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Divorce Conflict Strains Mental and Physical Health, Study Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • People divorce for a number of reasons, from financial stress and miscommunication to infidelity and general conflict.
  • Divorces high in conflict were found to predict poor mental health outcomes regardless of other factors.
  • There are numerous ways to cope with a divorce, such as talking to a therapist and ‘dating’ yourself.

Experiencing a divorce can have significant impacts on divorcees’ mental and physical health regardless of the reasons behind the split. A 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that independent of other factors, divorces ridden with conflict may lead to worse mental health post-divorce.

“For many, divorce is one of the most stressful life experiences they will endure. Panic attacks, depression and difficulty sleeping (all of which have profound health impacts as well) are some of the most common mental health issues reported in this population,” says Haley Neidich, LCSW, a Florida-based psychotherapist specializing in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.

Why People Divorce

Jaime Bronstein, a licensed clinical social worker and relationship therapist, says she believes the main reason people divorce is because “they aren’t happy in their marriage.” However, there can be many more specific reasons, such as:

  • Financial stress
  • Infidelity
  • General conflict
  • Poor communication
  • Growing in different directions
  • Domestic abuse

While they vary from couple to couple, some couples go through a separation period before they divorce that can have both positive and negative effects. 

For couples contemplating if they should get a divorce or work things out, Adriana Castro, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Rochester, New York, says that a separation period can help couples “realize the things that they like or enjoy about each other, alleviate some of the acute tension or stress in the relationship, [and] allow for space so that the couple can...work through their conflict in a more productive, meaningful way.” 

Neidich echoed those sentiments: “With that space, [couples] can often determine whether proceeding with a divorce is what they desire. This period can also be beneficial when children are involved as it gives the children the opportunity to process what is happening before it feels final.”

However, some couples know off the bat that divorce is the right path for them. In these cases, separation periods may cause more stress than they are worth. 

“A separation period can stretch out the often unbearable experience of being stuck in the wrong relationship. For situations where abuse is present or where it is very clear to one partner that the marriage is over, a separation can be agonizing when all they want is for things to be finalized,” Neidich says.

The effects of divorce decline as time goes on, so studies that focus on people who have gone through the separation period could underestimate the true, more immediate effects of a divorce.

All About the Study

The study took place in Denmark, where there is a high acceptance and low social stigma regarding divorce. Denmark also has high levels of gender and income equality, providing a “unique context in which to study whether sociodemographic and divorce-related factors predict post-divorce mental and physical health.”

A total of 1,856 divorcees participated in this study. Sixty-six percent were women, and the average ages were 44 for women and 46 for men. Most participants had a medium educational level, earned at least the national average salary, and were parents (with around two children on average).

Participants had been married for 12 to 13 years on average. Women initiated 52% of the divorces (compared to 29% of men), and over 60% of both men and women did not have new partners after the divorce. 

Participants were representative of the comparison population—all people in Denmark who divorced during the study period—in terms of marriage duration, income, and age. However, the study had a higher proportion of women than the comparison population. Participants on average were more highly educated and had fewer previous divorces than the typical Danish divorcee.

How It Worked

The study ran from January 2016 to January 2018. During that time, couples who mutually agreed to the divorce were legally granted it immediately, while any couples who had a disagreement regarding the divorce or its terms were required to undergo a six-month separation period before the divorce was finalized. 

This study focused on subjects who didn’t undergo a separation period; participants had been legally divorced for less than five days on average before taking the first survey. They subsequently completed surveys three, six, and 12 months post-divorce. The survey measured sociodemographic, divorce-related, and physical and mental health factors. 

What They Found

When controlling for sociodemographic variables and divorce characteristics, the study found that higher levels of divorce conflict predicted worse mental health across gender and that mental health was significantly worse than the background population.

For men, being younger and having a higher income predicted better physical health. Better mental health was associated with more children, new partner status, more prior divorces, participant divorce initiation, and lower levels of divorce conflict. 

Higher income, new partner status, and lower levels of divorce conflict all predicted better physical and mental health for women. Having fewer previous divorces was also associated with better physical health; participant divorce initiation was associated with better mental health. 

“The emotional factors like few previous divorces, new partner status, [and] low conflict makes sense for better physical health due to less strain, anxiety, and tension—physical and emotional [health are] so strongly linked,” Castro says.

Limitations

There were a few limitations to this study:

  • This study did not allow for researchers to investigate the impacts divorce conflict has on mental health over time. 
  • Participants may have had more conflicts and more physical and mental problems than non-participants, since they could have thought their participation would help them. On the other hand, those with more conflicts and mental and physical health issues might not have participated due to feeling a threat toward their sense of self.
  • Researchers could not determine if both partners from the divorce participated in the study.
  • Finally, this study did not look at cohabitating couples who are not married, so these findings may or may not be applicable to those sets of people who split up. 

Effects of Divorce

No matter who wanted the divorce or the reasons for it, divorce can be both mentally and physically taxing.

“Divorce is a major transition, [and] with major transitions comes a change in lifestyle,” Castro says. “Transition is such a challenging thing for humans, even in the healthiest of divorces. It makes sense that in this period following divorce there could be symptoms of depression [and] anxiety.

High levels of stress and anxiety can definitely lead to a higher level of physical symptoms and health-related symptoms that can impact daily life and daily functioning.”

She also notes that when there are higher levels of conflict, such as with child custody issues, there is higher stress and thus the potential for “perpetual damage” to both partners and children.  

Ways to Cope With a Divorce

Everyone experiences the effects of a divorce differently, but providing support immediately following the divorce to those who experience higher levels of conflict could help reduce potential negative long-term health effects.

Here are some expert-approved tips for how to cope with a recent divorce.

Ask for Support

There is no shame in admitting that you need help working through the emotions your divorce has brought up. Vent to a close friend about what’s going on, or seek out a therapist who specializes in helping people cope post-divorce with whom to work through your emotions. 

There are also plenty of divorce support groups you can join to meet people who are going through a similar experience as you.

Feel Your Feelings

Our gut reaction is often to suppress the urge to cry or distract ourselves from our emotions with work or other activities. However, it’s not healthy to hold those feelings in, Bronstein says. “Your feelings are messages about what's really going on with you emotionally…[they are] your truth, so do your best to feel whatever you are feeling without judgment.”

Allow Yourself to Grieve

Even if you wanted it, a divorce is a loss in its own respect. At one point, you thought you’d spend the rest of your life with the person to whom you are no longer committed. It’s understandable to feel sad, angry, frustrated, shocked, defeated, or any other emotion you experience. 

“There is no set amount of time to take to grieve the relationship," Bronstein says. "Everyone is different, so be kind to yourself and navigate your journey to healing, however you feel it is the best way for you."

Allow Yourself to Feel Relieved

It’s also okay to feel a sense of relief that your marriage is officially over, perhaps as if a weight has been lifted off your chest and you can finally breathe. Celebrate that feeling. There is no shame in being happy that your marriage has come to a close.

If this doesn’t apply to you, that’s okay too! Everyone has a different post-divorce experience. Your feelings are your own, and there is no ‘right’ way to handle this life change.

Date Yourself

Castro recommends to her divorcee clients to spend time dating themselves and engaging in self-care. Take yourself to a movie, cook yourself a nice dinner, go on a hike, or cuddle up with a good book.

“Do things that make you happy and work on connecting/reconnecting more with yourself before you jump into dating again,” she says. “Divorce can be disorienting even in the best of circumstances, so re-finding who you are, interests, and hobbies can make all the difference.”

What This Means For You

This study measured the effects of divorce in people immediately after the divorce was legalized and found that, other factors aside, higher levels of conflict predict worse mental health outcomes.

Divorce is a big life transition, and there is no right or wrong way to handle it. Find a support person or group, allow yourself to grieve and/or celebrate, and spend some time getting to know yourself again.

“People need to take care of themselves. Your mental and physical health is essential and should not be ignored. If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of others,” Bronstein says. “Everything starts with self-care.”

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2 Sources
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