Being hit with a disaster increases the number of marriages, births and divorces in a given population in the year following the event, a Penn State-led study has shown.
The study suggests that assistance with family functioning, as well as individual mental health counseling, may be warranted as part of relief efforts.
Dr. Catherine L. Cohan, Penn State assistant professor of human development and family studies and principal investigator of the study, says, “We looked at marriage, birth and divorce records in South Carolina in the year following Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and found increases in all three major life transitions in the counties most affected. The pattern of the results suggests that the disaster was the impetus for people directly affected to take stock of their life and future, re-evaluate their priorities and take actions that had profound consequences for their lives.
“For some people, these changes may be the best thing they ever did,” she adds. “But, it is also important to say a word of caution because these major changes in one’s life have permanent consequences and some people may later regret such a big decision made in the midst of upheaval and emotional turmoil.”
The study results were detailed in the March issue of the Journal of Family Psychology in a paper, Life Course Transitions and Natural Disaster: Marriage, Birth and Divorce Following Hurricane Hugo. Steve W. Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles, is co-author.
In their paper, the researchers point out that “Stress research and research on economic circumstances suggested that marriages and births would decline and divorces would increase in affected counties after the hurricane. Attachment theory suggested that marriages and births would increase and divorces would decline after the hurricane.”
An analysis of the marriage, birth and divorce records from 1975 to 1997 for all 46 counties in South Carolina showed that, in 1990, the year following the hurricane, all three life changes increased in the 24 counties declared disaster sites compared to their previous levels and compared to the 22 other counties in the state that were not declared disaster sites.
“On the one hand, disasters can draw people together for comfort and support and strengthen some relationships,” Cohan says. “On the other hand, disasters can lead to mental health problems, which, in turn can cause marital conflict and feeling more negative about one’s marriage. In addition, the stressors in the aftermath of a disaster, for example, lost jobs, lost homes and debt can directly lead to marital conflict.”
Cohan points out that newspaper reports about the 9/11 Twin Towers disaster have started to provide anecdotal evidence that the aftermath of that tragedy could be similar to Hurricane Hugo.
“Although one was a natural disaster and the other was a man-made disaster, both were life-threatening and resulted in enduring economic difficulties. Therefore, we might expect that some in New York City will react to the Twin Towers disaster in ways similar to what we observed in South Carolina following Hurricane Hugo,” she says.
“As we pass the six-month anniversary of 9/11 and the immediacy of the event recedes, some New Yorkers may be tempted to think that an outside event could not possibly have an effect on their personal lives,” says the Penn State researcher. “They may think that, six months later, there could not be lingering effects. But there can.”
The researchers conclude, “Increased divorce rates suggest an increased need for marital counseling following disaster. In addition to preventing divorce among some couples following disaster, marital counseling may also reduce symptoms of depression typically seen after disaster.”
[Contact: Dr. Catherine L. Cohan, A'ndrea Elyse Messer]