Divorce after Tragedy
January 21, 2010 10:29 PM   Subscribe

Why is it when a child dies, the parents' relationship will often grow worse (many times leading to divorce) instead of stronger?

I often times hear that the death of child will many times lead to separation and divorce for the surviving parents. I am curious about this. I would think the two people facing possibly the worst kind of tragedy would more likely find solace in one another instead.

Is this an urban myth? If not, why would the couple grow further apart?
posted by thisperon to Human Relations (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes one of them blames the other for the child's death. Or one "recovers" more quickly and the other resents them for their ability to continue to find happiness in life or accuses them of not grieving properly. Or the incredible stress of a sick child and the depression after their death means that the relationship gets strained to the breaking point.
posted by fshgrl at 10:38 PM on January 21, 2010

Probably because the marriage is a constant reminder of a horrible loss, even if it isn't the other spouse's fault.
posted by benzenedream at 10:38 PM on January 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

Googling this, I seem to find that it is possibly a myth, but I recall learning in a class I took last semester (Sociology of Families) that the divorce rate does go up, due to increased role strain. Not only does the spouse have to continue being an employee, sister, mother, etc, but he or she must also take on the role of therapist and counselor to their spouse as well as take on the burden of their own grief.

My parents nearly split up after my brother died, but they ultimately worked things out. My parents both withdrew. They mourned in different ways, and I think my mom resented my father's more silent withdrawal as opposed to her more outward grief. I also know (though not in too many details) that it affected their sex life, and my father turned to porn and possibly other women.

But they worked things out and they just celebrated their 28th anniversary this month. :)
posted by too bad you're not me at 10:45 PM on January 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Marriages can be hard to hold together under pleasant circumstances. Add the grief and stress of a child dying and you probably get an increased chance of divorce.

But maybe also this: a married couple starts out being a pair of legalized lovers, but the demands of having and raising and supporting a child often turn them into full-time workers and parents who vaguely remember what it was like to be romantic. They plod on for the kid's sake. If that kid dies and the parents can't shift back into their earlier roles, maybe their reasons for being together (romance, then parenthood) are diminished or gone. That wouldn't entirely account for parents of more than one child, but I can see how it might work for parents with a single child who dies.
posted by pracowity at 11:07 PM on January 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

A marriage is an expensive investment in raising children; each child an expensive investment in propagating one's genes. A dead child is the loss of that all investment in that child, provoking a re-evaluation of one's investment: perhaps your genes can better be propagated mixed with the genes of someone other than your partner.

This is not a terrible strategy, as there are four broad categories to account for the child's death:
1. the death was not made more likely by either parent's genes or behaviors
2. the death was made more likely by the parent strategizing
3. the death was made more likely by the other parent
4. the death was made more likely by a combination of both parents' genes or behaviors, e.g, by providing two copies of the sickle cell allele.

From the standpoint of either parent, if the death was not "due to" either parent (case 1), or if was due to "you" (case 2), then, on average, swapping partners will not change the survival chances for any subsequent child. But if the death was made more likely by the other parent, your partner (cases 3 and 4), changing partners would, on average, give you better chances of your next child with that new partner surviving.

If we assume that cases 2 and 3 are equally likely, and that the reason for the child's death cannot be reliably attributed any one case, both partners will on average do better by swapping unless they are convinced that their partner provides genes or behaviors that are so good they outclass the average partner they could swap to. Given that one can find another partner of the same quality, it's mathematically a better strategy to swap, given that their is a chance your partner (alone or in combination with you) contributed to the child's death.

Strategies that are on average always better are under selection, and thus may evolve. That evolved strategies are not technically "chosen", and may not be consciously apparent to those animals using them, does not mean they are not employed by animals, including humans.
posted by orthogonality at 11:43 PM on January 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Because that which does not kill you, does not necessarily make you stronger - in life, or in marriage.
posted by Elysum at 11:48 PM on January 21, 2010

Because grief is an personal and private experience. We don't all heal in the same sequence and time frame. Seeing your partner able to move forward can be incredibly hurtful - even if you logically know it shouldn't be.
posted by 26.2 at 12:42 AM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's a myth. Not true at all.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:50 AM on January 22, 2010

It's NOT a myth, the links saying it is a myth are either for a specific type of death (childhood cancer deaths in Sweden) or reference the myth of the "50% divorce rate"
posted by autoclavicle at 12:59 AM on January 22, 2010

No, autoclavicle, it is a myth, and I'll take the studies linked so far as superior to the none whatsoever that you have linked to. But here's a the abstract review of literature from 1998:

In view of the commonly held assumption about a high divorce rate among bereaved parents, a thorough review of literature was conducted to determine what evidence exists. Evidence was found to indicate that a child's death can strain marital relationships, which may lead to separation and/or divorce in some cases; however, there is no conclusive evidence that bereaved parents are likely to divorce as a result of a child's death. On the contrary, it appears that the majority of marital relationships survive the strain brought about by a child's death and may even be strengthened in the long run. The time it takes for bereaved parents to restore their relationship to the level it was before the child's illness and /or death varies depending on the couple and the circumstances involved. The ultimate effects of a child's death on marriage may not be known until after several years have passed. The quality of marital relationship prior to the child's death, cause of death, and circumstances surrounding the death may produce differential outcomes for the marital relationship. In the process of conducting a literature review, a number of questionable or erroneous citations that professionals made were discovered. In addition to those mistakes, confusion between marital distress and divorce appears to be partially responsible for perpetuating the myth of a high divorce rate among bereaved parents. It is time for professionals to dispel the myth.

posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:12 AM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here's another study:

Challenging the Myths About Parents' Adjustment After the Sudden, Violent Death of a Child

Purpose: To examine three commonly held myths: (a) a child's death by suicide results in the worst parental outcomes compared with other causes of violent death, (b) divorce is not only more common among bereaved than nonbereaved married couples, it might be inevitable, and (c) 'letting go and moving on' is an essential bereavement task needed for a satisfactory adjustment following the violent death of a child.

Design and Methods: Review of empirical evidence and critical reviews, review of Internet resources available to the general public, and the inclusion of original data obtained from a longitudinal, prospective study conducted by the authors.

Findings: Conclusive evidence was found to dispel two of the three myths, but sufficient evidence was not found to draw conclusions about the third myth regarding parents' adjustment to a child's suicidal death.

Conclusions: Myths in regard to parental bereavement are resistant to disconfirming evidence and they appear to persist among professional practitioners and the general public despite contrary empirical evidence.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:29 AM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

FWIW, three of my neighbors have lost sons or daughters in the last few years. One teenager to a car wreck. One thirty-something to diabetic kidney failure. One middle-aged man to a heart attack.

The family that lost the teenager seems to have been strained the most. I don't think there's been a divorce, but we hardly ever see the parents anymore, and I have never seen them together since shortly after the death. The house / property is looking neglected.

The elderly woman who lost her middle-aged son to a heart attack was already a widow, so not really relevant to this question.

The couple that lost the 30-something diabetic seems to have mourned together and helped each other through. They've also poured a lot of joint energy into their granddaughter. They do not seem fractured at all.
posted by jon1270 at 2:40 AM on January 22, 2010

Because people don't talk about the couples whose marriages got stronger; it's just not that interesting - at least not compared with schadenfreude (or at least rubbernecking).
posted by plinth at 3:13 AM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

anecdata: a counsellor i know mentioned once that divorce is about 95% inevitable if one of the parents was somehow responsible (or perceived to be responsible) for the death of the child.

With my armchair psychologist's hat on, and pipe in my mouth, I'd speculate that the grief gets projected into blame, whether consciously or not, because it's easier to find a scapegoat for tragedy than to face the idea that the world often operates essentially without reason or purpose, and that sometimes shit just happens.

*puffs on pipe* and the same might happen even if the spectre of fault wasn't an issue in whatever caused the death.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:56 AM on January 22, 2010

on postview: the counsellor may have been subject to the persistence of myths amongst professional practitioners that Pater Aletheias' peer-reviewed journal articles mention.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:04 AM on January 22, 2010

Often when children arrive the marriage changes the new parents relationship as the children become the focus of their energy. When it's all about the children and you lose a child you lose part of what bonds you together. Some marriages don't even survive when the children leave the home.
posted by RussHy at 6:41 AM on January 22, 2010

My child died last year: February 17, 2009.

I recently wrote for, was interviewed by and have ongoing discussions with the Hospice Foundation of America, about cancer, transitioning to palliative care, and loss of a child. When I met with them in December, I was talking about this myth (which is what it is) and how much pressure it subjected my family to. After our daughter died, it seemed like everyone wanted to take us aside, with that friendly/confidential arm around the shoulder, and tell us we were likely to divorce. My grief counselor told me it was a myth, but I didn't believe it. When talking with HFA in December, we explored this a bit.

I don't have cites because this is based on a conversation with a former President of the Association for Death Education and Counseling and otherwise very qualified doctor. The myth arose from a study that looked at couples already in marriage counseling and contemplating divorce, and then examined their rates of divorce after loss of a child. Very, very, very, very slightly more of them divorced, but even with couples in marital counseling, the results were not repeatable.

Although the likelihood-of-divorce was known by professionals to be a myth, it was initially thought to be a functional myth. It got parents into grief counseling after death of a child. Now, it is perhaps a dysfunctional myth and needs to be outed as such. After losing a child, the last thing that was helpful was a constant refrain of "you are going to get divorced."

That said, there were struggles in the marriage following the death of our child. People grieve in different ways - I was on antidepressants and in shock/denial. My husband was actually seriously grieving. We were not on the same page - we couldn't support and help each other well. We tried, but the weight of the sadness is so strong that it was impossible. It became harder to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and to put out love without expectation of immediate benefit back. It became important to do exactly what we wanted when we wanted to do it, and seek constant distraction. The undercurrent of still-fairly-constant sadness, anxiety, etc. makes it easy to snap, and to snap way too far. Every holiday has ended in tears. We have a tendency to become so very resentful and jealous of other parents who have not faced this, and can have more children, and it is easy to sort of make it the other spouse's 'responsibility' to help with those feelings. But we can't always fulfill that, sometimes we are both collapsed. For me, it helps that I am in a marriage where we can be completely, totally, emotionally honest even if it is frustrating, annoying or upsetting to the other spouse. While it may not be true that bereaved parents divorce at a higher rate, they do very certainly have marital stressors that other parents do not.
posted by bunnycup at 7:27 AM on January 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

I want to add one more thing, on a very personal/anecdotal note: While there have been many, many stressors and difficult moments, I am so proud to say that my marriage is stronger now than it has ever been. Through grief counseling, I learned so many ways to relate and love better, be more supporting, behave in positive ways that encourage and reinforce mutually kind behavior, etc. I don't want to make this too personal, but just to say that the marriage can grow stronger.
posted by bunnycup at 7:32 AM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

My inner historian compels me to point out that the expectation that all children will live to adulthood is not consistent through time and place. Even in the coroner's thread on the blue from the early part of the century, we see a lot of deaths of children and the further back you go in US/European history, infant and child mortality rates are very high compared to modern rates. And, of course, outside the industrialized world even now those rates are higher in many places than they are here.

As a matter of the brutal economics orthogonality is talking about, the investment in a child is higher when the number of children born is lower, and the loss in a child's death is higher. Conversely, in a society with no reliable fertility control other than pregnancy, where women bear many children, the loss of a single child will be less keenly felt. These factors (as well as the difficulty of legal divorce, etc.) will also affect how the loss of a child stresses a marriage and the likelihood of separation and/or divorce.
posted by immlass at 7:34 AM on January 22, 2010

I call myth too. After our daughter died several people mentioned this (Not Helpful, Thanks!), but both of our grief counselors were adamant that it wasn't their experience, and one of them deals exclusively with counseling those who have lost children. I definitely feel like my relationship with my wife is just as strong now as it was before our daughter died, if not stronger.

Sure it's anecdotal, but so is the myth that most couples that lose a child will separate.
posted by togdon at 9:48 AM on January 22, 2010

Thanks for the thoughtful responses everybody, they were enlightening.

For those of you have experienced the effects of this first hand and wrote about it, thank you for sharing such a difficult experience with us. Your answers have made this post especially valuable for me.
posted by thisperon at 10:54 AM on January 22, 2010

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