Research: Children of Divorce Live Shorter Lives

I write a lot about divorce and child custody.  Family court reform is the main goal of Fathers and Families and so it follows that the doings and misdoings of courts regarding divorce and child custody are uppermost on my agenda.

That doesn’t mean I think divorce is a good thing, though.  Where children are part of the family, I think for a number of reasons, that divorce should be avoided if at all possible.  The welfare of mothers, fathers and mostly importantly children tend to be adversely affected by divorce.  Children can suffer the slings and arrows of their parent’s divorce long into adulthood.

Are there exceptions to the rule that parents shouldn’t divorce?  Certainly there are.  Marriages can truly be so bad that divorce is not worse but better than staying married.  But my strong feeling is that adults these days, and for the past 30 or so years, have too readily opted out of marriage. 

One of our goals at Fathers and Families is to ameliorate the problems for children in divorce.  To do that, we promote things like equal parenting after divorce and mediation of divorce and custody cases.  Abundant research makes clear that greater father involvement with children post divorce tends to make for better outcomes for children.  Fathers and mothers can benefit as well.

Now we have yet more research showing the lifelong detriments to children of divorce.  Remarkably, the eight-decade research called the Longevity Project reveals that there is no factor more important in shortening life expectancy than being a child of divorce.

What is now called the Longevity Project by current researchers, began in 1921.  It continued through the death of its founder, Lewis Terman, and the involvement of a couple of generations of follow-up researchers.  It’s still going on.  The purpose is to find what factors contribute to longevity and which ones do the opposite.

In the process, researchers have arrived at a sort of personal profile of those expected to live the longest.  Here’s how this review of the research describes it (Wall Street Journal, 3/9/11):

The best childhood predictor of longevity, it turns out, is a quality best defined as conscientiousness: “the often complex pattern of persistence, prudence, hard work, close involvement with friends and communities” that produces a well-organized person who is “somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree.”

That’s the upside of their findings.  The downside has much to do with divorce.

Some of the findings in “The Longevity Project” are surprising, others are troubling. Cheerful children, alas, turned out to be shorter-lived than their more sober classmates. The early death of a parent had no measurable effect on children’s life spans or mortality risk, but the long-term health effects of broken families were often devastating. Parental divorce during childhood emerged as the single strongest predictor of early death in adulthood. The grown children of divorced parents died almost five years earlier, on average, than children from intact families.

Parental divorce is traumatic to children and, generally speaking, the younger the child when the divorce occurs, the more traumatic. 

The rhetoric promoting no-fault divorce, when states began passing those statutes in the 1960s, was, in typical 60s fashion, all about freedom.  Parents shouldn’t be “trapped” in an unhappy marriage, so the story went, and children would actually be better off when parents were free of the burden.

It’s an optimistic theory; too bad it’s not true.  Time and again, in physical health, emotional health, educational performance, involvement in crime and substance abuse, and a host of others, divorce harms kids.

I’m not a fan of fault-based divorce, but somehow, parents need to get the message that their children will likely be better off if they stay together.  Maybe the concept should be taught in school.  Maybe married people with kids should be held to a higher legal standard than those without, before they can be granted a divorce.

If married adults don’t have kids, they can divorce any time they like and it won’t bother me in the least.  But those with kids need to change their ways and they need to do it for the children.  Life is long and there’ll be plenty of time to divorce once the kids are out of the nest. 

But as long as they’re in it, parents need to stay together if at all possible.

Thanks to Ronald for the heads-up.

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