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Study Gauges Mental, Physical Toll of Divorce
  • Posted December 4, 2020

Study Gauges Mental, Physical Toll of Divorce

Couples going through a divorce may see their mental well-being deteriorate -- especially if they are having angry exchanges and other conflicts, a new study shows.

The findings are no surprise, experts said. But the study appears to be the first to capture how married people fare in the midst of a split, rather than after a period of separation.

And overall, both men and women reported poorer physical and mental health than the norm for the general population. That was particularly true if their divorce was messy -- involving fights over kids, hostile communication or other conflicts.

That's not to say that divorce, alone, took the toll on people's well-being.

"Divorce is often understood as a process, where the judicial divorce is one part," said lead researcher Gert Martin Hald, an associate professor of public health at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

So the mental-health fallout of divorce is also the result of the "prolonged experience of relationship distress" that led to the breakup, Hald said.

Allen Sabey, a clinical assistant professor with Northwestern University's Family Institute in Chicago, agreed.

Both the marital distress and the divorce take their toll, said Sabey, who was not involved in the study.

"Even if you want the divorce," he noted, "you're still dealing with the loss of the relationship."

For some people, Sabey said, the breakup of a marriage engenders guilt, shame or a "feeling that something's wrong with you." Add to that any financial strains, battles over co-parenting or other conflicts, and it's easy to see how both physical and mental well-being can be drained.

"Divorce is a process that gets into our bodies and minds to cause distress," Sabey said.

He saw nothing surprising in the new findings. But, he said, it is important to understand how couples are doing around the time of the split, as well as later on.

The study, published in the November issue of the journal Frontiers in Psychology, involved more than 1,800 Danish men and women who'd just gotten a legal divorce.

Divorce in Denmark is fairly unique, Hald's team explained. Couples there can be granted a legal divorce immediately after applying, if there is mutual agreement around the marriage dissolution.

In most other countries, couples have to go through a period of legal separation first.

That means past studies investigating the impact of divorce have mainly included couples who've been apart for a fairly long time.

Here the researchers were able to find couples who'd gotten a swift divorce, surveying them typically within a week of being granted the legal split.

Study participants answered standard questionnaires asking them to rate their everyday mental well-being, social lives, bodily pain and physical functioning.

On average, Hald's team found, recently divorced folks were faring worse in comparison to the norm for the general Danish population. And the more "divorce conflict" people reported, the worse their mental well-being, specifically.

According to Sabey, that's in line with research on the effects of divorce on children: Conflicts between parents -- more so than divorce, per se -- are what take a toll on kids' mental well-being.

While the findings paint a bleak picture, Hald had this to say: "If couples going through a divorce feel bad, it's normal and to be expected. It can actually be quite reassuring and comforting to know that 'I am not alone.' "

He suggested seeking help from family, friends or other resources, such as support groups.

Divorce affects people differently depending on many factors, according to Kristin Orlowski, a psychologist with University of Colorado Health Family Medicine-Littleton. Long-married people generally have a tougher time adjusting than recently married people. And people who felt the marriage was "damaging" may actually feel "relief and improved well-being at the time of divorce," she said.

"It is important to allow grief to occur and be properly processed. The loss of a marriage due to divorce can provoke a multitude of conflicting and confusing emotions," said Orlowski, who wasn't part of the study.

"Self-reflection and evaluation of core values can provide beneficial feedback to a person going through a divorce and may be helpful in identifying new goals to pursue," she said. "Having a sense of community can be helpful as the couple reestablishes themselves as autonomous from one another and the marriage."

Hald also noted that the study participants were part of a larger project testing an online program that offered education on cooperation after divorce and managing as parents. One year later, he said, people randomly assigned to the program had generally bounced back, mentally and physically.

In contrast, people who did not take part in the program were faring better -- a sign that "time heals," Hald noted -- but they were still doing worse than the population norm.

Sabey agreed that support groups and online classes -- including ones on "co-parenting" issues -- can be helpful for divorced people and their kids.

He also said that while the process of breaking up may be painful, many people find that leaving a distressing relationship is a "good thing."

And for the most part, Sabey said, even those who struggle with the loss "ultimately find their way."

More information

Mental Health America has advice on coping with divorce.

SOURCES: Gert Martin Hald, PhD, associate professor, Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen, Denmark; Allen Sabey, PhD, LMFT, clinical assistant professor, The Family Institute at Northwestern University, Chicago; Kristin Orlowski, PhD, psychologist, University of Colorado Health Family Medicine-Littleton; Frontiers in Psychology, online, Nov. 30, 2020

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