By Patrick B. Craine

CHICAGO, July 27, 2009 ( – Divorce and widowhood have a lingering, detrimental impact on health, even after a person remarries, research at the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University has shown.

“Among the currently married, those who have ever been divorced show worse health on all dimensions,” said University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite and co-author of a new study on marriage and health.  Further, “Both the divorced and widowed who do not remarry show worse health on all dimensions,” she said. 

Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology and Director of the Center on Aging at the National Opinion Research Center at the University, conducted the study with Mary Elizabeth Hughes, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. Their research, which was based on a study of 8,652 people aged 51 to 61, will be published in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in the article, “Marital Biography and Health Midlife.”

The findings are consistent with previous studies, said Dr. Mark Hayward, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas and an expert in the field of health and marriage, in an interview with (LSN). In his own work, he said, for example, “We actually found a very, very similar pattern to the findings that were in this study.”

But while numerous studies have looked at the effect of marriage and divorce upon health, this is the first to examine both marital transitions and marital status on a wide range of health dimensions. 

“Prior to this time, most people have been looking at kind of singular outcomes,” Dr. Hayward said.  “So in the work I've done, for example, I've looked at cardiovascular disease in particular.  Other people have done the same: some people have looked at mortality, some people to depression.  This study is probably one of the few studies that looks at a broader array of health, both in terms of physical and mental.”

The study found that divorced or widowed people have 20 percent more chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, than married people.  They also have 23 percent more mobility limitations, such as trouble climbing stairs or walking a block.  Further, people who remarried have 12 percent more chronic conditions and 19 percent more mobility limitations, but no more depressive symptoms, than those who are continuously married.

The impacts of marriage, divorce and remarriage on health are based on the ways in which the various illnesses develop and heal, study co-author Linda Waite said.  “Some health situations, like depression, seem to respond both quickly and strongly to changes in current conditions,” she said. “In contrast, conditions such as diabetes and heart disease develop slowly over a substantial period and show the impact of past experiences, which is why health is undermined by divorce or widowhood, even when a person remarries.”

Dr. Hayward admitted the importance of helping people through difficult marriages, but emphasized the importance of helping people through divorce and after a divorce.  “I think if there's any room for social policy in here,” he said, “it's the issue of to what degree should we have a safety net in response to people that are suddenly finding themselves in these precarious positions. … We do want to help people to pick up the pieces, so to speak, when their marriages go awry.”

Divorce, he said, “is an incredibly adversarial situation. … There may be room for social policy in helping people navigate these kinds of processes in ways that aren't so adversarial, and in that way mute the negative consequences of the divorce experience and what happens after divorce.”

Hayward suggested that, on the level of health, divorce should not be discouraged because the health benefits of marriage may decline due to people staying in “bad” marriages.

However, previous research has shown that divorce has a worse impact on the couple's children than staying in a 'bad' marriage.  A 2004 study at the University College Dublin discovered that separation even in the case of a 'bad' marriage, is more harmful to children than staying together.  The study found that divorce was even more harmful to children than the loss of a parent.

Further, a book released by the Institute for American Values entitled Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, based on a survey of 1,500 adults ages 18-35, revealed that even 'good' divorce has a negative impact on children.  The book's author, Elizabeth Marquardt, commented, “Even when divorced parents behave well, their divorce confronts the child with the monumental task of having to make sense, alone, of the parents' very different beliefs, values, and ways of living – a job the parents are no longer required to do.”

“As a consequence, children of both 'good' and 'bad' divorces come to feel like divided selves,” she continued. “They lead a wholly separate life in each parent's world, leading over time to a troubling inner division that goes to the heart of their identity.”

Fr. Thomas Dufner, a priest at a parish in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, who has been an outspoken defender of the Christian view of marriage (in 2003 he testified at a legislative hearing during Minnesota's debate on a proposed marriage amendment) told LSN that in his view this most recent study provides natural evidence in support of the traditional Christian view that marriage is “for life.” 

“By faith we know that in the beginning God created marriage for the good of spouses and the procreation of the race,” said Fr. Dufner.  “Now research confirms that health is also better for people who stay married.  No surprise. Faith and reason go together confirming the same truth: What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

See related coverage:

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Even “Good” Divorce Hard on Kids, New Study Confirms

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