Who Is Divorce Toughest On?

How a split can impact some people's long-term health and well-being.

Posted May 04, 2015

David Pereiras/Shutterstock
Source: David Pereiras/Shutterstock

From amicable and smooth to traumatizing and drawn-out, divorce brings big changes for spouses and families. Scientists and other interested parties speculate whether most people are psychologically resilient and fare quite well following divorce, or maintain that divorce "is associated with long-term decreases in life satisfaction, heightened risk for a range of illnesses...and even early death." How does divorce really affect an individual's health and well-being? David Sbarra and his colleagues consider both perspectives correct.They present new findings that explain why some divorcees do well and others suffer. 

In a recent review article, Sbarra found that about 15 to 20 percent of people who divorce do quite poorly. When those people are averaged with those that do well following divorce, it appears that getting divorced is a risk factor for bad outcomes. The team is careful to note that correlation may not equal causation: When assessing the implications of divorce, there are always alternative explanations because control groups cannot be assigned to get married, get divorced, or remain single. Those who do poorly following divorce may have done equally poorly—if not worse—by remaining married. 

That said, here are 5 critical factors that determine why someone does poorly after divorce:

  1. They may already have a history of psychological problems. In one study, people who had a history of major depressive disorder were at risk for experiencing a depressive episode if they got divorced. Those with no such history were no more likely to get depressed following divorce.
  2. They may have been anxiously attached to their spouse. Those with anxious attachment styles often try repeatedly to get back with their ex or become obsessed with why the relationship ended. In one study, anxiously attached people who had recently split from their partner and "who spoke about their separation in a very personal, present-oriented, 'here and now' manner (presumably reflecting a high degree of attachment-related preoccupation with the loss)" showed the most blood pressure reactivity when they thought about their split.
  3. They may have been inclined to ruminate about the experience. Ruminators tend to be very negative and struggle to create psychological distance from their most distressing experiences. In a study of people who had split from their partners, some were encouraged to write about their emotions and others were instructed "to write in a concrete, non-emotional way about how they had spent and would spend their time in the next few days." Eight months later, the emotion-expressers (ruminators) experienced more emotional distress relevant to their separation than did the people who wrote more dispassionately.
  4. They may have "recounted their experiences in a blow-by-blow manner rather than reconstrue their experiences to find meaning." Getting lost in the awful specifics of what happened can be a surefire way of getting stuck. Even the most distressing experiences can have meaning but these individuals have trouble identifying it. 
  5. They may come out of the experience without any greater clarity about who they are. Some people emerge from a divorce with a better sense of who they really are, and that, in turn, seems to result in a greater sense of well-being going forward. When this is absent, they feel lost and this prolongs their suffering. 

Sbarra, D. A., Hasselmo, K., & Bourassa, K. J. (2015). Divorce and health: Beyond individual differences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 109-113.

[Note: For more about the health and well-being implications of staying single vs. marrying, check out Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong.]