Going through a divorce is extremely challenging and previous research has highlighted the adverse effects that it can have on divorcees.
A recent study in open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology is the first to examine health impacts immediately after a divorce. The study found that the mental and physical health of recent divorcees was worse than that of the background population and that higher levels of conflict predicted worse mental health, regardless of other factors.
Understanding these effects could assist researchers in designing interventions that help divorcees to get back on their feet and avoid long-term repercussions.
Researchers have been examining the mental and physical effects of divorce, but may have missed an opportunity to accurately characterize these effects, until now.
Divorce is often a protracted process, with many countries requiring a separation period before couples can apply for divorce. However, a long separation may allow psychological wounds to heal and assessing divorcees after such a period may underestimate their impact.
“Previous studies have not investigated the effects of divorce without extensive separation periods occurring before the divorce,” said Prof Gert Hald, of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
“We were able to study divorcees who had been granted a so-called ‘immediate’ divorce in Denmark and on average, these divorcees obtained a divorce within 5 days of filing for it.”
This allowed Hald and colleagues, including Dr. Søren Sander of the University of Copenhagen, to obtain ‘real-time’ data on 1,856 very recent divorcees, who completed questionnaires about their background, health and their divorce.
Unsurprisingly, the study showed that a recent divorce takes an emotional and physical toll. “The mental and physical health of divorcees was significantly worse than the comparative background population immediately following divorce,” said Sander.
However, some interesting trends emerged from the data. For instance, among men, earning more and being younger predicted better physical health, while having more children, having a new partner and even having more previous divorces was associated with better mental health.
Among women, earning more money, having a new partner and having fewer previous divorces was associated with better physical health, while initiating the divorce and having a new partner predicted better mental health.
However, one factor had a big influence on the divorcees – conflict. “Across gender, higher levels of divorce conflict were found to predict worse mental health, even when accounting for other socio-demographic variables and divorce characteristics,” said Sander.
So, how can the findings help people to navigate a divorce with their health intact?
Targeted interventions early during the process may be key. “We need evidence-based interventions that can help divorcees immediately following divorce,” said Hald.
“These might include face-to-face or digital interventions that are designed to reduce the specific adverse mental and physical health effects of divorce. Not only would this be beneficial for divorcees, but it could also save money by countering the negative impacts of divorce on work-place productivity, sick days, doctor visits and use of health care facilities.”
In another recent study, the researchers developed an online digital solution called ‘Cooperation After Divorce’ that helps divorcees to significantly reduce such adverse mental and physical health effects. The results of this latest study will help them to refine such approaches in the future.
Family Disruption on Children Well-being
Studies on the effects of parental divorce on children’s well-being that use ordinary least squares (OLS) and logistic models show that part of this effect is spurious and it is only partially explained by parental relationship quality (Hanson 1999). Since the late 1990s, several studies have used more innovative research designs to identify the independent effects of parental divorce and father absence such as lagged dependent variable models, growth curve models, individual and sibling fixed effects models, natural experiments and instrumental variables, and propensity score matching.
McLanahan et al. (2013) review these studies and find consistent evidence that parental divorce exerts negative effects on the well-being of offspring. They also show that this evidence is stronger for children’s socio-emotional development, especially in externalizing problems, than for children’s cognitive ability.
Nevertheless, they present the following features: a) most studies of the effect that of parental divorce on cognitive and psychological development are based on US samples b) very few studies focus on children who experience parental divorce in early childhood, and c) only one (Strohschein 2005) explores the heterogeneity of divorce effects by the quality of the parental relationship prior to separation.
A weakness of existing research is that it does not consider parents who separate only temporarily. Recent studies observe that a non-negligible proportion of parents separate for a short time period and then re-partner with the same person (Kiernan et al. 2011; Nepomnyaschy and Teitler 2013). However, as stated by Nepomnyaschy and Teitler (2013, 3) “in most studies, this family ‘type’ is usually classified as either intact or separated (depending on when cohabitation status is ascertained), but it may differ in many respects from both of those groups”.
The reason this type of family disruption is scarcely considered in previous research is that most studies only use two waves of survey data, and at least three waves are necessary to detect it. The existing research on the characteristics of parents who only separate temporarily show that such couples have a more disadvantaged socio-demographic background than with continuously intact relationships (Kiernan et al. 2011; Nepomnyaschy and Teitler 2013).
Despite that, the only two studies that analyze the consequences of temporary separation on children well-being find evidence of a negative effect, even when controlling for several socio-demographic characteristics (Kiernan et al. 2011; Nepomnyaschy and Teitler 2013). However, no study controls for the relationship quality of parents before separation and some evidence suggest that couples who separate temporarily have a lower relationship quality than stable couples long before separation occurs (Vennum et al. 2014). Thus, if poor parental relationship quality may cause temporary separation, then it is difficult to rule out the possibility that the negative association between parental temporary separation and children’s outcomes may be due to relationship quality rather than this event per se.
Heterogeneity of the Effects of Parental Divorce by Parental Relationship Quality
Two main explanations are provided regarding the heterogeneity of the effects of parental divorceFootnote1 by parental relationship quality. One is the stress relief hypothesis (Wheaton 1990) which concerns the consequences of transitions in life roles. Wheaton (1990, 210) stated that “…instead of being stressful, life events may at times be either non-problematic or even beneficial, offering escape from a chronically stressful role situation, creating the apparent paradox of more ‘stress’ functioning as stress relief”. According to this perspective, the stressful event of parental divorce may be beneficial for children whose parental relationship prior to divorce has been poor, as it takes them away from an aversive and stressful home environment. After divorce, these children should enjoy an improvement in their well-being since they no longer experience the parental conflict (Booth and Amato 2001; Strohschein 2005).
By contrast, the dissolution of low-distress parental relationships may be detrimental to children’s development. Children from relatively harmonious families may not benefit from divorce, since it is unlikely that they experience this event as stress relief. For these children, divorce may instead give rise to stressful situations such as a decline in their standard of living, moving to a poorer neighborhood, changing schools, and losing contact with the non-custodial parent (Amato 2010). Children from non-dysfunctional families may also begin to experience parental discord after separation, since issues such as custody, childrearing, visitation, and child support are potentially conflictual (Booth and Amato 2001).
In addition to changes in stress, children’s understanding and perceptions of divorce depend on the level of their parents’ pre-divorce relationship problems, another factor related to children’s adjustment after separation. Children who have witnessed parental disputes may anticipate their parents’ divorce and attribute it to external reasons, such as parental conflict, as argued by Booth and Amato (2001).
For children from low-distress families, by contrast, divorce might come as more of a surprise and they might see divorce as a threat to their happiness. Booth and Amato (2001) give possible reasons as to how an unexpected divorce may adversely impact on children. First, for these children, it is more difficult to comprehend and accept the reasons for their parents’ separation. As Maes et al. (2012, 276) state: “if children do not understand why their parents have divorced, they make up their own story around things they do know, increasing the danger that children will blame themselves”.
Second, children who do not anticipate parental divorce may feel that they have little control over events in their lives (Booth and Amato 2001). Children’s self-blame and locus of control are, in turn, negatively related to their adjustment after divorce (Bussell 1996; Kim et al. 1997).
Are these useful in explaining the heterogeneity of parental divorce for infants and very young children? The explanation of children’s understanding and perceptions of divorce is unlikely to be valid for very young children due to the kind of reasoning needed for children to be able to anticipate this event and blame themselves for it.
The stress relief explanation developed for older children and adults, however, can also be applied to infants and very young children. There is a growing and consistent body of research documenting that the exposure to poor parental relationship quality during infancy affects children’s well-being cross-sectionally during infancy and longitudinally during their pre-school years (Fitzgerald 2010; Graham et al. 2013; Zhou, Cao and Leerkes 2017).
For example, a possible mechanism is that parental conflict experienced by infants is associated with neural responses to emotional tone of voice, particularly very angry speech (Graham et al. 2013). With the existing evidence, it is reasonable to assume that if parental conflict produces stress in infants, then when parental divorce occurs this source of stress will disappear and their well-being will improve.
The second explanation does not focus on the consequences of direct exposure of infants to parental conflict but highlights an indirect pathway through parental well-being: parental relationship quality moderates the effect of parental divorce on very young children because parental relationship quality also moderates the effect of divorce on parent’s well-being.
To our knowledge, this explanation has not been mentioned by previous research and is based on two main premises. First, it has been largely demonstrated that parents’ emotional adjustment after divorce is an important predictor of children’s well-being (Amato 1993) and that parents’ emotional problems are also clearly associated with adverse children’s outcomes during infancy and early childhood (Petterson and Albers 2001; Kiernan and Huerta 2008).
In addition to that, few empirical studies that have focused on this topic predominantly show that people who enjoyed a high relationship quality prior to divorce suffer the most harmful negative effects on their emotional well-being (for instance, see Wheaton 1990; Booth and Amato 2001; Williams 2003; Waite et al. 2009; Ye et al. 2017). For people with low levels of relationship quality, the findings are mixed.
Some studies give support to the hypothesis that divorce is beneficial for the emotional well-being of people in highly conflictual or unsatisfactory relationships (for instance, see: Wheaton 1990; Williams 2003; Amato and Hohmann-Marriott 2007; Ye et al. 2017).
Others find evidence that when people divorce from an unsatisfactory relationship, they experience a decrease in their emotional well-being but to a lesser extent than those who divorce from satisfactory relationships (Kalmijn and Monden 2006; Waite et al. 2009). For these reasons, it seems plausible to hypothesize that if divorce has the most harmful effects on parents who enjoyed a high level of relationship quality, their children would also experience the most harmful effects of this event.
To the extent of our knowledge the current research is based on the possible data according to the characteristics of the sample at the time and on the best method of analysis. Confidence in research findings increases when studies are based on a nationally representative sample with a large sample size.
Some studies have less than 300 cases in the divorce group, and only three (Hanson 1999; Strohschein 2005; Kalmijn 2015) use nationally representative surveys. The majority of samples are based on American children, with the exception of Kalmijn (2015) and Strohschein (2005), and there is not enough evidence to conclude the hypothesis of heterogeneity of divorce effects is valid in all Western countries or if this hypothesis is country-specific.
With exception of Fomby and Osborne (2010), all relevant studies examine only children whose parents are married; they exclude the large and increasing proportion of children who are living with their biological cohabiting parents (Kiernan et al. 2011).
Concerning the characteristics of the outcomes and focal variables we observe that seven of the nine studies in this field used the psychological well-being of offspring; there is less consistent evidence of variation in divorce effects in other important outcomes. Among studies concerning the heterogeneity of divorce, only one focus on educational achievement (Hanson 1999). For this reason, with the existing research, it is not possible to say whether the hypothesis about the heterogeneity of divorce effects is valid for most children’s outcomes, or only for psychological ones.
In addition, existing research does not focus on a specific stage of children’s development. Instead, samples are used with great variation in the children’s ages at the time of divorce, and the age when response variables are measured. Most studies look at children who experienced parental divorce over a wide range of ages (Booth and Amato 2001; Hanson 1999; Kalmijn 2015).
In some of them, divorce occurred any time from when the children were born to when they were adults. Only Fomby and Osborne (2010) focus on a specific stage of children’s development namely parental divorce that occurs before age 3, and the response variable is measured at age 3.
Second, as mentioned, studies finding evidence in favor of the heterogeneity hypothesis analyze children’s outcomes measured during middle childhood and/or adolescence (Hanson 1999; Jekielek 1998; Morrison and Coiro 1999; Strohschein 2005) or adulthood (Amato et al. 1995; Booth and Amato 2001; Yu et al. 2010; Kalmijn 2015) and the only paper that does not support this hypothesis focuses on outcomes in very young children (Fomby and Osborne 2010).
These contradictory results may suggest that the effects of divorce only vary by parental relationship quality for children in middle childhood or older. However, with only one study on very young children, there is not enough evidence to conclude whether divorce effects are heterogeneous depending on the age of the child at the time of divorce and/or the age when the outcomes were measured.
reference link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11205-020-02428-2
More information: Frontiers in Psychology (2020). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.578083 , www.frontiersin.org/articles/1 … syg.2020.578083/full