Divorce: Emotional Impact and Steps to Recovery


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The emotional impact of divorce could threaten your well-being. Image by Anita Peppers

Marriages end in divorce for many reasons including infidelity, abuse, and lack of intimacy.

Divorce usually happens in several stages, and marriage relationship researcher, Dr. John Gottman, describes the “divorce cascade.”

This is a downward spiral of increasing conflict and disastrous ways of communicating before the marriage comes to an end.

When marriages end, couple’s lives change for better or worse; this could mean significant adjustments for them. It is common for people who divorce to experience psychological states such sense of failure, loneliness, and sadness.

Dr. David A. Sbarra, Director of Clinical Training and Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Arizona and his colleagues, completed a study on the emotional impact of divorce, and ways to promote recovery after divorce.

Divorce: Emotional Issues

Divorce can have a distressing emotional impact on both women and men; recovery from divorce sometimes involves a grieving process, as it is a loss of an important relationship that was significant  in their lives.

Some people go through the stages of grief, such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance, somewhat like the process they might go through if a spouse died. However, people react to loss in different ways, so these stages do not necessarily occur  in this order for everyone.

The end of a marriage is particularly painful for persons who do not expect or want it. It is even more problematic when this sense of loss is combined with hostile and tense interactions between divorced spouses. The result could be psychological effects including depression, lowered self-esteem and loss of a sense of identity. Some people who divorce also experience feelings of rejection and embarrassment, and may withdraw from their social group. They might also find it difficult to discuss their feelings and fears, even where close friends are available to support them.

In some cases, people who divorce face alienation from friends and relatives who do not approve the divorce. So they experience loss of social support such as ex-spouse’s relatives, and limited support from their own relatives when their marriages end. The result is a smaller social network after divorce which increases their feelings of isolation.

Depression: Signs and Symptoms

The severe stress of divorce could lead to depression. Depression is characterized by intense sadness, feelings of futility and worthlessness and withdrawal from others.  There are several forms of depressive disorders including major depression and dysthymic disorder. Some of the symptoms of depression are listed below:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness and unhappiness
  • Feelings of unworthlessness
  • Loss of interest in and enjoyment of activities
  • Lack of energy and fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating and indecisiveness
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
  • Change in appetite (loss of appetite or overeating)
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Sleep disorder (insomnia or excessive sleeping)
  • Persistent, unexplained physical symptoms

Research Findings

A new study, published in  indicates that for people with a history of depression, their divorce is linked with increased risk of future depressive episodes. This study was published in Clinical Psychological Science which is a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The study that is led by researcher, David A. Sbarra of the University of Arizona and his coleagues, suggests that, “Stressful life events like divorce are associated with significant risk for prolonged emotional distress, including clinically-significant depression.”

The researchers noted, however, that some people are more likely to experience depression than others. They used data from the longitudinal, nationally representative Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS) study.  Since it was impossible to randomly assign people to divorce or stay married groups in the study, the researchers matched separated or divorced participants to continuously married person who had the same tendency to divorce. The results indicated that divorce had significant effect on later depression.

The study found that divorce or separation increased the likelihood of a later depressive episode for participants who had a history of depression. However, according to Sbarra, these findings are also important because they reinforce the idea that most people who experience divorce are able to bounce back when they do not have a history of depressive disorder.

Sbarra emphasizes the need for clinicians to know about clients’ history of depression, as this is directly related to whether or not they will experience a depressive episode after their marriages ends in divorce.  In cases where people with a history of depression get divorced, it is important that they receive support and counseling help necessary.

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