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How Did You Experience the Divorce?

Focusing on the subjective rather than the objective experience of a life event.

Key points

  • People differ in how they perceive major life events, such as marriage or divorce.
  • The perception of a life event can be measured according to nine characteristics, including its valence and predictability.
  • The perception of a life event can change over time, offering the possibility for people to actively work on their perception.
  • The perception of the life event, rather than its occurrence, may explain how people change in their personality after a life event.

Major life events

People experience various life events across their lifespans, such as marriage, the birth of a child, and divorce. Lay beliefs about how such life events change personality are common. But interestingly, research suggests that life events change our personality only to a small extent, if at all (see my previous blog post).

But is it really the case that life events have little to do with our personality? Or, rather, is it the case that research still has to find the right ways to assess how life events do, in fact, change personality? The most recent body of research would suggest that the latter is the case: We have to develop the right methods to assess personality change in response to life events.

Imagine the following scenario: Laura has recently divorced her husband; their marriage has been full of conflict, tension, and dissatisfaction. Laura’s friend Emma also divorced her husband, but their marriage had been one with closeness, affection, and fulfillment—until the very last months. In Laura’s case, both decided to divorce, while in Emma’s case, her husband started the divorce.

Barbara Egin, used with permission.
Source: Barbara Egin, used with permission.

A divorce is not a divorce.

It is to be expected that Laura experiences her divorce differently than Emma. While Laura might even feel some relief that the tensions are over, Emma might struggle with the unexpected divorce. If researchers studied how Laura and Emma changed in their personalities in response to their divorces, they would likely observe different patterns of change: Laura might increase in emotional stability and self-esteem, while Emma would decrease in emotional stability and self-esteem.

In other words, there would be no reason to expect that both would change in similar ways to their divorce. This, however, is how the effects of life events on personality change have been studied so far. For good reasons: Most study designs only included information about whether a person experienced a life event like a divorce, but no further parameters of the life event were assessed.

How individuals perceive events

The recognition that the same type of life event—marriage, childbirth, divorce—may be perceived differently by different people led researchers to develop new instruments to assess life events. For example, Luhmann and colleagues (2021) developed a taxonomy of nine characteristics for how life events can be perceived. Specifically, life events can be rated regarding their (1) valence, (2) impact, (3) predictability, (4) challenge, (5) emotional significance, (6) change in worldviews, (7) change in social status, (8) external control, and (9) extraordinariness.

Based on these characteristics, we can now describe the divorce experiences of Laura and Emma with much more precision. For example, these divorce experiences would differ in their predictability (more predictable for Laura, less predictable for Emma), external control (more external control for Laura, less external control for Emma), and emotional significance (fewer feelings in Laura, stronger feelings in Emma).

How subjective experiences predict personality change

It is likely that the individual experiences of the life event, rather than its pure occurrence, can explain how people react to the life event. As noted above, the higher predictability, larger degree of external control, and lower emotional significance could explain why Laura would show a more positive development in personality characteristics like emotional stability, life satisfaction, or self-esteem than Emma. But again, these observations would be trends, and specific people could still show different trajectories in both the short term and the long term: for instance depending on their initial level of emotional stability, their life circumstances (e.g., financial situation), or their social support. We now see how complicated it is to study the effects of life events on personality change.

Individual perceptions may change over time

What makes the study of life events even more complicated (and interesting at the same time) is that individual perceptions of life events may change over time. Maybe you can recall your own experiences, in which you had a different perception immediately after the event than you had one week, one month, or one year later? Indeed, our perceptions of life events are dynamic, and some perceptions are even more dynamic than others.

For example, Haehner et al. (2021) studied the stability and change of perceived event characteristics across five assessments in one year. Overall, they found that individual differences in perceived characteristics were relatively stable over time (less stable than Big Five personality traits but more stable than affect). This means that Laura, who perceived her divorce as more predictable than Emma, would perceive her divorce also as more predictable than Emma's one year later.

At the same time, the findings indicated that the perceived change in world views increased over time, while the perceived extraordinariness of the life event decreased over time. Both developmental patterns may suggest functional reactions in response to the life event, including more distance to the life event. However, a limitation of this body of research is that perceived event characteristics have mainly been assessed among young adults. Perceptions of life events may change depending on the developmental life period of an individual, so more research in this area is needed.

What to take from the findings?

Life events are important in the lives of most people. However, people differ in how they perceive the very same type of life event, and these differences can be measured according to nine characteristics, such as the predictability or emotional significance of a life event. These different perceptions may explain why previous research could not observe consistent patterns of how a life event (i.e., a divorce) is associated with personality change. Thus, better knowledge will be gained when aiming at understanding how and why people perceive a life event and how these perceptions generate changes in personality.

Moreover, perceived event characteristics are not perfectly stable over time, leaving room for actively changing the perception. For example, if the perceived emotional significance of a life event is associated with more negative personality change, prevention and intervention programs may be developed to actively work on this event perception. Together, this helps to generate a better understanding of the impact that life events have for our lives.

Same but different

Even before research can provide this knowledge, we can use the findings for our own lives: We can acknowledge that different people perceive the very same type of life event in different ways. On the one hand, this helps us to understand why we do not perceive a presumably positive life event (e.g., marriage) positively and a presumably negative life event (e.g., divorce) negatively. Thus, we may develop a more understanding attitude toward ourselves. On the other hand, we can develop a more understanding attitude toward other people who have experienced a life event that we would perceive differently than the other person did. Together, this may generate more empathy for us and others.


Haehner, P., Kritzler, S., Fassbender, I., & Luhmann, M. (2021). Stability and change of perceived characteristics of major life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Advance online publication.

Luhmann, M., Fassbender, I., Alcock, M., & Haehner, P. (2020). A dimensional taxonomy of perceived characteristics of major life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 121(3), 633–668.

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