23 September 2021.

Studies consistently show that marriage is good for our health – married or cohabiting people tend to live longer, healthier lives than those who are single. But around a third of marriages in Australia end in divorce – and those that don’t will inevitably end in the widowhood of one of the spouses. What happens when things fall apart, through divorce or the death of one’s spouse? Do people’s health suffer and for how long after the event? These fascinating questions are the subject of a new paper that crunches data from the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study – one of the world’s largest longitudinal studies on healthy ageing, involving over a quarter of a million participants from New South Wales.

The researchers from the University of Sydney looked at a subset of 30,000 people from the 45 and Up Study who were reported to be married or cohabiting at the beginning of the Study’s enrolment in 2006, and followed them over time. Some of these participants later became divorced or widowed, and the researchers tracked their physical and mental health alongside those who remained married. The findings revealed strong short-term effects of divorce – and to a lesser degree of widowhood – particularly on mental health (stress, anxiety and depression), but also on smoking rates and quality of life. However, five years on from the event, these effects seem to attenuate and in some cases disappear.

The findings, the authors say, confirm what’s known as the “divorce-stress-adjustment perspective” – where the marital disruption leads to multiple stressors (loss of custody of children or financial problems, for example), which, in turn, lead to negative emotional, behavioural and health outcomes. Then follows a process of adjustment, the length of which depends on the person and the severity of the issues.

An interesting finding was that those who got divorced during the study period were already more likely to have poor health and quality of life, higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression and higher smoking rates. The authors say this could provide support for a theory that people with poor health are less likely to maintain a solid relationship than their peers in better health. But since marriages take time to deteriorate, it might also be that a dysfunctional relationship could already have been affecting a person’s health before the actual divorce took place.

Divorce and widowhood didn’t seem to affect physical activity or increase alcohol consumption, but there was an association with insufficient fruit and vegetable consumption. This could indicate a lack of food preparation skills among men and meal skipping as a grief response in women, the authors say.

More highly educated people coped with divorce the best, but were the worst with widowhood. This unexpected finding may be related to the higher levels of independence, resources and support in people with higher socioeconomic status to cope with an expected traumatic event like divorce, the authors suggest, whereas widowhood is less planned and more permanent and may exert severe emotional stress on individuals in the short-term, regardless of skills, resources and support.

The study findings have important public health implications, the authors say.

“Given the ubiquitous and inevitable nature of marital disruption, it is important to raise public awareness of its potential health effects and develop strategies to help individuals navigate such difficult life transitions,” they conclude.

Access the full paper here.

Find out more about the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study here.