I recently went through a divorce after 25 years of marriage. The choice to divorce wasn’t mine, but the consequences were very personal.
the To get a better handle on what I experienced, I turned to survey data. I began with a piece by M. Tosi and T. van den Broek in the April 2020 edition of Social Science and Medicine, “Gray divorce and mental health in the United Kingdom.” Their article explored the mental health effects of divorces in which at least one of the partners was aged 50 or over.
Although “gray divorce” has historically been rare, its incidence is increasing dramatically. I’m not unique. Possible explanations include longer life spans, greater income equality among spouses, no-fault divorce laws, and the growing sense, at least among some, that marriage is not necessarily a life-long commitment.
Tosi and van den Broek’s goal was to track self-reported mental health conditions prior to, during, and after divorce. They were keen to learn whether and how long it took for respondents to regain the mental health “baseline” they experienced two years prior to the marriage’s dissolution.
The researchers used survey data from nine waves of the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which repeatedly questioned the same individuals from 40,000 households, 2009 to 2018. For this particular study, Tosi and van den Broek selected only those respondents aged 50 and over who had reported a divorce or separation during one of the nine waves. The resulting sample included 909 adults who were questioned 5.1 times, on average, during the study period. That’s a lot of over-time data!
The dependent or outcome variable in the’ study was a numerical score of 0 through 12, in which 0 equalled “least depressed” and 12 represented “most depressed.” The researchers computed scores from responses to 12 questions about mental health and mental health-related behavior (eg, sleep interruption, dietary changes, workplace issues).
The independent variable of interest was time to and from divorce, divided into six categories: (0) two years prior to divorce (1) one year prior to divorce; (2) the year of divorce; (3) one year after divorce; (4) two years after divorce, and (5) three years or more after divorce. The researchers added a few moderating variables such as sex (male/female), number of previous divorces (0+), and parenthood status (childless/children). Sadly, they didn’t control for income or education, which seems like a huge mistake.
Tosi and van den Broek studied the impacts of time on mental health by setting the baseline at self reported mental wellbeing two years prior to divorce. Their statistical results showed that depressive symptoms increased in the year prior to divorce and then during the year of divorce itself. By the second post-divorce year, however, subjects had recovered, on average, to their “baseline”condition. In other words, things got really tough just prior to and during the break-up, but improved substantially soon after.
Their findings suggest that gray divorcees follow a “crisis” pattern in which mental health declines just prior and during divorce, and then rapidly improves. This differs from the “convalescence” pattern, in which post-divorce recovery takes three to five years, or the “chronic strain” pattern, in which divorcees never return to baseline, remaining chronically depressed for years, if not forever.
In other statistical models, Tosi and van den Broek found no statistically significant differences between male and female divorcees. They did, however, find that parenthood mattered. Childless divorcees aged 50 and over recovered and even felt better than baseline at divorce-plus one year. Divorcees with children, by contrast, took three years, on average, to return to baseline, suggesting there is a fair bit of stress involved in dealing with offsprings’ responses to the marital break. The researchers did not find statistically different trajectories for respondents who had experienced more than one divorce in their lifetime.
I find myself taking heart from this study. I’m a parent, and it’s been almost two years since my divorce date of October 31, 2018. The year BEFORE the divorce was really rough, as my spouse had already announced her intention to leave, and the almost three years SINCE the divorce have been equally bad. Things have been getting better of late, however, and I’m beginning to feel like myself again.
In other words, my divorce-related mental health is following an entirely average trajectory. It’s been almost three years since my divorce, and as an over-50 divorcee with children, it should take me three years – on average – to return to where I was in October 2016. And indeed, I’m right on track.
Survey findings don’t always say very much about individual lives, as everyone’s life trajectory is somewhat unique. Very few of us fall directly on the statistical regression line. In this case, however, I feel like the study of 909 UK divorcees has described my own experiences to a T, and I find that hugely reassuring. The pain was real, but I’m just an average Joe.
Hooray for average outcomes!