The Marriage Podcast for Smart People

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How Losing a Child Impacts Marriage

Thankfully, losing a child is a relatively rare event. However, this tragedy still happens to some in our world. And one of the common concerns I hear expressed is concern for the marriage of those who have lost a child. There seems to be a real perception that couples who lose a child are more likely to experience the failure of their marriage. We explore the research on this today and then turn towards helping each other through the grief. Many people and researchers describe losing a child as the hardest thing a couple could go through[i] and we certainly would agree with this. How Losing a Child Impacts Marriage Bereaved parents experience intense and overwhelming grief at their loss, and have to cope with substantial changes to their life, their role, and their relationship. Parents have to deal with their own individual grief as well as attempting to comfort each other and deal with the changes to their relationship. This is a subject we wanted to address here but we have to be up front that we have never been through this ourselves. Others have and there are helpful blogs and articles on the Internet from those who speak to this issue from a very personal place. Our approach here is different: we wanted to look at the research and see what happens not just in the life of this couple or that couple, but across the experiences of many marriages to see what could be learned. Losing a Child Doesn’t Increase Divorce Rates There’s no doubt that this loss can potentially have a huge impact on marital quality, but research finds no link between the loss of a child and marital stability. So the idea that losing a child makes divorce more likely is in fact a myth[ii]. But it can definitely impact marriage in other ways, such as:Increased strain and conflictReduced communicationDistancingReduced sexual functioning Despite the extreme grief of losing a child, not all couples experience these negative outcomes: setting the grief and loss itself to one side for the moment, some couples end up stronger as a result of a tragedy like this. This is partly down to situational factors (things outside the couple's control, see below), partly down to how the couple grieves, and partly down to how strong the couple were before the loss. Situational Factors Cause of death: we want to be cautious about comparing the cause of death knowing that each case is so unique. But generally, losing a child in sudden or violent circumstances such as accidents, homicide or suicide is much more distressing to the marriage than other causes such as illness or stillbirth[iii]. Age at death: the older a child is when they die, the more the parents have invested in them and formed strong bonds with them, so the harder their loss impacts them[iv] Other children: having other children can be a source of comfort when one child is lost, and provide a continued sense of purpose for the couple[v]. However, it can also increase the strain on the couple as they have to care for their surviving children at the same time as dealing with their own grief[vi]. State of The Marriage At The Time of Loss The quality of your marriage prior to the loss can impact how you cope with the loss, for good or bad. For example, if your marriage has been child-centred, you may not have nurtured a strong bond between yourselves and so probably start the grieving process more alone. Hopefully, you would both be able to recognize the need to turn towards each other during a time like this. But pre-existing strains and conflicts before the loss of the child can also lead to couples coping poorly with the bereavement. Couples who struggled with poor communication and conflict prior to the loss are unable to properly comfort and support each other during the grieving process, and so end up becoming distanced and non-communicative rather than facing the problem together. This can lead to a breakdown in the stability of the marriage[vii]