A longitudinal study published in the Journal of Personality suggests that there are individual differences in the way a person’s self-esteem fluctuates during a divorce. Nonetheless, there is an overall tendency for self-esteem to dissipate in the year before a marriage ends and to stabilize in the years following divorce.
The ending of a marriage is a significant life event with consequences that trickle into many areas of life, affecting a person’s finances, living situation, and social world. Despite these challenges, studies suggest that divorce can sometimes lead to positive benefits, even leading to personal growth.
Study authors Wiebke Bleidorn and her colleagues say that when considering the psychological impact of divorce, it is important to capture changes that occur leading up to the divorce, during the divorce, and once the marriage has ended. The researchers were particularly interested in capturing participants’ self-esteem trajectories during these time points.
To do this, Bleidorn and colleagues conducted a study using longitudinal data from a representative sample of individuals from the Netherlands. The researchers focused on ten different waves of data deriving from 291 participants who were married at some point in the study and who also experienced a separation. The surveys included monthly demographic questionnaires and yearly measures of self-esteem.
Using the responses to the demographic questionnaires, the study authors were able to note the months when each participant’s status moved from married to separated. They then considered the period of time before this month as the time leading up to divorce, and the period of time after this month as the period following divorce.
The researchers analyzed the data to determine the average self-esteem trajectory leading to a divorce and the average trajectory following divorce. What they found was that self-esteem tended to diminish before a divorce and then stabilize in the years following separation. Despite this overall pattern, there were significant individual differences — not everyone experienced the same changes in self-esteem around their divorce.
The questionnaires also assessed attitudes toward marriage and divorce, personality variables, and interpersonal variables. The researchers tested whether any of these variables would be associated with self-esteem trajectories. It turned out that people who were religious, who suffered greater financial hardship, or who scored lower in the personality trait of conscientiousness experienced worse self-esteem preceding their divorce.
Notably, the findings suggest that decreases in self-esteem tend to occur before a marriage is even over, and then recover somewhat once a person is removed from the challenges of an unhappy marriage. Bleidorn and colleagues say this falls in line with the perspective that divorce may, “release spouses from the enduring stressors of an unhappy marriage and counteract self-esteem diminishing processes.”
Still, the authors note that their study suggests that people do not fully recover from the adverse consequences of marital strain. While self-esteem increased in the years following a divorce, it did not return to pre-existing levels. Another key implication is that negative life events appear to affect people in different ways, bearing a greater psychological toll on some than others. Notably, these differences seem to occur even before an event has taken place, suggesting that there may be individual differences in the way people approach difficult events.
While the results will need to be replicated using larger and more diverse samples, the findings provide insight into the course of self-esteem throughout divorce.
The study, “Charting Self-Esteem During Marital Dissolution”, was authored by Wiebke Bleidorn, Ted Schwaba, Jaap J.A. Denissen, and Christopher J. Hopwood.