Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Are the Negative Effects of Divorce on Well-Being Dependent on Marital Quality?

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Are the Negative Effects of Divorce on Well-Being Dependent on Marital Quality?

Article excerpt

We test the so-called escape hypothesis, which argues that for people from a poor marriage, a divorce has a less negative or even a positive effect on well-being. In an analysis of two waves of the National Survey of Families and Households (N = 4,526), we find only limited evidence. When people divorce from a dissatisfactory or unfair marriage, they experience smaller increases in depression than when they divorce from a less dissatisfactory and less unfair marriage. For marital conflict, we find no interaction. Marital aggression seems to increase the negative effect of divorce, especially among women, suggesting that notions about the accumulation of problems after divorce need to be considered in combination with notions of escape.

Key Words: depression, divorce, marital quality, marriage, mental health, well-being.

The positive effects of marriage on individual well-being and health have been documented extensively (Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990). One line of research has compared people before and after the entry into marriage (Horwitz, Raskin White, & Howell-White, 1996; Mastekaasa, 1992). Another line of research has focused on what happens when people separate, divorce, or experience the death of their spouse (Amato, 2000; Booth & Amato, 1991; Fokkema & Dykstra, 2002). More recent studies combine the two designs and look at all marital transitions in one study (Barrett, 2000; Joung, Van de Mheen, Stronks, Van Poppel, & Mackenbach, 1998; Marks & Lambert, 1998; Williams & Umberson, 2004). Even though the effects of entering marriage are not of the same magnitude as the effects of leaving marriage, all lines of research seem to come to the same conclusion that marriage enhances well-being and health. Part of these associations result from more healthy people being selected into marriage (and less healthy people being selected into the divorced state), but most studies show that the protective effect of marriage remains after selection is taken into account (Lillard & Waite, 1995; Waite & Gallagher, 2000).

Although there is consensus on the notion that marriage has a protective effect on well-being and health, it is also recognized that not all marriages are alike. If the marriage effect results from some form of protection or spousal influence, it is plausible that some marriages are more protective than others and that this will depend on the quality of the marriage. Starting from this general idea, a research tradition has developed that examines the effects of marital quality on health. Research in this tradition consistently shows that poor marital quality-however it is measuredhas a strong negative effect on the mental and physical health of husband and wife (Fincham & Beach, 1999; Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001; Lennon & Rosenfield, 1994; Ross, Mirowsky, & Huber, 1983). These studies are not only important for clarifying some of the underlying mechanisms for why marriage may protect people but also important in that they emphasize the heterogeneity that exists in the married population.

Unfortunately, the two lines of research discussed above have remained rather separate. The former tradition compares persons inside and outside of marriage, whereas the latter tradition compares people inside of marriage. When integrating the two lines of research, important new substantive questions arise. Rather than asking whether marriage itself has a positive effect on health, the question is which type of marriage has a positive effect and which type of marriage has a negative effect (Gove, Hughes, & Briggs Style, 1983; Waite & Gallagher, 2000)? A parallel question is whether a divorce can have both negative and positive effects on health, depending on the quality of the preceding marriage? Just as one expects that being alone is better for one's health than being in a poor-quality marriage, one would expect that divorcing from a poor-quality marriage will be less detrimental to one's health than divorcing from a not so poor marriage. …

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