What happens to your health and well-being after you get divorced? Very different answers have been proposed. Which of the following two do you think is correct?

“most people are psychologically resilient and fare quite well following divorce.”

Or

Getting divorced “is associated with long-term decreases in life satisfaction, heightened risk for a range of illnessesand even early death.”

In an important review article, Professor David Sbarra and his colleagues argue that the answer is both. But how can that be?

The answer, they maintain, is that about 15 to 20 percent of people who divorce do quite poorly. When those people are averaged in with everyone else (all those people doing just fine after divorce), the averages get pulled down and it looks like getting divorced is a risk factor for all sorts of bad things happening.

First, before continuing, a word of caution: The authors make the point that I make all the time in my discussions of the implications of any marital status we cannot really know what’s causing what. People can’t be randomly assigned to get married or get divorced or stay single, so there are always alternative explanations. For example, about those people who do poorly after divorcing, we don’t whether they would have done equally poorly or even worse than that if they had stayed married.

Keeping that important consideration in mind, let’s take a look at the authors’ discussions of how those who do poorly after divorcing may differ from others.

  1. People who do poorly after divorcing may already have a history of psychological problems. For example, in one study, people who had a history of major depressive disorder were at risk for experiencing a depressive episode if they got divorced. But people with no such history were no more likely to get depressed if they got divorced.
  2. People who do poorly after divorcing may be those who were anxiously attached to their spouse. Anxiously attached people often try repeatedly to get back with their ex or they 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. The many, many people who were not anxiously attached to their ex are unlikely to experience these problems.
  3. People who do poorly after divorcing may be those who are inclined to ruminate about the experience. Ruminators tend to be very negative and they have trouble creating any 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. Plan, dont ruminate.
  4. People who do poorly after divorcing may be those who “recount their experiences in a blow-by-blow manner rather than reconstrue their experiences to find meaning.” Getting lost in the specifics of all that is awful about what happened to you can be a surefire way of getting stuck. Even the most distressing experiences can have meaning. Find it.
  5. People who do poorly after divorcing may be those who come out of the experience without any greater clarity about who they are. In contrast, 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.

Even if you are in one of the five risk categories, it is still possible to do well after divorce. Remember that the results of scientific research are based on averages and there are always exceptions. Also, it is always possible to grow and change. Our lives dont stand still, no matter what has happened.

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