Social relationships play a vital role in health and well-being, and it follows that loss experiences can be highly stressful for some people. This article reviews what is known about the association between marital separation, divorce, and health outcomes.
Key findings in the area of divorce and health are discussed, and the review outlines a series of specific questions for future research. In particular, the article integrates research in social epidemiology with research in social psychophysiology. The former approach provides a broad-based estimate of the association between marital status and health outcomes, whereas the latter approach studies mechanisms of action and individual differences associated with increased risk for poor outcomes.
The experience of separation or divorce confers risk for poor health outcomes, including a 23% higher mortality rate. However, most people cope well and are resilient after their marriage or long-term relationship ends. Despite the fact that resilience is the most common response, a small percentage of people (approximately 10%–15%) struggle quite substantially, and it seems that the overall elevated adverse health risks are driven by the poor functioning of this group. Several candidate mechanisms and novel (ambulatory) assessment techniques that may elucidate the poor outcomes among people who adapt poorly to separation are discussed.
To increase knowledge on the association between divorce and health, three primary areas require more research: a) genetic and third variable explanations for divorce-related health outcomes, (b) better studies of objective social behavior after separation, and (c) increased attention to interventions targeting high-risk adults.