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Are couples who have a child die more likely to divorce?

The relationship between death of a child and divorce has become an urban legend in our culture. Barbara Bush, in her memoirs, reported the divorce rate for grieving parents is 70 percent. That statistic, however, is not supported by solid research but anecdotal reports. Because percentages are often tossed about as a fact, I fear the statistics become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After a thorough review of psychological studies, Mark Hardt and Danette Carroll reported divorce rates range from the low of 25 percent to the high of 90 percent, so “it is commonly assumed that the death of a child serves also as a death knell to the marriage of affected parents”.

Hardt and Carroll found a radically lower divorce rate. Out of 147 parents, only eleven reported divorcing, or separating, after the death of a child—7.5 percent. Admittedly, 29 percent acknowledged that they had thought about divorce or separation. These researchers concluded, “For couples who have lost a child, it is important that divorce does not appear to be the inevitable outcome that it has long been assumed”.

A team of respected researchers led by Shirley A. Murphy re-examined findings of more than one hundred studies and found data in only two studies that demonstrated higher divorce rates among bereaved parents than nonbereaved couples. In a study of forty-six couples five years after the death of a child, Murphy found that only 9 percent had divorced. Murphy concludes that “rates of divorce among bereaved parents have been highly and falsely inflated.”

In reality, the death of a child can be the “final straw” for already troubled or dysfunctional marriages. It becomes a way “out” of the marriage and to dodge the pain. Admittedly, if parents do not communicate, one parent may turn to an outside party to “acknowledge” the anguish of the grief and the strain on the marriage. Some of these conversations lead to affairs. If auditory intimacy leads to sexual intimacy, the marriage will be challenged.

Dick Gilbert, director of the World Pastoral Care Center concedes, “Clearly, marriages change even if the couple does not divorce”. Almost forty years after the death of her three year old son, Ikky, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower told a reporter, “Giving up a baby is the hardest trial a young couple may have to face” because the loss makes the couple significantly different than peers. Biographer Carlo D’Este added:

Ikky’s death left a permanent scar on both parents. Somehow they pretended to cope but fooled no one. Instead of drawing closer together in the wake of Ikky’s death, each retreated into a private world of sorrow and suffered in silence, their only common bond their beloved son’s death.

Conversely, shared suffering can draw a couple together. On August 9, 1963, two-day-old Patrick Bouvier Kennedy died of complications from hyaline membrane disease. The nation’s heart went out to the grieving First Family. Although he was president, John F. Kennedy rearranged his schedule to spend twenty-three days in isolation with Jackie, Caroline and John. What an example to grieving parents that was. Aides and friends witnessed a new closeness between the couple. Jackie and John Kennedy had had a troubled marriage, a fact that was not known extensively during his presidency. Jackie told her friend, decorator Billy Baldwin, “It took a very long time for us to work everything out, but we did and we were about to have a real life together, Patrick’s death brought them together. But 104 days later, Jackie Kennedy would be grieving for the president himself.

Parental grievers want someone to listen to them and to acknowledge their pain. Unfortunately, too many people lean on clichés and assumptions for comfort: “Oh, you are young. You can have another baby.” Such responses short-circuit honest pain expression. A healthy marital narrative must integrate the death of a child.

Taken from Grievers Ask: Answers to Questions about Death and Loss by Harold Ivan Smith, Augsburg Books, 2004. www.augsburgbooks.com

Suggested questions for future editions can be sent to goodmourning@archildrens.org (please put “Taking Questions” in the subject line).

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