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Robert Hughes, Jr.

Robert Hughes, Jr.

Posted: November 30, 2010 09:16 AM

Most people expect that going through a divorce will be hard and that they aren't going to feel happy. However, most people expect that as they adapt to their new lives and situation, they will begin to feel better. A recent study suggests it's more complicated.

In an article titled, "Time does not heal all wounds," Professor Richard Lucas at Michigan State University reported that the level of life satisfaction of divorced adults does not recover to pre-divorce levels even six years after the divorce.

How did he study life satisfaction following divorce? Using an 18-year longitudinal study of a representative sample of German adults, Lucas examined their ratings of life satisfaction before and after the divorce. He looked at satisfaction over three periods of time: marriage (all the years of marriage three years prior to the divorce), reaction period (3 years prior to the divorce and the year of the divorce) and adaptation (all the years 2 years after the divorce).

What happens to life satisfaction before and after divorce? People who divorce begin to report less satisfaction with life up to six years prior to the divorce. There is a steady decline in satisfaction which reaches its lowest point about 1 year prior to the actual divorce (couples may have already separated in many of these instances around this time). From the divorce to four years after the divorce, satisfaction increases, but by five years it has leveled off and is still lower than during the early stages of marriage.

Are there differences between men and women? Yes, the findings seem to indicate that men are more dissatisfied than women during the reaction period (3 years before marriage and the year of divorce). Divorced men remain less satisfied with life than divorced women in the years after divorce.

What about the effects of remarriage? Remarriage substantially increased adults' life satisfaction following divorce. Divorced men who get remarried do not get as much of an increase in satisfaction.

What about satisfaction of these adults before they got married? Since these adults were followed over a long period of time, Lucas has a measure of their life satisfaction prior to marriage. He found that married adults who divorce are less satisfied with their lives prior to marriage than adults who get married and do not divorce. This finding suggests that adults who get divorced may already be different from other adults who have not divorced.

Are divorced adults doomed to a life of sadness? No, we can never predict a person's specific life experience based on a general pattern of research findings; there are just too many other factors to consider. However, these findings suggest that divorcing adults might benefit from learning strategies to increase their satisfaction and cope with challenging situations. Many helping professionals and self-help programs can offer useful ideas.

So what do these findings mean for about adjusting to divorce and other negative life events? Although people generally adapt to difficult life changes, there are some events that have more long-term effects on life satisfaction. Divorce, disability and unemployment all seem to be life events that pose significant adjustment challenges to people. We can't assume that most people will recover well from these events and we need to think about ways to provide support and assistance to people dealing with these challenges.