Emotional Divorce Recovery

Research suggests that the emotional recovery from a divorce — particularly the notion that people feel better as soon as they adapt to their new lives — may be more complicated than expected.

According to Dr. Richard Lucas at Michigan State University the level of life satisfaction for divorced adults does not recover to pre-divorce levels even six years after the divorce.

In addition, divorce elevates the risk of clinical depression for some people who have struggled with emotional downturns before. Researchers found that divorce is associated with an increased risk of future depressive episodes but only for those who already have a history of depression, according to a study Clinical Psychological Science.

Divorce is associated with prolonged emotional stress, which includes depression, notes Dr. David Sbarra of the University of Arizona. Some people are at greater risk for experience divorce related issues than other people. Sbarra and colleagues ponder the chicken and the egg of this: Is it divorce, or the factors leading to divorce — such as marital discord, neuroticism, or hostility — that increase the risk for depression?

Sbarra’s research suggests that divorce does not necessarily trigger depression, but that divorce increases the risk of depression for some people but not others. Dr. Sbarra and colleagues also note that the research can’t speak to potentially interesting differences between those adults who separate versus those who divorce, since the two categories were combined in the study. However, the researchers believe the findings have significant clinical implications and it is important to know the individual’s personal history of depression. Often people going through divorce with a history of depression need attention and supportive counseling.

Nearly 60 percent of people who divorced who had previously experienced depression reported another depressive bout after their split, compared to only 10 percent of people without a history of depression reported post-divorce depression. This means that those who have a history of depression are more likely to experience a depressive episode after a divorce or separation as with any other significant life change.

Dr. Sbarra said that these findings show that the majority of people bounce back from divorce without experiencing a severe bout of depression and that the findings can help specialists treating people after divorce. The findings also suggest that separation and divorce may exacerbate underlying risk but don’t, in and of themselves, increase rates of depression. It’s possible, that people with a history of depression cannot cope with the demands of the transition out of marriage. Some people may blame themselves for the divorce, or they think too much about the separation, what they could have done different.

Most clinicians observe a difference between situational depression, which is most often associated with divorce and death of a spouse, and clinical depression, which can be a profound medical condition. Most people going through divorce experience some degree of situational depression as part of the normal grieving process over all the losses in the death of the marriage. Situational depression often persists if not dealt with properly.

Dr. Lucas examined their ratings of life satisfaction before and after the divorce using an 18-year longitudinal study of a representative sample of German adults. He looked at satisfaction over three periods of time: marriage, which means all the years of marriage three years prior to the divorce; the reaction period, which means three years prior to the divorce and the year of the divorce; and adaptation, which means all the years 2 years after the divorce.

People who divorce begin to report less satisfaction with life up to six years prior to the divorce, with a steady decline in satisfaction to its lowest point about one year prior before the divorce. The spouses may have already separated. From the divorce to four years later, satisfaction increases and levels off five years later but it is still lower than during the early stages of marriage.

The findings seem to indicate that men are more dissatisfied than women during the reaction period, which is three years before marriage and the year of divorce, and they remain less satisfied with life than divorced women in the years after divorce. Remarriage substantially increased adults’ life satisfaction following divorce, but divorced men who remarry do not get as much of an increase in satisfaction.

Since these adults were surveyed over a long period of time, Dr. Lucas had a measure of their life satisfaction prior to marriage. He finds that married adults who divorce are less satisfied with their lives prior to marriage than adults who get married and do not divorce. This finding suggests that adults who get divorced may already be different from other adults who have not divorced.

Divorced adults are not doomed to a life of sadness. Divorce, disability and unemployment pose significant life adjustment challenges to people. No one can predict a person’s specific life experience based on a general pattern of research findings, but the findings suggest that divorcing adults might benefit from learning strategies to increase their satisfaction and cope with challenging situations.

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