Death & Divorce & How It Affects Your Health

Death & Divorce & How It Affects Your Health

by Dr. Michael B. Finkelstein, M.D., F.A.C.P., A.B.H.M.
posted on February 02nd 2011

New research shows that divorce, or the death of a spouse, can have long−term negative health consequences. 
Although it is clear that both divorce and widowhood can have a negative impact our health and cause depression in the short term, this new study is one of the first to examine its long term effects. 
Compared to married people, who have never been divorced or widowed, divorcees, widows, are widowers are more likely to experience long−term health problems. 

Specifically:

Those who were divorced or widowed were 20% more likely to have heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or another chronic condition. −They were also 23% more likely to have mobility problems, such as difficulty climbing stairs or walking short distances. −Those who were divorced or widowed but then remarried still had 12% more chronic health conditions and 19% more mobility problems than married people who had never experienced divorce or the death of a spouse; though they were only slightly more likely to report depression. Sociologist, Linda J. Waite, PhD, of the University of Chicago and co−author of the Study, suggests that divorce and widowhood appear to have a more long−term influence on physical health than on mental health. “Mental health seems to be much more responsive to your current state,” she says. “But if you ignore your physical health by not exercising, eating right, or seeing the doctor when you are sick, that can have a lasting impact. And that is what people tend to do when they lose a marriage to divorce or death.” 

The number of subjects in this Study was substantial. The Study surveyed 8,652 people between the ages of 51 and 61 about their health and about their past and current medical status. Three out of four respondents were married at the time they were surveyed. Just over half (55%) had never been divorced or widowed and 21% were remarried following a divorce or death of a spouse. Compared to married people, who had never been divorced or widowed, people who had lost a spouse to death or divorce but were not remarried at the time they were surveyed, were 22% more likely to have chronic health conditions and 27% more likely to have mobility issues. They were also twice as likely as divorced or widowed people who were remarried to have chronic health problems. Perhaps much of this information is not surprising. But what it should do is provoke a conversation about how to avoid the negative consequences associated with the lose of a spouse and what proactive steps can be taking to help divorcees and those who have been widowed. 

The first thing to consider is the nature of our relationships, and, in this regard, our attachment to others. As our lives get more and more interwoven with others, our vulnerability increases. Following this logic, one might then deduce that it might be best to avoid this situation to begin with. However, the key is not necessarily to avoid relationships, but to keep ourselves in balance so that we do not become so dependent as to lose our bearings if one were to end. 

The results of this Study reveal what can happen when we lose someone important to us. Perhaps it is not hard to understand that when a spouse dies, the resulting “depression” and negative health effects are common and even expected as part of the grief process. It takes a person who has great support and a healthy perspective to return to living a full life afterwards. But, the findings suggest that even in the case of divorce, presumably the result of a relationship that wasn’t working, we still suffer. That, to me, is the interesting piece and, I think, deserves further discussion. Perhaps one of the components of the “dysfunction” that leads to the breakup of a marriage is the co−dependency and “attachment” to negativity. When couples pull apart, while desirable on some levels, it takes similar courage to face the aspect of ourselves that allowed this for so long. Of course, when children are involved, the responsibility and thus the consequences of our “failure” are magnified. If people do not have a way to heal this wound, the self loathing, often subconscious or unconscious, can take the form of the various chronic ailments and conditions we see. 

The frank and painful truth is that we are apt to lose any, if not all of our relationships, good and bad. And, herein lays the opportunity. Knowing this, we can prepare; not in a morose way, but in a way that keeps us focused on balance. To some extent this means maintaining reasonable independence even when a spouse makes elements of our lives easier. Beyond this, we must also appreciate the value of this person in our lives as a teacher. Whether they are with us for a long time or a short while, we enter contracts with individuals, (in the case of marriage this is quite formal) and, as such, will do better when we understand the particular contribution to our own growth that this individual plays. Even the feelings of abandonment and anger that arise when relationships end at a time not of our choosing can be managed more easily when we see that we have grown as a result. 

While much of this is not easy and is often unpleasant, we have the ability to transcend both misery and grief. However, this comes only if we let go of the anger and bitterness that will often blind us to see anything positive about these loses. If we hold on to the “could haves” and “should haves” we will stay in the same place. From our body’s perspective, this is the root of inflammation and irritation that I believe is identified in the study cited. 

As a culture, we are poorly adept at grieving. Unfortunately, death is a taboo subject and divorce is considered dishonorable and often considered a breach of morality. The few support groups that are available meet in the backrooms of schools, churches and libraries after hours. As a community, we need to reach out to each other during these difficult periods. The end of a relationship is neither a failure nor a tragedy. Our time with others, however short or long, is a blessing. When we can learn from these relationships, they serve a greater purpose and can support our health not detract from it.

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