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Life After Divorce

Is divorce always going to have a negative impact on the people involved?

Going through a divorce can be extremely traumatic for everyone involved.

People who undergo divorce face a variety of psychological issues including increased stress, lower life satisfaction, depression, increased medical visits, and an overall increase in mortality risk compared to those who remain married. Along with losing the benefits of a happy marriage, which can act as a buffer against the normal stress in life, there is also the divorce process itself. Depending on where people happen to live and the specific circumstances, divorce can be a long and drawn-out legal process involving mutual blame-casting and being forced to give testimony on many of the most sordid details of why a marriage happened to fail. Add in the trauma involved in custody battles over children, and the entire divorce process can be a nightmare for many people.

Another issue surrounding the emotional impact of divorce involves communal orientation, or the psychological need to care for others. Some married people get much of their personal sense of identity from their marital status and their self-identification as spouses or parents who feel a sense of responsibility for marital partners or children. This is especially true in more traditional cultures that place a strong emphasis on marriage and family. As a result, going through divorce can often force people to change their very sense of self and make the divorce process especially stressful.

But is divorce always going to have a negative impact on the people involved? Not everyone is going to be worse off following a divorce. If anything, the risk for a poor outcome seems to vary depending on how well people are able to cope following divorce and what married life was like before the couple decided to separate. While most research looking into the aftermath of divorce has focused on psychological factors that can lead to poor outcomes, studies examining why many people are often better off following divorce aren't so common.

A new research study published in the Journal of Family Psychology examines the psychological impact of divorce as part of a nationwide study of middle-aged adults across the United States. The Midlife in the United States project (MIDUS) is a longitudinal study of over 7,000 American men and women interviewed in two "waves" ten years apart on various lifestyle factors, including personality traits, emotional issues, medical history, and life satisfaction. In the divorce research study conducted by Kyle Bourassa of the University of Arizona and his co-authors, 1,639 MIDUS participants were specifically questioned about marital status and marital satisfaction, as well as how well those participants who went through a divorce were able to cope.

Results showed that, compared to participants who remained married over the ten years that the study ran, divorced adults reported lower life satisfaction overall. This relationship was strongest for women, while the difference in life satisfaction between divorced and married men was much smaller. As expected, the level of life satisfaction following divorce was directly related to the perceived quality of the marriage itself. In particular, women who reported poor marriages tended to do much better following a divorce in terms of life satisfaction, while women reporting high-quality marriages often experienced lower life satisfaction following divorce.

Overall, these research results reflect previous studies showing that married men and women tend to be happier than their separated or divorced counterparts, though there was more evidence for this in women than in men. People who have poor marriages, however, often do much better following divorce. Since these marriages often involve verbal and even physical abuse at times, divorce often comes as a relief, since the people affected are actually able to get on with their lives afterward.

There are still cultural differences in terms of how marriage and divorce is viewed, however. For many cultures, divorce is considered shameful no matter how poor the quality of the marriage happens to be. Men and women who have strongly traditional views of marriage can be left emotionally devastated and may view their lives as being essentially over. This is especially true of women, who often bear the main burden of divorce in most cultures.

These research results also show that men and women experience marriage and divorce differently. Since women often report being more emotionally invested in their relationships than men, the emotional impact of problem marriages and divorce can be greater as well. This is especially important considering that only half of all first marriages last beyond the twenty-year mark, at least according to U.S. statistics. Understanding how marriage and divorce can affect life satisfaction can help address the psychological needs of everyone affected.

For couples contemplating divorce, it is important to look at the overall context, including the actual quality of the marriage, before deciding to end the relationship. People who get divorced to escape verbal and emotional abuse may actually find their lives becoming better in the long run, though there will still be short-term stress to face. Health care professionals dealing with men and women going through divorce need to be aware of the health problems that can set in due to stress or depression (especially in men) and refer patients to counseling if needed.

As Kyle Bourassa and his colleagues point out in concluding their study, divorce is often stressful—but the impact it has on later life satisfaction often depends on the kind of marriage people had before. For many women, ending a bad marriage can often be the key to a better life afterward. Still, for both men and women, the health impact of divorce is something that needs to be carefully monitored, both by family members and medical professionals, to minimize the psychological issues and the drop in life satisfaction that can often follow.

Though it is possible to survive and flourish following divorce, the struggle to get there is something that nobody should have to face alone. Along with support from friends and family, people going through divorce often need counseling to handle the emotional consequences of divorce, both in terms of short-term stress and learning how to move on afterward. While divorce is becoming increasingly common around the world, the emotional pain involved is still very real. Learning to deal with that pain and moving on afterward can be the key to a successful life.

More from Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.
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