The enormous well-being and happiness dividends of a strong intimate relationship can be erased by the damage that can occur when a partner is lost through death or a difficult break-up. The death of a spouse, in particular, can literally be a killer, especially if the husband is the surviving spouse.
The end of a marriage can be devastating for health, says Debra Umberson, a sociologist at the University of Texas. "And a bad marriage is worse than no marriage at all when it comes to health," she adds. "Serious marital strain really takes a toll on your health."
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While rates of divorce are still high, they have receded over the past 30 years, according to a research paper by Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. About half of the marriages begun around 1980 will end in divorce, and that number has declined for more recent marriages. The divorce rate has also declined noticeably among couples with college degrees.
"We used to think that all marriages were good," says Deb Carr, a sociologist at Rutgers University. "Today, there tends to be evidence that a good marriage is good for your health and longevity, but not necessarily for people who are in difficult marriages."
Likewise, while divorce is generally bad for health and happiness, that's not always the case. "If someone divorces from a marriage that is marked by high levels of conflict, high levels of stress, and low levels of emotional warmth," says Carr, "they are not so worse off after divorcing. But if the stresses that were present in the marriage continue after the divorce, that's not true."
"What we see is that divorce for both men and women decreases happiness and increases the chances of dying in the next year," says Linda Waite, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Chicago. "The hit seems to be pretty substantial for both sexes for divorce."
Women, however, may deal with divorce better then men, and they are clearly better survivors than men in dealing with the death of a spouse. Divorced men are much more likely to remarry and regain the benefits of marriage. Gender roles are changing and behavioral differences are likely narrowing for younger people in marriages. But the impact of divorce and widowhood on older people is based on gender roles established decades ago.
"When you think about the things that are really challenges to health, women are really better at managing the healthcare system. They are better at taking care of themselves," Waite says. Carr agrees: "For divorced people or widowed people who haven't remarried, the men are still worse off."
People who are divorced or widowed tend to eat terribly, for example, and abandon healthful habits. To the extent that such habits were supported primarily by a wife, a divorced or widowed man is likely to face larger adjustments in maintaining a healthy and low-stress lifestyle. "Unmarried men are more likely to have bad health habits than married men," Waite says.
"It does have to do with gender roles," she adds. "When you ask people, do you have somebody you talk to about things that are important to you, most men say their wife," she says. "But women have a bigger social network, and while many may say they would ask their husband, they often will also say it would be their sister, or a friend. So, their social networks aren't as shattered when they lose a spouse."
"Women help men with their meals, they encourage them to exercise, they remind them to take their medications, and they often develop social ties for them," Carr says. Older divorced and widowed women, by contrast, often face financial problems, both in having enough money and in managing their finances and investments.
The good news is that the "effects of divorce do dissipate over a period of years," says Umberson. But it's still hard to protect yourself from being harmed by the experience.
"It's hard to live your life and plan for those events," she says. "It's going to undermine your happiness" if you're constantly thinking about problems with your marriage. At the same time, "you're between a rock and a hard place," she notes, "and just escaping a bad marriage doesn't mean you're going to be in a good place."
However, to help cope with a bad situation, Carr says, it can help to think about those gender-based skills you lack. "Do whatever you can to learn roles that have traditionally been performed by your spouse," she says.
Reducing stress should be a guiding principle in responding to the loss of a spouse. "We think that a lot of the physical and emotional consequences [of losing a spouse] come from stress," Waite says. So she advises people to take better care of themselves and to seek support from friends.
"They should be exercising, they should be doing yoga and meditation, they should be activating their social supports," she says. "They should be playing ball with their buddies; they should be having lunch with their girlfriends, they should be talking with their mother. And they very deliberately can try to rebuild" their social connections.
It makes sense for older people to turn to organizations to seek support and compensate for the loss of a life partner. Waite says they turn to organizations for social connections--a church, book club, volunteering, or an exercise class. "It's hard at that age to find a best new friend or a spouse," and organizations can fill some of that need, she adds.
Carr says widows and widowers in particular need to continue living their lives. "One important issue is to have a continuing sense of personal growth," she says. "Learning new things, engaging in new activities, and joining new social groups are all considered really protective" and healthy behaviors. "Any sense of mastery is really good for a sense of well-being," she says.
People who have lost a spouse are also influenced by the recognition that big longevity gains mean they still have many years, if not decades, ahead of them, Carr notes. This increases their motivation to get on with their lives, including a greater willingness to end a bad marriage. Couples with children face much more challenging divorce decisions, experts note. But even here, social pressures to "stay together for the children" have greatly weakened in recent years.
"Our healthy life expectancy is getting higher and higher," Carr says. "Why are you going to spend it in a compromised marriage?" People today are much more likely to say, "'I have time left, and I'm not going to spend my time in a marriage that is difficult.'"
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