Decades of research have confirmed what many of us thought we knew all along: Married people are healthier, happier, and live longer than people who are divorced.
It’s easy to see the health benefits of marriage. Couples provide each other with companionship and social support. They take care of each other when they’re feeling down, and they stand by each other through difficult times. Our partners also encourage us to develop good habits, and they give us motivation to improve ourselves.
It’s just so much easier to slide into a lifestyle of irregular sleep, poor diet, lack of exercise, and substance abuse when you’re single—especially when you’ve got the excuse of being divorced. The loneliness can really get you down.
And yet, psychologists David Sbarra and James Coan argue, it’s important not to assume that marriage causes better health outcomes or that divorce causes worse ones. On the one hand, the data are only correlational, and there’s no generally accepted theory on how marriage or divorce affects health. On the other hand, some people actually fare better after divorce than they did while they were married. We need to consider the data on marriage and health more carefully.
When people who are in good physical and psychological health enter into a marriage, they’re prepared to enjoy the benefits that accrue from a long-term intimate relationship. For these people, marriage enhances their already high odds of living a long and healthy life. In other words, marriage doesn’t make them happy and healthy. Rather, their happiness and health make it likely that their marriage will thrive.
Now let’s consider typical behavioral and psychological traits that commonly lead to unhappy marriage and divorce. Sbarra and Coan point out, for example, that hostility and neuroticism, or emotional instability, are both strong predictors of marital dissatisfaction and eventual divorce.
In the case of hostility, partners on the receiving end of anger and abuse are certainly unhappy, and the stress they endure in the relationship is bound to have negative health consequences. However, the same is true of the partners meting out the venom and violence, as their incessant anger wreaks havoc on their bodies.
In the short-term, a marriage breakup is likely to have negative health and happiness outcomes as both parties deal with the stress of the divorce process and adjust to new circumstances. However, long-term consequences can be quite different for the two partners. Abused partners who can make a clean break and start a new life for themselves will likely experience an improvement in health outcomes, defying the received wisdom that divorce is bad for your health. Meanwhile, abusive partners will likely continue in their maladjusted patterns of behavior, negatively impacting their health and happiness in the long run.
The case of neuroticism, or emotional instability, plays out in a similar fashion. For example, Sbarra and Coan cite research showing that people experience depression after divorce only if they were already experiencing it before the marriage ended. The non-depressed partner will likely bounce back and quickly recover from the negative health impact of the marriage dissolution. But the depressed partner will not only continue being depressed, they’ll likely get worse as they lose whatever buffering they’d previously received in the marriage.
Emotional resilience also plays an important role in determining long-term health outcomes after divorce. According to Sbarra and Coan, getting divorced per se has no discernible impact on longevity or overall health. That is, people who get divorced and then remarry enjoy the same level of wellness as do those who remain in their first marriage.
Rather, it’s those people who get divorced and stay single that are headed for poor health and a shortened life. But then again, they were already on a trajectory for illness and early death even before the divorce. So it seems most reasonable to assume that divorce and negative health outcomes are related because both are caused by the same suite of maladaptive behaviors and psychological problems.
Sbarra and Coan believe that two current theories of marriage dynamics, attachment theory and social baseline theory, can explain the complex relationship between marriage and health when considered in tandem.
Attachment theory deals with the relationship style each partner brings to the marriage. When couples are securely attached, they build a marriage based on mutual trust and support, and it’s quite likely to survive. But when one or both partners are insecurely attached, mistrust seeps into the relationship and corrodes it. Marriages that survive are likely to be unhappy, and insecure partners remain unhappy after divorce.
Social baseline theory deals with the ways in which marriage provides a situation that’s conducive to happiness and good health. We prosper from intimate relationships that provide mutual support, and this is the chief benefit of marriage. But people also bring outside issues into the marriage, such as trouble at work or problems with family members. Over time, these can doom the relationship.
Even a marriage between two securely attached partners can break down and end in divorce. This is because outside stressors, such as lack of financial resources or the necessity of living apart to achieve career goals, can deplete each partner’s psychological resources for dealing with these problems. Yet when their first marriage fails, these emotionally resilient people seek out new partners that they can create new secure attachments with, perhaps being more careful about attending to outside stressors the next time around. In other words, they bounce back.
It’s true that divorced people have more health problems and a lower life expectancy compared to their married peers. But we can’t say that divorce is bad for your health. The “terminally” divorced die early because of the unhealthy lifestyle that destroyed their marriage in the first place. And for those who escape a doomed relationship and remarry, divorce provides a new lease on life—a long and happy one at that.
Sbarra, D. A. & Coan, J. A. (2017). Divorce and health: Good data in need of better theory. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 91-95.