Much has been written about the impact of divorce on children. Its impact on the parents is less studied. In this post, we review research on the effects of divorce on adults. While many effects are common for both men and women, some research shows that divorce can affect women differently from men.
In their book, Mindful Co-Parenting: A Child-Friendly Path through Divorce, the authors note that divorce has lasting psychological effects on the family, both parents and kids. It takes 2 or more years to fully recover from a divorce, more if the divorce was contentious. Divorced parents face a variety of challenges:
- More responsibility
- Financial stress
- The challenge of re-entering the workforce
- Changes in work hours and day-to-day job responsibilities
- Challenges of being a single adult (home repairs, shopping, laundry, etc.),
- Emotions while facing family and friends as a single person (feelings of guilt, failure, etc.)
- Challenges of dealing with the legal system on a regular basis
- Finding you do not have not enough time for all that you need to accomplish
- Challenges of building a co-parenting relationship
- Managing diverse schedules
- Conflict with the other parent around child issues
Another study found that 5 years after their divorce, about 50% of women were still angry at their ex-husband. A third felt that their life was unfair and disappointing. The study found that couples were happier in a bad marriage than those who had divorced.
In the article Separation and divorce: the impact on a family, authors note that relationships with extended family, friends, associates, and acquaintances are also affected by the divorce. In-laws feel the need to choose sides, and this negativity can be sensed by the children. This puts the child in the middle, often feeling as if they, too, must pick a side. It is important to let extended family know your expectations of how the divorce should be handled, especially with the kids. Next is the problem of friends and acquaintances. Was he your friend or mine? Shouldn’t my friends be loyal only to me? These relationships are sometimes hard to work out, especially if the person was a close friend to both partners.
Perhaps a more comprehensive study on the effects of divorce on parents was done by Sanford L. Braver, Jenessa R. Shapiro and Matthew R. Goodmane from the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University at Tempe. The authors reviewed current research, statistics, and data on the topic of consequences of divorce on parents. They categorized these into five topics: legal process and consequences, financial consequences, psychological and emotional consequences, consequences for the parental relationship and the consequences for the interparental relationship. “The most explored and obvious factors by which consequences differ are: (1) the parent with custody vs. the one without custody of the child(ren); (2) the gender of the parent; i.e., the mother vs. the father; or (3) the person who initiated the divorce vs. the one who didn’t (and often didn’t want it); i.e., the “dumper” vs. the “dumpee”.”
There are generally seven issues that are addressed during the legal process: legal custody, visitation, child support, other financial issues concerning the child (health insurance, tuition, etc.), spousal support and property and debt issues.
Surprisingly, most couples are able to decide and agree upon these issues prior to the final divorce decree. Mediation is the second most used method to determine these legal issues. In the legal system, there is a great deal of controversy over which parent has the greatest bias against them. One side supports the theory that the mother has the greatest bias against her. Her income is usually less than the father meaning she is unable to afford a better attorney. Others point out that courts generally grant custody to the mother, showing bias to fathers.
Financial consequences can be complicated. First is the actual cost of the divorce itself. The average divorce costs about $20,000 per couple. Then there is the cost of going from a one household family to a two household family. Many studies conclude that the custodial parent suffers substantially worse economically after the divorce. The child support goes toward supporting more family members than the non-custodial parent has to support. However, others argue that this is an incomplete analysis because it costs less to house and feed the fourth person than it does for the second person. In addition, the non-custodial parent has expenses that are most often not considered: items for when they visit like food and recreation, travel expenses incurred when visiting the non-custodial parent, health insurance. Finally, the IRS has more tax advantages for the custodial parent.
The psychological and emotional consequences have been studied extensively. Divorce is the number one life stressor. Divorced people are: at higher risk of physical and mental illness, suicide, motor vehicle accidents, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and unhappiness. Fathers tend to struggle more with the effects of divorce than mothers mostly because women seem better able to seek help, reach out to friends and family and build a social network. What contributes to a better adjustment are strong coping skills, new identity post-divorce, satisfying employment, new relationships post-divorce, certain religious beliefs. Some researchers suggest that strong personality characteristics before divorce help to make the adjustment to divorce more positive.
Consequences affecting the parental relationship show an increase in negative parenting strategies, at least in the beginning. Custodial parents are more likely to be inconsistent in their parenting approach immediately after divorce…laxness in child supervision, weakening of parent-child bond. For a non-custodial parent, there is less time spent with their children, feelings of a diminished role in their children’s lives. As a way to compensate, they tend to be more permissive with their children.
The consequences for the interparental relationship show high levels of conflict arising immediately after divorce. Conflicts are broken down into legal conflict (court actions), behavioral conflict (how conflict is expressed) and attitudinal conflict (anger and hostility toward each other). Usually, by the 3rd year mark, parents have adjusted, and conflict tends to level off. Most divorced couples engage in parallel parenting with 25% using the co-parenting model. Of course, these conflicts also affect the children.
Jane Anderson, MD, FCP, for the American College of Pediatrics (May 2014), summarized 30 years of research about divorce and how it affects children and parents. She summarizes the data into the following categories: physical health, incomes, emotional effects, safety, and community involvement.
Research has shown that divorced people are more likely to drink more, commit suicide, have increased incidents of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Divorced men are more likely to die younger than married men and have a diminished survival rate after a cancer diagnosis.
Furthermore, research shows that divorced people have less wealth and less income than married people. For divorced women, almost 30% have a decrease in their standard of living.
Divorced women experience greater rates of domestic violence than married women. In addition, divorced people reported greater feelings of disappointment, loneliness, isolation, and unhappiness. Divorced people are also less likely to be involved in their community, church, school, etc.
Amy Desai, J.D. repeats many of the above consequences of divorce. The financial effects of a divorce not only involve the direct costs of getting the divorce, but also the diminished standard of living that happen for about 30% of women and 10% of men. In addition, she reports that divorced people have lower life expectancies, are unhappier, less likely to recover from a cancer diagnosis and suffer more mental health issues than married people.
In an article for Women’s Health, Molly Triffin discusses some of the effects of divorce on women. Nearly 50% of divorced women reported a stressful day the day before. Almost 33% of divorced women report daily substance use and this group is more likely to use prescription drugs to relax. The research suggests that women experience more financial stress post divorce. Women often take backward career moves to raise children or give up work all together for the children. Getting back into the workforce after a divorce places stress on these women coupled with the fact that many also have an increased responsibility for the child rearing. Emotional factors weigh in here as well. Men are more likely to either have a new relationship at the time of the divorce or shortly thereafter. Seeing that their ex is dating can often lead to emotional distress for many women.
C.Giles’ article for LiveStrong.com does describe some negative effects of divorce on women, but also some potential positive ones as well. Among the negative effects are financial distress, feelings of loneliness, hurt and unhappiness, a sense of mistrust or rejection. C. Giles does suggest some possible positive effects of divorce on women. Some women feel a sense of freedom from a stressful conflict filled marriage. Many women also report a greater sense of independence, control, and personal choice.
In an article for TIME magazine, Alice Park writes about the cardiovascular effects of divorce on women. Several studies show that divorced women are almost 25% more likely to have a heart attack than re-married women. Those women who were in the process of divorcing were 77% more at risk. The same data does not hold true for men, however. While health insurance coverage and financial stress may contribute some to these statistics, it is suggested that the stress of the divorce and all of the issues associated with it raises cortisol levels (a stress hormone), thereby raising blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.
Another article describes similar physical and psychological effects of divorce on both men and women. In addition to what has been shared above, divorced people are more likely to have a weakened immune system (more colds, flu, etc.), more extreme changes in their weight. Divorced men are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and heart disease, have nearly a 250% greater mortality rate and suffer more heart attacks and stroke. “Women who have been divorced once see an increase in their chance by 24%, according to a study by Matthew Dupre of Duke University. Women who have been divorced twice or more see an increase in their risk of heart attack by 77%.”
There are also the emotional and psychological effects of divorce – guilt, anxiety, depression, insomnia, identity issues, substance abuse, and stress – that are felt by men and women alike. While men seem to have more difficulty dealing with the emotional parts of a divorce, women seem more willing to seek out friends, relatives and professional help to deal with these issues.
This article also points out a couple of positive effects of divorce such as relief, improved sense of self-identity, expanded career prospects and more social networks.
Listing many of the same psychological effects of divorce on women, this blog talks about the depression and anxiety that may result from divorce. While it may be a common occurrence, depression and anxiety could lead to a much more serious problem. Common symptoms of depression are thoughts of suicide, loss of appetite, sleeping issues, fatigue, low self-esteem, loss of interest, difficulty concentrating. Anxiety shows itself with chest pains, panic attacks, sweats, shaking, nausea. Understanding these symptoms is helpful in knowing when to seek professional intervention.
Liz Seegert has written about the older woman and the effects of divorce. Almost 30% of older divorced women are classified as poor, while only 11% of older men are. Nationally 10% of adults over 65 live in poverty. Poor economic status leads to reduced health care and nutrition. Reduced health care and nutrition lead to an increase in serious and chronic disease, depression and stress. Having own’s lifestyle abruptly changed after many years of marriage is definitely a circumstance that is hard for most to deal with. Having to deal with the changes associated with the health insurance world is also a big stressor for older divorced women.
Having reviewed several articles suggesting that the effects of divorce are harder on women, Elizabeth Aura McClintock, Ph.D., suggests just the opposite….divorce is harder on men. First, studies show that women initiate more divorces than men. Dr. McClintock maintains that men “crave relationships and marriage as much as women.” Since marriage is associated with happiness, having the marriage dissolve can leave many men with depression. Men also seem to be healthier in a marriage and therefore suffer more medical issues after a divorce than women. Seventy-one percent of married men seek out their wives for emotional support while only 39% of married women seek out their husbands for emotional support. Without a strong social network, divorced men struggle with obtaining the emotional support they need to cope with their divorce.
Regarding remarriage, men are more likely to remarry than divorced women. Men tend to see marriage as an institution where they receive care, both emotional and physical. Online dating sites appear to have more men than women, loosely supporting these observations about divorced men. Men with a small social network tend to seek out situations that increase their chances of remarriage.
In his article on the effects of divorce on fathers, Joshua A. Krisch opens with the statement, “Ten divorced men commit suicide each day – a rate at least three times higher than that of divorced women.” Fathers rank loss of contact with their kids as the biggest psychological impact on their lives. For married men, a marriage offers more positive health benefits. Their spouses are very instrumental in persuading them to seek medical checkups and intervention when needed. Without a spouse, divorced men tend to live less healthy lives, tend to seek medical intervention less often. Divorced men report more headaches, nausea, nightmares. Non-married men account for 62% of all male suicides. Some studies suggest that divorced men “are as much as eight times more likely to kill themselves than divorced women overall.” Researchers suggest that loneliness may be a factor but perhaps more so because society tends to ignore male mental health issues thus making men feel that they are not able to seek the appropriate professional interventions.
While the statistics for divorced parents are grim, there is hope. Researchers and clinicians suggest that there are ways to get through the divorce with relatively few battle scars. Communicating with your former partner is essential in establishing positive parenting practices and overcoming parenting conflicts. It is also important to take care of yourself and attend to your own personal needs: getting enough sleep, exercise, eating well, and nourishing your soul and mind with meditation and hobbies. Seek out the advice and help of trusted family or friends. Often, they can help with the responsibilities that are now a part of your new post-divorce life. You can also seek help from a support group, a professional counselor or therapist, or your religious or local community. Many helpful resources are available online, ranging from books to websites and online support groups. With proper support and self-care, you can come out of a divorce experience unscathed, as a better person and parent.