real influence on that person’s self-image (Bandura, 2001). To the point, where research has shown, that a person’s belief that he is academically competent, is more of a determinant of his success, than actually being academically competent (Bandura et al.,1999).

The same line of thinking applies to groups in the form of communities, families, organizations, and sports teams, and so on (Bandura, 2001). Their perceived ability to function effectively as a group, increases their chances of avoiding adverse events, having higher resilience to tense situations, overall motivation to succeed, and ultimately reflects an elevated level of achievement (Bandura, 2001). Using social learning theory’s paradigm of psychosocial factors, we can see how divorce, the splitting up of a family, can have a huge impact on an offspring’s behavior. The offspring has suddenly lost the ability to confide in their parents as both a functioning support system, and a guide to what a successful marriage looks like. It is now up to the offspring to discover alternate resources for learning how to have an intimate and harmonious relationship.

Parent-Child Relationship

The parent-child interaction is considered vital to the proper development of a child into an adult (Brenner & Hyde, 2006). An important aspect of the social learning theory, is that this relationship lays the foundation for future social and cognitive processes, by guiding almost every aspect of appropriate behavior (Brenner & Hyde, 2006). With marital instability and parental conflict, children miss out on valuable lessons that a two-parent household has time to incorporate, due to less time and energy being used toward winning an argument (Brenner & Hyde, 2006). It may seem likely, that as the years go by following a divorce, a young adult will find alternate outlets toward an understanding of maturity and intimate relationship proficiency. However, research has disproved this notion, with the meta-analysis of 37 studies, comparing adults raised in dual-parent households, to adults whose parents separated during childhood (Amato, Loomis, & Booth, 1995). It observed that in their adult state, offspring from divorced families had significantly lower levels of happiness, financial stability, relationship skills, and a higher chance of continuing the trend of obtaining a divorce (Amato & Cheadle, 2005). This research demonstrates, that comprehending the impact of divorce on the child-parent relationship is relevant not only for adults who have already experienced divorce, but also for clinicians and parents considering divorce as an appropriate course of action.

Witnessing Marital Dysfunction

With the social learning theory we can hypothesize, that because of parental separation, young adults will have limited exposure to a parental role model, and therefore have fewer incidents of social learning (Voorpostel & Coff©, 2014). Offspring mainly observe and model the positive and negative behaviors displayed by their parents, leading to the replication of these behaviors in their adult lives (Cuevas, 2012). When offspring witness their parent’s marital dysfunction, it may form unhealthy models of relationship conduct, which impede a young adult’s concept of a stable relationship (Kapinus, 2005). Research has determined that a female’s future relationship aptitude is more susceptible to the impact of divorce (Oldehinkel, Ormel, Veenstra, de Winter, and Verhulst, 2008). Adolescent female offspring who perceive their parent’s irritable behavior throughout the process of divorce, may reciprocate these behaviors in their own relationships (Oldehinkel et al., 2008). Aligning with the theory of social learning, research has concluded that adolescent females who observe the phenomenon of relational discord as a consequence of parental marital disharmony, suffer from elevated levels of social anxiety, oppositional behavior, apathy, and hostility in peer and sibling relationships (Oldehinkel et al., 2008).

Social Learning Theory and Social Work

Everyday, social workers employ the concepts of social learning without attributing the explanation of these techniques to a social learning theory standpoint (Guy, 1968). It appears that social workers have adopted social learning as a paradigm that needs little justification. However, having an authentic and applicable understanding of the characteristics of human learning, allows clinicians to wield a more sophisticated mastery of the unmanageable variables in a human’s environment (Guy, 1968). There are numerous principles and varieties of social learning, stimuli which influence it, and diverse sets of reactions which impede or promote it (Guy, 1968).

The social learning theory indicates that behavioral evolution occurs when a person observes a behavior either firsthand, or through other social means. The behavior is then modeled if the response is seen as advantageous, or averted if the individual decides it may provoke undesirable consequences. This paper is concerned with the positive and negative influences which marital dissolution has on offspring’s social, physical, and spiritual well-being in young adulthood. The social learning theory asserts, that while children are witnessing their parent’s deteriorating relationship, they can learn and subsequently duplicate their parent’s bitter conduct throughout their own lives (Kapinus, 2005). As offspring watch their parent’s antagonistic rapport, which a high-conflict divorce may produce, there is an increase in the likelihood that the offspring will mimic similar communication strategies as an adult (Cuevas, 2012). Social learning theory maintains, that positive interpersonal relationship skills, which promote flourishing and secure relationships, should be observationally learned through parental modeling (Kapinus, 2005) . During therapeutic intervention, a social worker can advise parents to first attend counseling to analyze their own behaviors, thereby setting an example of how they would like their offspring to act (Wallerstein, 2005).

Replicating Unstable Parental Bonds

Research finds that prolonged exposure to household conflict, which can potentially progress throughout an offspring’s entire childhood, creates an increase in the likelihood of discord within the offspring’s own romantic relationship in adulthood (Gager, Yabiku, & Linver, 2016). Spouses with divorced parents are more likely to report lower levels of marital fulfillment, be less thoughtful regarding to their spouse’s desires, be more pessimistic when speaking to their partner, show less understanding towards their spouse’s distasteful habits, blame their partner for marital discontent, be unwilling to foster productive and healthy discussions regarding disputes within the relationship, disrupt or abstain from conflict resolution, and often bring up issues regarding unfaithfulness, temper, and irritability (Amato & Cheadle, 2005). Young adults who grew up witnessing their parent’s unwillingness to love and care for each other in a positive way, can be led to believe that relationship satisfaction and stability is not necessarily attainable (Kapinus, 2005). Social workers with clients who are young adults from divorced parents, can discuss how the impact of divorce has huge implications for their expectations of relationships, both consciously and unconsciously (Wallerstein & Resnikoff, 1997).

Avoiding Mistakes

The social learning theory can be applied to the understanding that some behaviors promote a decrease in the likelihood of achieving one’s desires and goals (Kapinus, 2005). Offspring can observe all of the resentful behaviors and attitudes that their parents express in the context of a high-conflict divorce, and grasp that these types of behaviors foster a decrease in the likelihood that the relationship will be successful (Kapinus, 2005). By observing their parent’s mistakes, and vowing not to go through the same path with their own life, offspring will form a type of resilience, known as vicarious reinforcement, to avoid encountering the same unfavorable consequences (Kapinus, 2005). In this case, social workers can provide negative reinforcement for a young adult to extinguish the unhealthy relationship behaviors that were modeled from their parents.

Fear of Divorce

Fortunately, social learning also includes behaviors which we learn to avoid based on observation alone, and not firsthand experience. Consequently, offspring may be unwilling to venture into the realm of marriage, for fear of the risk that they too will fall prey to the possibility of divorce (Kapinus, 2005). Marriage may be seen as an enormous commitment with a high probability of failure, that adults from divorced parents might not be willing to take a chance on. After all, research shows that divorce does carry on through generations, and therefore, we may be able to use inductive reasoning to conclude, that following a single parental divorce, a young adult’s views on marriage will be negatively skewed across generations (Amato & Cheadle, 2005). Therefore, a social worker may recommend specialized clinical interventions which will help repair a young adult beliefs on marriage (Wallerstein, 2005)

Clinicians Modeling Clients

Displaying empathy and acknowledging how the client is feeling is an effective tool in the social work profession. Unlike psychology, which seeks to redirect feelings toward more healthy or correct perspectives, social workers are trained to be present and reflect the emotions just as they are. This allows the client to explore what their feelings mean, and also allows the clinician to truly explore the client’s perspective on the situation. It is much more effective to be passive, and let the client actively decide which topics are to be discussed (Sheafor & Horjesi, 2011). If the clinician attempts to manipulate the client’s behavior , this may lead to the client feeling pressured, offended, or even insulted that the therapist has assumed how they feel based on their own judgment of the situation (Sheafor & Horjesi, 2011). 

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Social Learning Theory And Divorce's Effect. (2021, Apr 10). Retrieved December 6, 2022 , from

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