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Emotional Pain of Divorce Lingers Long After Split

Study finds levels of happiness don't return to what's reported before breakup

THURSDAY, Dec. 22, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Breaking up may be hard to do, but getting over it is even harder for many people, new research shows.

A divorce can alter a person's sense of happiness over the long-term, beginning in the period leading up to the split and stretching well beyond that, the German study claims.

"Divorce does seem to cause a permanent decline in levels of happiness," said study author Richard E. Lucas, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Michigan State University in Lansing, and a research affiliate with the German Institute of Economic Research in Berlin. "People are less happy following a divorce than they were at the beginning of their marriage, or before they even got married."

To explore the emotional resonance of divorce, Lucas analyzed 18 years of data collected during once-yearly interviews involving more than 30,000 German men and women who were asked to rate their life satisfaction on a scale of one to 10.

Lucas honed in on 817 individuals, all of whom had already been married before the study launch in 1984. All the men and women remained married for at least one year into the interview process before ultimately divorcing.

He also focused on a separate pool of 2,388 men and women who were single when first interviewed, but got married at some point during the study period.

When possible, Lucas assessed the changes in annual satisfaction responses by comparing three time frames: the period of marriage occurring at least three years before a divorce -- defined as the gold standard of happiness; the "reaction period," the two years before the divorce as well as the year of the divorce itself; and the "adaptation period," beginning at least two years after the divorce.

In the December issue of Psychological Science, Lucas reports that -- as might be expected -- the average participant had a steep drop in his or her sense of happiness during the reaction period surrounding divorce. The drop was twice as evident in men compared to women.

Lucas also found that during the post-split phase, divorcees were still significantly less happy than they had been during the prime of their marriage.

A sense of happiness returned about five years after the divorce -- but never rose back to pre-divorce levels, he said.

Lucas next tried to determine whether the divorce itself caused the unhappiness or whether people who get divorced are somehow predisposed to become unhappy during the break-up process.

What he found was a complex emotional landscape, in which people who eventually get divorced appeared to have been less happy during their happiest years than those who got married and stayed married.

He also noted that those who stayed married were, on average, happier before getting married than those who ended up in divorce court.

And those who got divorced appeared to have had below-average happiness levels before their marriage.

Age, however, seems to trump marital status, with older people reporting less satisfaction overall than younger people, regardless of whether they ultimately divorce.

Lucas concluded that while the experience of divorce does trigger a sustained happiness decline in many people, the drop can sometimes be due as much to pre-existing happiness differences among individuals as it is to the act of separation itself.

In either case, Lucas emphasized that divorce has a complicated emotional impact. And he encouraged friends, family and health-care professionals to assess the emotional health of those going through divorce.

"This is about the average person, but it turns out there's quite a bit of variability," said Lucas. "Some people are actually happier after divorce than they were before. And so therapists, clinicians and psychological researchers need to explore the factors that allow some people to adapt to life events, whereas others do not."

Dr. David Yamins, a psychiatrist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City, viewed the findings with a jaundiced eye.

"It really depends on how you define satisfaction, but I find it hard to believe that a divorce confers a special disadvantage above and beyond any other significant life event," he said. "In my experience, people who have gone through a divorce and continue on in life don't seem to be any worse off."

"But I do think people's approach to relationships will stay the same from partner to partner," he added. "So within the sphere of relationships, there may not be any greater happiness after a divorce. We're bound to repeat history."

Another divorce study conducted in Canada and published in the current issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family found that the demise of a marriage is most harmful to a child's mental health before a parental split, rather than after.

By analyzing four years of data on almost 17,000 children younger than 11, researchers at the University of Alberta found that before the divorce, children whose parents ultimately break up are more depressed, anxious and anti-social than kids from stable marriages.

The researchers concluded that the common notion that parents should stay together for the sake of their kids is a fallacy that can do more harm to children than good.

More information

For more on marriage and mental health, check out the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

SOURCES: Richard E. Lucas, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of psychology, Michigan State University, Lansing, Mich., and research affiliate, German Institute of Economic Research, Berlin, Germany; David Yamins, M.D., psychiatrist, Maimonides Medical Center, New York City; December 2005 Psychological Science; November 2005 Journal of Marriage and Family
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