A Danish study published in Frontiers in Psychology offers evidence that the negative consequences of divorce include a wide range of physical and mental health symptoms. The study also suggests that these negative consequences appear depending on certain risk and protective factors.
Divorce has previously been associated with a range of health consequences such as anxiety, stress, and even greater risk of mortality. However, according to study authors Søren Sander and his team, divorce research carries some key limitations.
Divorce is often only granted by a court after a couple has undergone a designated period of separation. Consequently, much of the previous research among the divorced population has been conducted among couples who have already been separated for some months. This means that the initial consequences of divorce may have had time to dissipate.
Sander and colleagues wanted to capture the effects of divorce as close to the time of separation as possible. To do this, the researchers surveyed 1,856 divorced men and women from Denmark who had been legally divorced for about 5 days on average — the majority with no prior separation period. The women in the sample had an average age of 44 and had been married for an average of 13 years. Men had an average age of 46 and had been married for an average of 12 years.
The respondents answered 36 items assessing their physical and mental health via the Short Form 36 Health Assessment (second version), which included domains such as bodily pain, physical functioning, social functioning, and general health.
The researchers then compared their respondents’ data to normative data from a random population sample of Danish adults. The researchers found that the divorced sample showed worse general health, reduced vitality, lower social functioning, and worse mental health. They also had lower role emotional and role physical scores, suggesting greater limitations in usual role activities due to physical and emotional problems. This was true for both men and women.
When Sander and his team looked at the demographic data, protective factors emerged that predicted better health among their sample. Among both men and women, having a larger income and having fewer previous divorces were associated with better physical health after divorce. Having less conflict in the divorce and having initiated the divorce themselves were associated with better mental health. Among women only, having a new partner and having lower divorce conflict were also associated with better physical health.
In line with the researchers’ predictions, divorce conflict was found to predict worse mental health for both men and women even after accounting for all the measured sociodemographic and divorce-related variables. “This may not be surprising,” the researchers observe, “given that higher degrees of divorce conflict are likely to negatively interfere with or complicate important decisions and life choices around the time of juridical divorce, like division of property, co-parenting, and child custody.”
The authors remark that the effect sizes they uncovered were particularly large, which might be explained by the fact that the health assessments were carried out so soon after divorce, leaving little time for healing to take place. The authors emphasize the importance of intervening soon after divorce when aiming to mitigate the physical and mental health impact of separation.
Sander and colleagues note that cohabitation without marriage is widely popular among Danish couples. Since their study only explored separation among married couples, it is unclear whether the findings would generalize to committed couples who separate but were never married.
The study, “When Love Hurts – Mental and Physical Health Among Recently Divorced Danes”, was authored by Søren Sander, Jenna Marie Strizzi, Camilla S. Øverup, Ana Cipric, and Gert Martin Hald.