Is your separation affecting your health?

Is your separation affecting your health? (Juan Silva, Photodisc/Getty Images / May 9, 2012)

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 breakup. 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 at Austin.

"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 than 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.

Gender influence

"When you think about the things that are really challenges to health, women are really better at managing the health care system. They are better at taking care of themselves," Waite says.

Deb Carr, a sociologist at Rutgers University, 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.

"It does have to do with gender roles," Waite says. "When you ask people, 'Do you have somebody you talk to about things that are important to you?', most men say their wife. But women have a bigger social network, and while many may say they would (talk to) 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 adds.

Older divorced and widowed women, however, often face financial problems, both in having enough money and in managing their finances and investments.

Coping strategies

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. The experts offer this advice to cope with a bad situation:

It can help to think about those gender-based skills you lack, Carr says: "Do whatever you can to learn roles that have traditionally been performed by your spouse."

Reduce stress: "A lot of the physical and emotional consequences (of losing a spouse) come from stress," Waite says. "They should be exercising, they should be doing yoga and meditation, they should be activating their social supports. 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 — a church, book club, volunteer group or exercise class. It may be hard at that age to find a new friend or spouse, and organizations can fill some of that void.

Widows and widowers in particular need to continue living their lives.

"One important issue is to have a continuing sense of personal growth," Carr 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."

In some situations, a breakup does more good than harm.

While rates of divorce are still high, they've receded over the past 30 years, according to research by Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. About half of marriages begun around 1980 will end in divorce, and the figure has declined for more recent marriages. The divorce rate has also declined for couples with college degrees.

"We used to think that all marriages were good," says sociologist Deb Carr of 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."

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