At eHarmony Labs, we’re always looking for interesting relationship research. A study on how divorce can affect one’s health caught our attention recently. See our take on it below and visit our Hot Science Blog to read our reviews on the latest in relationship science.
Divorce and Health by Mid-life
Recent sociological research from a national sample suggests that divorce may have a lasting negative impact on your health, even if you remarry. But is it the act of divorce or the stress behind it that is the real culprit? Health psychology looks at the intersection of stress, emotions and physical health to reveal more of the story.
Research published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior suggests those who marry once and remain married are at a greater physical and mental health advantage than those who later divorce. The study found that these health advantages for the continuously married remain even if the divorced individuals later remarry. Using data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative long term study of individuals over fifty, sociologists Linda Waite (also a science advisor for eHarmony Labs) and Mary Hughes looked at martial transitions and disruptions across an individuals’ life span to [study] date. They found that divorced individuals reported more chronic health issues—such as heart disease, cancer, and stroke—than those who stayed married. Remarriage provided only a slight amelioration of these outcomes. Lower physical functioning, such as difficulty with walking and light exercise, were also more likely to be reported in those previously married and currently remarried.
Should individuals stay in marriages that make them miserable for the sake of their health? Should those that oppose divorce start celebrating this research news? Not exactly (and obviously not when physical safety is an issue). This study may show the damaging effects of divorce, but the real culprit might be the profound and lasting impact that stress and distress have on the body, especially when left untreated. Getting divorced and staying divorced (i.e., not remarrying) are the variables reported, but clearly (as anyone who has experienced such a disruption could say) these events are fraught with stress.
Health psychologist and immunologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser looks at the intersection of stress, negative emotions and the body, finding that stress has been found to influence the immune system in powerful ways: slower healing times, diminished immune responses to vaccines, and reactivation of previous sicknesses. Combine stress with depression and the changes in inflammation increase the risk of many age-related diseases. Since divorce causes stress across every facet of an individual’s life, and repeated negative interaction with an ex-spouse may prolong that stress, the real culprit is not divorce per se, but stress. Addressing and ridding the body of psychological stress will be beneficial for your long term physical health. Arguably, it’s vital.
For further reading:
Hughes, M.E. & Waite, L.J. (2009). Marital biography and health at mid-life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 50 (September): 344- 358.
Kiecolt-Glaser, J.(2009). Psychoneuroimmunology: Psychology’s gateway to the biomedical future. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(4): 367- 369.