The Good News About People Who Are Divorced

Are divorced people unhappy and unhealthy? Here are 5 reasons to be skeptical.

Posted Aug 10, 2020

I’m guilty. I repeatedly point to studies showing that people who were previously married do less well than people who stayed single. I now realize that I should be including disclaimers more routinely, because several readers, such as Tatiana Cordova, have been sending me questions along these lines:

“Does that mean that divorced or widowed people are not able to be as happy or healthy?”

Absolutely and unquestionably, divorced and widowed people are able to be as happy or as healthy as lifelong single people or married people or anyone else. I’ll describe five reasons why you should be skeptical of worrying claims about their lives, focusing in this article on those who are divorced.

1. Results of Studies Are Just Averages—There Are Always Many Exceptions

Many of the best studies in the social sciences are big studies. Results are reported as averages across hundreds or maybe even thousands or tens of thousands of participants. There are always tons of exceptions. If you had access to the original data, you could easily find many individual divorced people who were doing great—better than many of the lifelong single people or currently married people.

Some people have a very hard time after divorcing, even years later. They are the exceptions. In fact, an important review article pointed to a striking conclusion: At least 80% of people who divorce are resilient. Maybe as many as 85%. They fare quite well after divorce.

We even have some indications as to who is likely to be struggling long after their divorce became official. They include, for example, people who already had a history of psychological problems and people who were anxiously attached to their spouse. If you are not in one of those categories, you are probably going to be resilient. And even if you are in one of the risk groups, those results are based on averages, too, and there will be exceptions. You may be one of them.

2. The Average Differences Are Often Small

When I boast about the great outcomes for people who stay single and mock the media for their exaggerated claims about the wonders of marriage, one of my favorite examples is a study that had a lot to recommend it. It was a big study, with a nationally representative sample of adults in the United States, and data from more than 30 years. Participants reported on their overall health.

When reporting the findings, The Washington Post flattered married people with the headline, “Married people still the healthiest.”

Indeed, they were. By 0.3 percentage points. For the most recent year of the study, 92.9% of the currently married people said they had good or excellent health. For the lifelong single people, the percentage who said the same thing was just a tiny bit lower, 92.6%. Yes, it is true that the percentage of divorced people who said that they had good or excellent health was lower than either of those groups, but look what that percentage actually was: 91.2!

More than 90% of people in all three groups reported good or excellent health. Are we really going to shame divorced people because “only” 91.2% of them are healthy, when that number could have been 92.6 or 92.9 if they were in one of the other groups?

When you hear a claim about divorced people doing worse, beware. The difference could be tiny. It could even be tiny if it looks big on a graph. It is possible to create a graph based on small differences and make them look large. I’d even say that happens routinely.

3. As the Divorce Recedes Into the Past, Life Gets Better

Divorce can be rough, sometimes even devastating, and particularly so if kids are involved. It can be painful even if you really wanted the divorce and you are hugely relieved that it has finally happened.

But the truth is, it gets better. A study that followed more than 30,000 German adults for 18 years found that, for people who divorce, the low point in their satisfaction with their lives occurs about a year before the divorce becomes official. Then, over the years, they become increasingly happier with their lives. On average, they did not go back to being as satisfied with their lives as they were when they were single, but remember what I already said about averages.

There are some hints, starting just a few months after a divorce, as to who is especially likely to do better over time, as their divorce recedes into the past. Some people, when talking about their divorce of a few months ago, are compassionate toward themselves. They say things like, “You have to make the best out of it and move on … just forgive yourself and him for everything you did or didn’t do.” They recognize they are not alone in their divorce journeys, saying things like, “You tell yourself you’re not the only person to experience this.”

Nine months later, just about everyone in that study was feeling better than they had when the break-up had just happened. The ones doing particularly well were those who gave themselves some compassion and love.

4. Times Have Changed—Divorce May Be Making Less of a Difference

Sometimes, whole societies grow up. They stop stigmatizing vast swaths of people. I think that has happened in the U.S., and probably elsewhere, with regard to people who are divorced. I am old enough to remember when a person would nod toward someone at the other end of the room, and say in a hushed and shaming voice, “She’s a divorcée.” Someone who did that today would probably be laughed out of the room.

The greater acceptance of divorce is part of an even bigger transformation of society. In the U.S., the most sentimentalized and celebrated families—nuclear families comprised of married parents and their children, and no one else—account for fewer than 20 percent of all households. The way we live now is limited only by our imaginations. More and more people are pursuing paths once deemed unconventional, such as staying single, or getting married and not having kids, or raising kids with friends rather than romantic partners, or committing to a long-term romantic relationship but living apart from your partner. Record numbers of people are living alone or living in innovative life spaces such as cohousing communities or shared houses or tiny house communities.

One implication of all this change, I predict and hope, is that differences between adults who are and are not divorced are going to diminish. When so many people are living in so many different ways, marital status just isn’t going to matter as much as it once did.

Research on the most consequential outcome of all—death—offers some evidence consistent with my prediction, though it is hardly definitive. In the study, more than 1,300 adults in the U.S. were followed for 40 years, starting in the early 1960s. The people who were divorced at the start of the study did not live as long as the other people. That’s the typical finding. But people who got divorced over the course of the entire 40 years lived just as long as everyone else. There are many possible interpretations, but one is that over time, the stigma of divorce was fading, and with it, the negative implications for the length of divorced people’s lives.

5. People Who Divorced May Have Already Done Something Very Positive for Themselves

Once you are unhappily married, you no longer have the option to stay single. The question is whether to stay married or divorce. I doubt that anyone takes the decision to divorce lightly.

And yet, as I suggested in a previous post, “Divorce rates around the worlda love story,” getting divorced can be an affirming, loving, and even life-saving thing to do. It could mean that you love yourself enough to walk away from a bad situation. It could mean that you realize that romantic love is only one kind of love, and that you already have love, maybe even love that has endured much longer, from the friends and relatives in your life. It could also mean that you understand what life outside of marriage has to offer.

Getting divorced is especially empowering and consequential when the alternative is staying with a spouse who is physically or emotionally abusive to you or your children.

When you read that people who are divorced are doing worse in some way than other people, what you are not being told is how those same people would have fared if they stayed married instead. Some could never tell you, because they would be dead.