Is Divorce Literally Killing Our Nation’s Children?

Written by Beverly Willett


People continue their outrage over the fact that Casey Anthony is a free woman.  I wonder, though, if those screaming injustice know that for decades millions of parents have perhaps been contributing to the death of their own children.  And, if they did, whether they’d  shout as loudly, or instead take steps to possibly add five years to the lifespan of their children, even if it meant curbing their own free will.

After analyzing data collected over eight decades, psychology professors Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin recently released the results of “The Longevity Project,” the most extensive study ever conducted of longevity.  Here are some key findings:

  • “Children from divorce died almost five years earlier on average than children from intact families.”
  • “Parental divorce during childhood was the single strongest social predictor of early death, many years into the future.”
  • “Men and women who faced parental divorce were more likely to die sooner from all other causes, including cancer and heart attack and stroke.”

Paradoxically, unlike divorce, the researchers found that the death of one’s own parents had no measurable correlation to mortality.

Since 1970, approximately one million children a year (or 40 million casualties) have become victims of divorce.  So isn’t the unavoidable inference that parents, albeit unwittingly, have been contributing to the decreased lifespan of their own progeny?  And now that New York has adopted unilateral divorce, with divorce filings up 12% in 2011, aren’t even more wounded on the way?

Prevailing wisdom deems the instinct for parents to protect their young, primal.  Each day we read news reports of parents risking their lives for their children whether by donating organs, saving them from drowning, or shielding children from the ravages of a hurricane.  Urban legend or not, we’ve all heard the tale of the mother who single-handedly raised the two-ton car off her child pinned underneath.  We weep in a different way at news of parents who savagely take the lives of their young.  Nothing in our society is considered more heinous.  As a lawyer, I’m an absolute believer in innocent until proven guilty, yet before the verdict was handed down, I shuddered every time a picture of Casey Anthony scrolled across my Internet newsfeed.

While the situation is not entirely hopeless, Drs. Friedman and Martin having found that some children bounced back from the risk of early demise by developing a strong sense of personal satisfaction in their careers and stable marriages, there are no guarantees.  So can parents afford to take that risk?  And make it that much harder for their children, especially when research shows that 2/3 of divorces involve low-conflict marriages that may not be irretrievably broken?  When there’s evidence, too, that some parents regret their divorce decision and others want our legal system to offer reconciliation help?

Nonetheless, our laws continue encouraging divorce and swift clearing of court dockets, a reflection of the anathema to patience that permeates our culture.

Of course there must be an escape mechanism for marriages riddled with domestic abuse and other dangerous conditions.  But haven’t our divorce numbers escalated beyond the level our society can morally sanction, particularly now that we know the clear correlation between the endurance of our marriages and the longevity of our children?  Surely, the answer is “yes.”  “The Longevity Project” and decades of other social science research have also posited clear connections between divorce and a host of other harm to children.  Now with longevity on the table, however, we simply can no longer persist in denial, claim that our children will simply “adjust” when it comes to our divorces, and thereby levy a potential five-year strike against them.

The divorce rate may be down in a certain segment of our population, but it continues to plague others and overall remains high.  And avoiding marriage and cohabitating instead (or eschewing a partner altogether) is not the answer either.  Key new findings just released by the National Marriage Project state that the “intact biological, married family remains the gold standard for family life.”

And while his research focused on the connection between divorce and children’s longevity, not cohabitation or single parenting, here’s what Howard Friedman, so-author of “The Longevity Project,” recently told me:
“In terms of underlying principles, our findings fit quite nicely into the overall body of research findings.  Overall, the research indicates that the core issues are the stability of the parents’ relationship and the love/respect/lack of abuse in the family.  So it should be equally bad for the children if cohabitating, never-married biological parents split up!”

Airline regulations require parents to put oxygen masks on first precisely because parents come second when the welfare of their children is as stake.  Our laws and consciences should require no less when it comes to our relationships and responsibilities as parents.

“We all know being a parent is so much more than just playing with children,” the prosecutor said in his concluding remarks in the Casey Anthony trial.  “Being a parent is about sacrifice, being a parent is about sacrificing your time…your love…your dreams…and your life.”

Only one question remains:  What sacrifices are we as parents, lawmakers and a society willing to make to protect the very lives of our children?

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