Like many, my own miscarriage ten years ago had no known cause. My physician told me that it probably occurs in about one out of every four pregnancies, although more recent research estimates that it occurs in more than one in seven. The grief from the loss can strain even the best of relationships, and a new study from the University of Michigan Medical School has found that couples who experience miscarriage are 22% more likely to break up.
Those that experience stillbirth are at an even greater risk – couples were 40% more likely to divorce or separate after the tragedy.
Miscarriage is defined as a pregnancy loss before 20 weeks of gestation, and stillbirth is a loss of a fetus after this time.
Dr. Katherine Gold, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at U-M, and colleagues published their findings in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics. After following 7,700 pregnant couples for 15 years, they found that most couples who ended up in divorce after pregnancy loss did so after about one-and-a-half to three years after the event; however the risk seemed to remain elevated even up to a decade later, particularly in parents that had lost a child due to stillbirth.
While trauma and tragedy bring some couples closer together, those who are already in unstable relationships may be more apt to find their relationship dissolve after the loss of a child, according to Louis Gamino, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Texas A&M College of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.
Couples in the U-M study were more likely to split if they were living together instead of married, if the mother was young, and if the relationship was less than one year old. Even after taking these factors into account, other factors likely still contributed to the greater risk of divorce or separation, including depression and grief. Because men and women tend to grieve differently, a gap in understanding for the other partner may occur which can lead to a breakdown of the relationship.
Women, for example, do tend to outwardly show more emotional responses to the loss, such as crying, talking, and social withdrawal. Women may also question if they contributed to the loss of their child, bringing unwarranted guilt into the grieving process. Men tend to bury themselves in work or may express grief in harmful measures such as alcohol or drugs. In addition, so much attention is placed on mom during this time, that men may feel their grief is ignored or diminished. "Couples need to respect their differences and be tolerant,” says Gamino. "Understanding makes a difference."
Dr. Gold stresses that couples should not be alarmed by the findings, because overall, most relationships remained intact after the miscarriage or stillbirth. "Most couples do very well and often become closer after loss."
For couples who have experienced loss, it is very important to understand that grieving is normal. Family and friends who have not been through it may not understand that although the baby was not yet seen or held, it was still very much a part of your life and hopes about the future. It may take weeks or months to come to terms with the feelings, so it is essential to get support to help guide both men and women through the complicated emotions and to encourage open communication and understanding to maintain and build on the marriage or intimate relationship.
This year, my husband and I will celebrate 15 years of marriage, and we have two beautiful girls. While we did feel much strain and grief during those first few months, we found that supporting each other and having an awesome network of family and friends helped us through the difficult time.