Written by Lori Lowe
Recently, I wrote about how being a child of divorce is a risk factor for early death, as reported in the eye-opening book, The Longevity Project. As a child of divorce myself, I was dismayed to learn that children whose parents divorced during childhood died an average of five years earlier than children from intact families. However, some of the children of divorce in the study were resilient enough to avoid this result.
The eight-decade-long study initiated by Stanford psychologist Dr. Lewis Terman reported that divorce of a parent was one of the strongest indicators of an early demise. Even the death of a parent didn’t have a measureable effect on one’s longevity.
The good news of the study is that many children of divorce went on to live long, fulfilling lives, and many had long and satisfying marriages. These lucky individuals were more mature and made less risky decisions. They pursued their education and avoided risky behaviors, such as smoking. A key finding was that they reported deep satisfaction with their careers and felt they lived up to their intellectual abilities. This didn’t mean they weren’t deeply affected by the divorce, but that some were able to overcome this hardship.
“The Terman participants (especially men) who found a sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment by midlife were buffered against the ill effects of their childhood traumas,” say the authors. Curiously, this sense of satisfaction predicted longer life spans only for those whose parents had divorced. A plausible explanation is that these children of divorce became stronger by overcoming the challenges in their early lives.
Researchers went back to the data to make sure that the resilient children of divorce didn’t just have personalities that predisposed them to become resilient, but that was not the case. Instead, they relied on their character and personal strength.
The authors point out that even though divorce is much more widespread today than when the surveys were completed, studies today still find that divorce is traumatic and harmful to children in the short and long term. Those who are able to “dodge the risk” of early death from parental divorce were those who were able to establish a stable, meaningful relationship with a partner and who find passion and fulfillment in their work.
From a personal standpoint, I’m hopeful that my own strong marriage and passion for my work help to buffer me from this risk factor. Partly because of my experience with divorce, I became passionately pro-marriage and worked hard to build a strong family life for myself and for my children. It’s important that we as a society understand the long-term risks of divorce. However, children don’t get a vote in whether their parents’ marriages stay together. So, understanding how we can work to minimize the effects on their lives and even life spans is beneficial.
We may be able to better assist children who have experienced family divorce by focusing on the factors that were important to building resiliency for those in the study. These actions include encouraging conscientious choices, helping them pursue educational and career goals, building and strengthening social ties, avoiding risky lifestyle choices, and helping them nurture strong relationships. If they are successful in these ways, children of divorce can turn the tide, reduce their risks and prevent the next generation from having to overcome the same challenging obstacles.