Can Divorce Make You Healthier?

Contrary to common belief, divorce might make someone healthier

Posted Jan 11, 2019

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Can Divorce Make You Healthier?
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A common belief is that divorce has dire results for our health. In fact, some studies showed that divorced and separated individuals had a higher risk of early death compared to married individuals. Others revealed that being divorced is associated with increased levels of substance abuse and a higher incidence of cancer-related death in comparison to married individuals. In fact, following an extensive review of studies related to marital status and physical health, two researchers concluded that the question is not whether marriage can be associated with improved quality of life, but how it does so and at what stage.

However, the reality is changing and new studies emerge with contradicting results. According to a recent PEW research, the so-called “gray divorce” is popping up in astonishing numbers. For example, among American adults age 50 and older, the divorce rate has roughly doubled since the 1990s. Even more, among people 65 and older, the divorce rate has roughly tripled since 1990. These remarkable numbers create a reality where it is not "weird" anymore to be unmarried. In fact, around half of the American adult population is unmarried today compared with a mere 28% in the 1960s.   

Newly divorced individuals become part of a growing population that feels just fine being unmarried. They experience decreasing stigmatization and more possibilities to network and acquire more friends, as I show in my book, Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living. Even on the Internet, my analysis of more than 300,000 people from 31 European nations reveals that divorced and separated individuals age 30 and above are the most proficient in interacting with friends and family over the Internet, 15% more than couples, followed by the never-married (12% more than couples).

The result of this new reality is a plethora of studies seeing various health benefits for divorce. One study which focused on older women, age 46–71, found divorce to be associated with a decrease in body mass index (BMI). Another study compared exercise levels among 4,555 people in Europe and showed that unmarried individuals exercise more frequently than their married counterparts. My own analysis of the European Social Survey shows that singles eat more fruits and vegetables than their married peers and this is true for the never married, divorced, and widowed groups.

One study published recently by a team of American researchers investigated 79,094 women. The researchers followed these women for three years, measuring transitions in and out of marriage over time. Their results show that women's transitions into marriage and marriage-like relationship were associated with an increase in BMI and higher alcohol intake relative to remaining unmarried. In contrast, divorce and separation were associated with a reduction in BMI and waist circumference, improvements in diet quality, reductions in blood pressure, and higher levels of physical activity compared with women who remained married. 

This recent study is especially important. Many previous studies took in a different reality, where divorce was more stigmatized. Others utilized cross-sectional methods, providing limited opportunity to rule out the selection effect into marriage where the "healthy and wealthy" are more likely to marry, to begin with. In contrast, longitudinal studies such as this one allow evaluating the true impact of marital experiences on changes in health. This study measured the results of the same cohort of women over time, estimating the effect of their transition in and out of marriage.  

The explanations for the more benign results of divorce that we see in recent studies vary. Some explain that the shared, regular mealtimes characteristic of married life may result in larger portion sizes which, in turn, contribute to weight increase. In contrast, improvements in eating patterns and physical activity levels among the newly divorced suggest that they are actively engaged in improving their health. Finally, it is possible that because divorce is more common and acceptable nowadays, divorced individuals receive increased social support. In turn, one study shows, social support helps unmarried individuals to simultaneously decrease anxiety and increase motivation to lead active and healthy lifestyles. 

It seems that although society has always emphasized that marriage is the key to health and happiness, being single nowadays has some advantages. We must rid ourselves of the outdated notion that marriage is the only way to be healthy. Unmarried individuals in today's world sometimes feel better being alone, returning to their individual-tailored eating habits, and listening to their body needs more carefully.