Divorce, and the period of separation of spouses that usually precedes it, can be extremely stressful for those involved. In fact, probably the most common way that researchers have sought to understand the effects of divorce is the divorce-stress-adjustment model, which Paul Amato (2000) used to review the research literature on the subject. Although Amato concluded that divorce “has the potential to create considerable turmoil in people’s lives”, he further noted that its effects are not the same for everyone. In many cases, divorce can create short-term difficulties from which the individual eventually recovers. In some lucky cases, divorce provides clear and immediate benefits. However, in some cases, divorce can create a “downward trajectory from which [one] might never recover fully” (p. 1269).
In another review of the research literature, Booth and Amato (1991) found that stress increased before divorce and then usually declined afterwards to levels typically found in married adults. However, this process of “getting back to normal” could become delayed or even derailed when certain risk factors were present before the divorce. One set of risk factors related to resources: money, education level, and whether the wife worked (and could therefore be expected to compete in the workplace after the divorce). The second risk factor related to the perception that divorce was immoral. Such reluctant divorcees could experience more extended periods of stress after divorce. Finally, the research suggested that extended levels of stress post-divorce could fuel the development of anxiety-related symptoms. The bottom-line is that if you want to minimize risk of an anxiety disorder after divorce, one might (1) get money, and a better education, and a job, and (2) make peace with oneself regarding the immorality of divorce. In other words, move on. Of course, for those in the midst of divorce, its stress, and its complicated challenges, this may all appear easier said than done.
Scott et al. (2010) carried out a large, multinational study with over 34,000 adult participants. They found that adults whose marriages had ended through divorce (or similar unstable ends) showed generally greater risk across a wide range of mental health problems- including anxiety disorders. They also reported some differences by gender. Among men, divorce increased risk for depression. Among women, it increased risk for substance abuse disorders. The authors speculated that difference between genders in the types of role demands (especially parenting) might account for these different risk-related outcomes.
However, just because adult divorced individuals are found to be at greater risk for various mental health problems—including anxiety disorders—than are non-divorced adults, does not prove that these disorders are directly caused by either the divorced or its assumed high levels of stress. Amato (2000) and Booth and Amato (1991) made this point when they noted that although many divorced adults experience mental health problems, adults vary widely in the quality of their adjustment after divorce. Not every divorced adult crashes into sustained problems. The question is: why does divorce seem to lead to such problems for some, and not for others?
A possible answer comes from an interesting study by Brown et al. (1996). They studied a sample of 404 women living with at least one child in inner-city London (some but not all of these women were divorced). The researchers assessed the various types of problems and mental health disorders these women living on the edge faced. They found they could sort the women into two groups: those who had experienced very bad situations as children (such as neglect or abuse) and those who had not. Among those women with the more difficult childhoods, adult mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders were common. However, among the adult women who had experienced stressors as adults—such as from divorce—only depression tended to result. Also, one might reason that such problems in early childhood might predispose the adult to increased risk for divorce. Thus, and outside of depression, it may not be the adult divorce that creates the somewhat greater risk for anxiety-related problems; it may be the long shadow of problems that occurred in childhood.
In summary, the scientific research shows that divorce increases one’s risk of developing anxiety, regardless of gender. To minimize risk of an anxiety disorder after divorce, one might (1) get money, and a better education, and a job, and (2) make peace with oneself regarding the immorality of divorce. Also, other factors, like adverse childhood experiences, may increase the risk for anxiety, regardless of marital status.
Children of Divorced Parents
Riggio (2004) did a study of effects of parental divorce and degree of conflict during that divorce on various outcomes of children after those children reached adulthood. Conflict effects were very negative among the adult children of divorce and affected anxiety in relationships very negatively. However, divorce itself (outside of hurting father-child relationships) also seemed to have a number of positive impacts, such as improved mother-child relationship, improved social supports, improved independence, and reduced anxiety in relationships. In other words, it appears to be conflict—and not divorce—that increases the risk for anxiety in relationships amongst adult children.