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Does Divorce Cause Depression? It All Depends

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Stephanie Toelle, Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Agent at UF-IFAS Duval County

When I was a young adult, a close friend of mine got divorced, and was devastated, sinking into a profound depression. At times, we were all very worried for her. While she did recover from this experience, it left an impression on me.

Later in my life, other friends and acquaintances also divorced. Although, of course, there were hard moments, I also noticed that some bounced back quite quickly.

Reactions to Divorce Vary

Divorce is certainly an upheaval, but as can be seen from my own observations, not everyone reacts to it in the same way. Though studies do find a general increase in negative outcomes after a marriage breaks up (including poorer health, lower life satisfaction, and more depression and anxiety–even a higher risk of death), we also know that a large percentage of divorced people fare quite well.

Some Struggle, Many Bounce Back

So is divorce generally a risk factor for future life problems, or not? In fact, some researchers believe that most people handle divorce relatively well. Meanwhile, a relatively small group of people (like my friend, perhaps) respond quite poorly. These realities may lead to confusion about the overall effect of ending a marriage.

Survey Studying Risk of Divorce-Related Depression

How can we examine this question further? In one recent study, researchers first surveyed a large group of married, middle-aged adults, gathering information on traits like personality, income, education, history of depression, and marital satisfaction. They wanted to know whether divorce really causes one serious risk that’s often thought to be associated with it: an increased risk of major depression.

They then went back and talked to these same adults again several years later. Just as we might expect, some of those who had gotten divorced did indeed experience major depression after their marriages ended. However, this was only true for those adults who had also been depressed the first time they were surveyed!

Past History Matters

In other words, people who already had a history of depression were much more likely to become depressed again if they got divorced (a major upheaval). However, people who also got divorced but weren’t depressed at the first survey did not suffer an increased risk of depression.

What about people who were depressed at the time of the first survey, but whose marriages ended up staying together? They didn’t have an increased risk of depression either. It was the combination of a history of depression and divorce that seemed to cause problems.

It’s worth noting that these researchers used a special statistical technique to make sure they were comparing “apples to apples”—that is, similar people to other similar people. This made it easier to tease out the true effect of divorce on outcomes.

So, what do these findings mean for people whose marriages are coming to an end—or their friends and family? While we don’t want to read too much into this study, it seems safe to say that people who’ve struggled with depression in the past are more vulnerable after divorce than others. Meanwhile, people with no such concerns may do fine. The path to resolution after a marriage ends is always individual, but it seems our previous history may play a significant role.

References:

Sbarra, D. A., Emery, R. E., Beam, C. R., & Ocker, B. L. (2014). Marital dissolution and major depression
in midlife: A propensity score analysis. Clinical Psychological Analysis, 2(3), 249-257. doi: 10.1177/2167702613498727

Photo Credits: zimmytws/iStock/Thinkstock