In a January Huffington Post article I praised Colorado state Senator Kevin Lundberg for not introducing a bill that would have forced a mandatory cooling off period on divorcing couples in Colorado so they could attend counseling on the effects of divorce on children. It’s not that I’m not favor of education, I’m just not in favor of the government mandating this or even pre-marriage counseling. Some commenters in support of Lundberg’s efforts cited “The Longevity Project” as evidence that couples should stay married for the sake of their children.
Curious, I decided to examine The Longevity Project (Howard. Friedman, Ph.D & Leslie R. Martin, Ph.D, Hudson Street Press, 2011). What does it tell us about divorce and children? Divorce is just one of many topics examined in this study that was started in 1921 and has tracked some 1,500 boys and girls throughout their lives aimed at finding the answers to a long life. Other topics include gender, activity, career, religion and social life for example. Most of the participants are no longer with us, however there is one, a physician who’s still healthy at 100.
The authors found that more than a third of the study participants experienced the death of a parent or parental divorce before the age of twenty-one. While the death of a parent had no measurable effect on life-span mortality risk, children from divorced families died on average almost five years earlier than children whose parents did not divorce.
Ruling out childhood personality traits as a factor in parental divorce, researchers found that boys whose parents divorced were more likely to die of accidents or violence and both men and women were also more likely to die sooner from all other causes. Generally, divorce lowered the standard of living of the children and that did make a difference, particularly for girls.
The boys and girls whose parents divorced tended to end their education sooner handicapping not only their future earning ability but also career potential. Since men during this era filled the traditional breadwinner role, this lower potential had compounding effects on self-esteem and risk-taking behaviors such as smoking and heavy drinking.
Those who experienced divorce as children were more likely to get divorced as adults and they also demonstrated fewer group memberships and poorer community relations as adults.
Predictably, the results weren’t uniform throughout the participants. There were also those who did go on to live long lives experiencing neither a change in socioeconomic status or shortened education despite divorcing parents.
Family attributes come into play too, noticeably for boys who found divorce particularly traumatic when their perception of home was a positive, functioning family unit. When the family unit was clearly troubled, divorce was experienced as a relief. The authors conclude that “staying married for the sake of the children is usually not a good idea if the family environment is a distressed and unhappy one.”
The authors believe that while divorce doesn’t hold the same stigma today as it did during the childhood of the study participants, it does still present a threat to the well-being and economic-being of children and teenagers and these threats may impact long-term health and well-being. However the effects of parental divorce can be mitigated if children go on to experience a stable and meaningful relationship with a partner and find passion and fulfillment in their work.
For me, the Longevity Study reinforces the importance of putting the best interests of your children first when divorcing. There are some that will argue that means not divorcing, period, but the reality is that life is more complicated than that and divorces will happen. I do believe we can reduce the divorce rate by improving education about relationships and pre-marriage counseling. I also believe we can make significant improvements to how children weather the divorce of their parents by normalizing divorce.
In addition to providing more guidance to divorcing parents about what it means to actively and collaboratively parent, corporate and public administration systems need to evolve so they facilitate and foster communication between divorced parents rather than obstruct or hamper.
I am fortunate that my children attend a school district that has increased its use of electronic communications in recent years. I am able to go online and review my child’s grades, missing assignments and attendance. My ex has the same access and that facilitates both of us taking an active role without having to make copies of printed letters and passing them between us and without being dependent on the other to share communications. Our district is one of the largest in Colorado. I suspect for smaller districts this investment in technology is beyond their limited budgets.
I’m not so fortunate with our current health insurance provider. My children have coverage through my ex and despite a court order granting me shared decision making for my children’s healthcare, I am unable to access my children’s health insurance information online. The insurer will not send copies of correspondence to me and if I was to call questioning a claim, they will only discuss it with me if I also get my ex on the call and he grants permission for that specific call, a system that completely fails to support me in my parenting responsibilities.
My ex and I have a very civil and cooperative relationship. We have found ways to work around these obstacles but for many parents these unnecessary process challenges compound and fuel already strained and difficult relationships. While divorce may not carry the same stigma as it did, the existence of these subtle judgmental structures demonstrates that we still have far to go.
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