Study: Disaster Triggers Births, Marriages, Divorce

ByLee Dye

April 10, 2002 -- The voice on the telephone was shaky as a dear friend told of yet another possible casualty of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Life can be snuffed out so easily, she said, and like many others, she has spent much of her time since Sept. 11 re-examining her own life.

What had seemed fine before the attack, she said, turned out to be seriously flawed when she confronted human mortality and began to examine matters more closely. Her marriage, she said, was not what she had expected. Some things that had been annoying a few months ago had become major problems.

That marriage now hangs by a very thin thread, and my friend is in danger of becoming another statistic in the grim aftermath of the tragic events of last September. Disasters, whether natural or intentional, can have a profound impact on how we get along with each other.

Life, Re-examined

Counselors and psychologists have known for years that a life-threatening event can do great harm to a marriage, but it turns out that there's far more to the story than that. It can also cause more people to get married, and even engage in that most life affirming process of all, bringing another baby into this troubled world.

According to a study published in the March issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the United States — Hurricane Hugo — caused a significant increase in divorces, marriages and births among the residents of South Carolina who were the hardest hit by the brutal storm.

"The fact that all three went up, marriages, births and divorces, leads us to speculate that these life threatening events lead people to take stock of their lives, reevaluate their futures, reevaluate their current situations, and it might motivate them to make some changes," says Catherine L. Cohan, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of human development at Penn State, principal investigator of the study.

She's the first to admit she doesn't know for sure what drove some people to divorce and others to having a baby, because "the data tells us what people did, not why they did it."

Cohan, who conducted the study with psychologist Steve W. Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles, was a bit surprised that all three went up. Conventional theory holds that a huge disaster causes stress and economic losses, which should drive divorce rates up, and marriage and births down. Another theory holds that such a disaster causes people to seek out "life affirming" actions, and that should drive marriages and births up, and divorces down.

But the legacy of Hugo is that all three went up, and that may well be the normal pattern following a major disaster, regardless of its cause.

Trouble-Making Weather

To find the answers to their questions, the researchers zeroed in on Hugo because it caused devastation over a wide area, providing a broad database for their study. The class 4 hurricane blasted the coast of South Carolina on Sept. 22, 1989, causing at least $6 billion in damages, half of which consisted of un-reimbursed losses, mostly damages to private homes.

Some 24 counties in the eastern half of South Carolina were declared federal disaster areas. The 22 counties in the western part of the state were not as severely impacted and were not declared disaster areas.

Cohan and Cole studied birth, divorce and marriage rates for the entire state from 1975 to 1997, comparing the trends in the hard hit counties with those that were spared the brunt of the storm.

The divorce rate across the state had been declining in the years prior to the hurricane, but in 1990, the year after the storm, it rose. The number is not astronomical — only 30 more divorces per 100,000 residents — but it's significant because it shows a reverse of the previous downward trend. Similarly, marriages had been in decline, but rose by 44 per 100,000 in 1990. Births, which had also been declining, jumped by 41 per 100,000 that year.

But the following year, 1991, the rates and trends returned to their level prior to Hugo. The fact that these trends were consistent throughout the counties most affected by the storm, and not those that were spared, shows that they were "specific" to the storm itself.

In other words, Hugo did it.

Stress and Babies

The "spike" in births and marriages after the storm is not exactly what everyone might expect. For example, some studies have shown that stress, like that caused by facing one's own mortality, can lead to depression and anxiety that decreases sexual desire. That, obviously, should cause the birth rate to drop.

But other studies have shown that stress resulting from a disaster can cause us to seek out "life affirming" activities, like getting married or having a baby.

"You can't get more life affirming than having a baby," Cohan says.

What we are left with here is a picture that is a bit fuzzy. Who's to say what any one individual is likely to do after a disaster? Some people, apparently, can't hack it.

"People are confronted with the realization that life is short," Cohan says. "It's too short to be in this unhappy situation."

So they get a divorce and seek happiness elsewhere.

Others, for whatever reason, take a very different course, strengthening their relationships with others, and maybe even bringing in a new life.

What it all adds up to, Cohan says, is this fundamental fact. A lot of people need help after a natural disaster, even if they don't know it.

Life is, after all, very short.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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