Higher levels of conflict predict poorer mental health, regardless of other factors
Going through a divorce is extremely complicated and previous research has already highlighted the adverse effects it can have on divorcees. A new study now published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology is the first to examine the health impacts immediately after a divorce.
The study found that the mental and physical health of the recent divorcees was worse than that of the source population and that higher levels of conflict predicted worse mental health, regardless of other factors. Understanding these effects could help researchers design interventions that help divorcees recover and avoid long-term repercussions.
Researchers have been examining the physical and mental effects of divorce but may have missed an opportunity to accurately characterize these effects until now. Divorce is often a lengthy process and many countries require a period of separation before couples can file for divorce. However, a prolonged separation may allow psychological wounds to heal, and the evaluation of divorcees after that period may underestimate its impact.
“Previous studies have not investigated the effects of divorce without long periods of separation occurring first,” says Professor Gert Hald of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. “We were able to study divorcees who had been granted a divorce called ‘immediate’ in Denmark and on average these divorcees obtained a divorce within 5 days of filing for it. “
This allowed Hald, Dr. Soren Sander, and their colleagues at the University of Copenhagen to obtain “real-time” data on 1,856 very recent divorcees, who completed questionnaires about their background, health, and divorce.
Unsurprisingly, the study showed that a recent divorce has an emotional and physical cost. “The mental and physical health of the divorced was significantly worse than the comparative background population immediately after the divorce,” Sander notes.
However, some interesting trends emerged from the data such as, for example, among men, earning more and being younger predicted better physical health, while having more children, having a new partner, and even having more prior divorces were associated with better mental health.
Among women, earning more money, having a new partner, and having fewer prior divorces were associated with better physical health, while initiating the divorce and having a new partner predicted better mental health.
However, one factor had a great influence on the divorce: the conflict. “Across genders, higher levels of divorce conflict were found to predict poorer mental health, even when other sociodemographic variables and characteristics of divorce are taken into account,” adds Sander.
So how can the findings help people get through a divorce with their health intact? Targeted interventions early in the process can be key.
“We need evidence-based interventions that can help divorcees immediately after divorce,” Hald explains. “These could include face-to-face or virtual interventions designed to reduce the specific adverse effects of divorce on physical and mental health. This would not only be beneficial to the divorced, but could also save money by counteracting the negative impacts of divorce on workplace productivity, sick days, doctor visits, and use of healthcare facilities. “