Bereavement is a topic rife with stereotypical thinking among the general public. One often hears the view expressed that a child’s death may have damaging effects upon a couple’s marriage. Actually, the limited research on this topic does show evidence of increased conflict and marital discord among couples experiencing a still birth or a neo-natal child loss. However, little research has been conducted regarding marital stability after an older children dies, or when the deceased child perishes from self-induced causes, like suicide or a drug overdose.
In our Devastating Losses study, my coauthors and I sought to explore this question with our study of 575 bereaved parents. Our large sample over-represented parents losing a child to suicide, 462 of whom fit this subgroup, 48 other parents lost children to drug-related deaths; in 37 other cases the child died from other accidental circumstances, and for the remaining 24, the death was from natural causes. Most of our sampled parents experienced their child’s death when he or she was in early adulthood, with four-fifths reporting the child’s age at death between 16 and 35. Ours is one of the first studies to examine whether suicide or drug-related deaths are associated with differences in marital stabilities.
Sixty-eight percent of respondents reported being married when they completed their surveys. We asked these respondents whether the loss brought them closer together, created strain, or was neutral in this respect. We also asked respondents whether their partner had acted helpfully, hurtfully or neutrally following the loss. The results were consistent, with nearly 60 percent saying the death brought them closer together and 23 percent reporting a partner relationship that had worsened.
Judgements of marital strain vs. closeness paralleled those for helpfulness vs. hurtfulness. A decided majority clearly gave reports of increased marital harmony after the death. Our data suggested that among the minority reporting heightened strain and discord after the death, many indicated problematical marriages beforehand.
We also investigated whether our sample had a higher marital breakup rate (from separations or divorces) compared to their same aged non-bereaved counterparts in the population-at-large. Our respondents reported an 11 percent marital termination rate since their child’s death. The National Survey of Families and Households, a nationally representative sample of married couples who were studied longitudinally, showed a 7 percent termination rate six years after the first study. The 4 percent difference between both groups is not a very large one, and may suggest fundamental similarity between both groups’ breakup rates when measurement differences and group characteristics are taken into account.
We wondered why our results showing minimal differences in marital breakups and most parents viewing their marital relationships as having improved contrasted so sharply with the research findings showing more strain and conflict in cases of still-birth and neo-natal losses.
We concluded that these older child death cases more often were among married couples who had spent a decade or more being married together. They were more likely to have weathered the storms of early marriage, such as in-law-interference; they had accommodated themselves to their partner; they also were more likely to have established themselves in their careers and economically, to have become homeowners and more stable community members. When we tested these hypotheses we found these differences mattered in comparing married couples who broke up vs. those staying together after the death.
We also investigated whether a child’s suicide or drug death was associated with stability differences compared to a child’s death from natural causes or if the child had died from a car accident. Results showed no differences in breakup rates and in reports of strain, no matter what the death cause.
Overall our results showed no great marital damaging effects from a child’s death when an older children is lost.
By William Feigelman, Ph.D.