Losing a parent to death or divorce - which is worse?

Nicole M. King
April 20, 2016
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story - MPs to look into Cyprus divorce problems

Divorce in Cyprus has been on the rise, and the resulting "negative impact on children caught in bitter custody battles" has that nation's House Human Rights Committee looking into the creation of a pre-divorce mediation service.

According to The Cyprus Weekly , the committee "heard about how divorces are often followed by increased ill-feeling between the former couples, financial disputes and custody and alimony issues with negative consequences for any children involved, particularly if they become estranged from one of their parents." "We believe the situation will benefit if more can be done through mediation," said committee chairman Sophocles Fyttis. The Office for the Protection of Children's Rights told the committee that "it was time for society to become more child-oriented."

And while these goals may be laudable, they are unlikely to accomplish much if smoothing out couples' disagreements before divorce is their only aim. A real "child-oriented" society, research shows, would encourage such couples to seek more marriage counseling instead.

The New Research - Parental divorce is worse than parental death

Everyone recognizes that children suffer when they lose a parent through death. But in recent decades, some progressives have asserted that children suffer relatively little when they lose a parent (usually their father) through divorce. The progressive line, however, is fast losing credibility. The latest piece of evidence comes in the findings of a study recently completed by researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University and from the University of Tokyo, a study concluding that parental separation is a decidedly stronger predictor of various forms of mental illness than is parental death.

To compare the psychological effects of parental death with those of parental separation, the researchers parse data collected between 1993 and 1998 from 2,605 male twins from the Virginia population-based twin registry, looking for statistical linkages between parental loss (any loss, death, and separation) during childhood and subsequent lifetime risk for seven common psychiatric and substance-use disorders. The seven disorders of interest to the researchers are Major Depression, General Anxiety Disorder, Phobia, Panic Disorder, Alcohol Dependence, Drug Abuse, and Drug Dependence.

Painstakingly assessing their data, the authors of the new study see an unmistakable pattern emerging: "Parental separation has stronger and wider effects on mental illness than death." Specifically, the researchers conclude that parental separation "significantly predicted risk for all disorders except phobia (O[dds]R[atio]s ranged between 1.45 and 2.03)." Looking closer at their data, the researchers conclude that "parental separation had the strongest impacts on risk for depression and drug abuse/dependence." "By contrast [with the effects of parental separation]," the researchers remark, "parental death was marginally significantly associated with only risk for phobia and alcohol dependence (both of p < 0.05)."

Having shown that "parental separation was significantly associated with almost all disorders," the Virginia Commonwealth and Tokyo scholars see in their findings strong evidence that "the effect of parental death persists a relatively short time and has weaker impact on adult psychopathology than that of parental separation." This conclusion, they acknowledge, is "in accordance with previous studies" that have found "no or weak associations between parental death and psychiatric disorders." The authors of this study indeed interpret the findings of this 2014 study against the backdrop of their own 2002 study in which they "demonstrated that the risk for depressive onsets due to parental death returned to baseline within a limited time whereas a much longer time period was required for the risk due to parental separation to return to baseline."

The authors may be justified when they conclude by calling for "further research . . . in larger prospective cohorts to confirm [their] findings and elucidate the mechanisms by which parental loss impacts risk." But Americans surely know enough already to realize that children face greater risks when a parent employs a divorce lawyer.