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How Do Divorce and Remarriage Affect Your Health?

Audio

Aired 8/6/09

A new study says the effects of divorce may linger even after remarriage. We speak with an expert about how divorce affects your health and how to cope with life after divorce.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Divorce ranks number two, right behind the death of a spouse, as one of the biggest causes of stress in anyone's life, and that stress can often manifest itself physically. It's not unusual for people going through a divorce to injure themselves in some way, maybe break leg or develop a bad cold. But what health researchers are telling us now is that both divorce and the death of a spouse can actually have long term detrimental effects on our health. A study from the University of Chicago found that divorced and widowed people are more likely to have chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes and to suffer from mobility limitations than married people do. That higher health risk seems to continue even years after the end of the marriage and after a remarriage. The research doesn't indicate that we should all stay married, no matter how bad it is or, for that matter, that we should all stay single. But it does emphasize that the stress that comes with the end of a marriage can have a long shelf-life, and needs to be dealt with. With me to discuss the effects of divorce and health is my guest, Dr. Robert A. Simon. He’s a forensic and clinical psychologist who has been in practice for more than 25 years. He’s a member of the Collaborative Family Law Group of San Diego. Dr. Simon, welcome to These Days.

DR. ROBERT A. SIMON (Clinical Psychologist): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to invite our listeners to join the conversation. How have you taken care of yourself through the stress of divorce? Do you have any questions or tips you’d like to share? Give us a call. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Dr. Simon, I think one of the surprises in this study is that it seems that remarriage doesn’t seem to make us healthy again after having this huge stress in our lives of the end of a marriage. Can you tell us a little bit more about this study?

DR. SIMON: The study looked primarily at people in their fifties and sixties and looked at their various measures of health, both physical health and mental health, post-divorce and post-remarriage. And what the study found in general was that the health effects from the stress of divorce tend to persist throughout the rest of the life span. One of the things I do want to mention about the study is that it did fundamentally look at people in their fifties and sixties which, from a divorce perspective, means that we may be looking at individuals with much longer term marriages than many people who divorce earlier, say in their thirties and forties, which is a more typical age.

CAVANAUGH: Now this research, done by the University of Chicago, found that some of the effects of divorce and death of the spouse seem to recede. Like an effect like depression, is that something that you also find, that that’s something that is a sort of an acute problem with the end of a marriage and that tends to dissipate?

DR. SIMON: In many people, perhaps in most people, it will dissipate over time. There are certainly individuals for whom the depression that comes with the end of the marriage becomes chronic and becomes more of a clinical problem than an adjustment problem. But most people tend to see that their mood does get better after a period of somewhere between two to three years.

CAVANAUGH: Well, and just looking at the results of this survey, and all surveys are limited, this one was to people who are older and may have long term marriages, but what would the end of a marriage – why would the end of a marriage have long term health effects. Why would that happen?

DR. SIMON: Divorce is a life event that is enormously stressful at so many levels of our functioning. It – And stress has an affect on our health. I think one of the things about the study that is important to recognize is that this is not something that’s likely unique to divorce but rather that it is an example of how a – how stresses, and particular divorce being a true major life stressor of quite surprising proportion to people, how stress affects the body and how stress affects the body over the long haul, not just over the short run.

CAVANAUGH: I think that one of the most interesting things in just reading an outline of what this study found is that the idea of having this great – this life-changing event and the stress that it engenders actually has metabolic effects. I mean, it affects the way your body functions and does its job.

DR. SIMON: That’s one of the things that these researchers did find.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, however, taking it from there, there must be other practical reasons that people also suffer health effects from the end of a marriage, and I don’t mean depression, I mean the fact that there’s not enough, you know, not as much money coming in, there’s, you know, problems of dealing with child raising, and that must add to the stress.

DR. SIMON: Absolutely. I think that one of the things that happens in divorce is that both divorcing spouses end up in life roles that they didn’t previously primarily engage in. When two people are married, say, for example, raising the children, they do tend to fall into roles. If you are now a single parent and you are sharing custody of the children, you need to be a full time mother and a full time worker, a full time father and a full time worker, and you don’t have your normal support system on board. You don’t have someone to share the day-to-day struggles with and you also don’t have someone to share the day-to-day joys with. And the loss sometimes of that external support system, of your spouse, even the spouse’s family, friends tend to fall away, it has a huge affect on people, so the economic changes are very profound as well. It’s often thought that the economic changes affect women more than men and that may be true in the long run but in the short run, the economic impact of marriage affects both partners enormously and there’s an enormous amount of research in general showing the relationship between economic stress, economic level, and health.

CAVANAUGH: My guest is Dr. Robert A. Simon. He’s a forensic and clinical psychologist. We’re talking about a research paper that was released by the University of Chicago that found divorced and widowed people are more likely to have chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes than married people do. And we’re talking about the stresses that are involved in getting a divorce or being widowed. And if you’d like to share your story with us, our number is 1-888-895-5727. I think it’s very interesting that this research said that these health – long term health impacts are really not totally mitigated by a second marriage. And you are in the process of writing a book about how a second marriage is different from the first. Tell me more about this.

DR. SIMON: I’m currently working on a book actually with two co-authors, both of whom are in Toronto, Canada, one of whom is a very experienced divorce attorney and one of whom is a divorce consultant in Toronto. And what we are going to – what we’re looking at is, some of the practical ways, pragmatic ways that individuals can learn from their divorce about how to enter into a second marriage more healthfully, more deliberately, making better choices and having more realistic expectations about what a marriage is, what a marriage isn’t.

CAVANAUGH: And so what have you found in doing this research about how one’s health can be affected by a second marriage?

DR. SIMON: Our book doesn’t deal specifically with health per se. What we have found, however, is that the quality of the second marriage depends enormously on the ability – on the person’s willingness to specifically take a look at and take lessons from what went wrong in their first marriage. One of the most important things for their healing and for their adaptation and movement into the second marriage is to look at what went wrong in their first marriage without taking the perspective of blaming but rather to ask themselves what did they bring to the table or not bring to the table and how can they learn and become a more complete human being as a result of the lessons from the first divorce. Knowing more about themselves, knowing more about their own strengths and weaknesses, what they want and don’t want in a partner has great predictive value for the success of a next marriage.

CAVANAUGH: Now you, of course, work in conjunction with the family law practice. And I’m wondering, what do you see – what areas do you think that people need to work on when they’re transitioning out of a marriage to make themselves ready for perhaps a healthier life down the line or a new relationship, a better relationship. What are those things that they need to do?

DR. SIMON: The first thing that I would – that I would say is that people need to identify their support system. They need to identify the people in their lives, the institutions in their lives that support them and they need to plug into their support system. There’s a tendency on the part of people when they’re under stress to pull back, to isolate and withdraw. While it’s a natural tendency, it’s not the most healthful or helpful tendency. It’s really important to identify and exploit your support system. Anger, blame is an inevitable consequence of divorce. It’s difficult but fundamentally important that people going through divorce look instead of at ways of being angry and look at ways of taking responsibility for what went wrong, which doesn’t mean that it’s their fault. It just means that it’s what they can change because what I’m responsible for, I can then change.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. Veronica is calling us from City Heights. Good morning, Veronica. Welcome to These Days.

VERONICA (Caller, City Heights): Good morning. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: I’m quite well. And yourself?

VERONICA: I’m fine, thank you. I just wanted to make a quick comment. I am going through a divorce and, indeed, it is stressful. And my husband left in January this year and during the first two, three months it was really depressing for me. But one thing, and it is very obvious and I’m sure people know this, one thing that helped me a lot was exercise every day, every morning. And at some point the doctor told me to get anti-depressants and I chose not to and instead I just went exercise probably two hours a day, every day. And also my girlfriends help a lot because they told me they were there for me and that I will have a place and so that helped tremendously. And I cannot emphasize that enough for people who are going through a divorce, just make yourself a routine to go to the gym and that will – when you feel good about yourself, it changes everything.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call, Veronica. And, Dr. Simon, is Veronica on the right track here?

DR. SIMON: Veronica sounds like an expert. She’s absolutely spot on. The exercise, by the way, which I failed to mention earlier, is so helpful because it actually produces pleasant, pleasurable and healthful brain chemicals.

CAVANAUGH: You know, there are – We’re talking about this study from the University of Chicago that talks about the health effects of – the long term health effects of divorce but I’m – There are many people who leave a bad marriage and they say they feel healthier, both physically and mentally, so what does that tell us about the end of a marriage and the stress? Sometimes it’s a relief from stress it seems.

DR. SIMON: That is absolutely true. It can be an enormous relief from stress. That relief is often felt first but there’s still enormous loss and change to process after the immediate relief of that stress. There’s still rather massive day-to-day life changes that come with divorce, no matter how stressful the marriage was for you.

CAVANAUGH: So this is at the crux of it then. So are you saying that even if you feel relieved that you’re out of a bad situation, you still have some work to do?

DR. SIMON: You absolutely do. I tell clients all the time that divorce is like a rollercoaster and just after you think you’ve climbed the highest hill and made the most steep drop and – and you feel like you’re on top of it, don’t count on that. Something else will happen and you will go for the ride again. It’s a normal part of the process in being open to that, and engaging that part of the process openly is a part of the healing and it’s a part of what will make you healthier.

CAVANAUGH: You know, when you take a – when you took a look at this study from the University of Chicago, did you say – did you see that it rang true for the majority of the people that you see in this situation who’ve been divorced for a long period of time?

DR. SIMON: You know, I – I can’t really comment on that…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

DR. SIMON: …per se because I think the population in this study is an older population…

CAVANAUGH: An older population.

DR. SIMON: …than I tend to see.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

DR. SIMON: But I absolutely do see a substantial number of people who, many years after the divorce, are continuing to feel angry, continuing to feel depressed, continuing to have kind of vague, chronic health problems. There’s certainly a good deal of people that go through that, and it doesn’t seem to want to go away.

CAVANAUGH: You know, when I see a study like this it occurs to me that there is really no causal connection between the divorce and the higher health risk and there could be a lot of other factors at work. You mentioned one, that these could be extremely long marriages and the end of the marriage really changes everything whereas, you know, if you’re married to someone for a few years, it – you don’t really necessarily have to worry about health disease in your fifties. Now, I’m wondering, what do you think is the benefit of these kinds of research papers? What is it that they tell us? Do they add to a body of knowledge about stress?

DR. SIMON: Well, they do. For one thing, they point directions at future research and I think it’s important to try to establish causal links, which this report, these studies, did not do. But I think that they also help to validate the fact that divorce is enormously stressful and that it does require deliberate, strategic, persistent coping, that it’s not – divorce is not trivial. And, of course, there are factors that make divorces more or less difficult to cope with. One which we’ve not talked about, I do want to mention, is, are there children and what is your co-parenting relationship like with your co-parent? You – The better you’re co-parenting with your children’s other parent, the easier it is to cope because that is an ongoing source of stress that may not go away for – for many, many years as the children grow.

CAVANAUGH: Should we all just stay single?

DR. SIMON: No. No.

CAVANAUGH: All right. All right, we’ve cleared that one up. I want to thank you so much for joining us today and talking to us about this.

DR. SIMON: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Robert A. Simon, a forensic and clinical psychologist who has been in practice for more than 25 years. He’s a member of the Collaborative Family Law Group of San Diego, and he’s working on a book. Maybe when it comes out, you’ll join us again.

DR. SIMON: It would be my pleasure. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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