Is Divorce Deadly?

A new study by the University of Arizona found that divorce can kill at the same rate as smoking, excessive obesity, or alcohol.

The study, entitled, "Divorce and Death" was published in the January issue of Psychological Science. In the study, researchers David Sbarra and Paul Nietert used forty years (1960-2000) of follow up data from previous studies in order to determine the risk of mortality rate in divorced or separated couples.

What they found shocked them.

Those participants who were separated or divorced at the beginning of the study showed much higher rates of premature mortality.

The authors say, “there is something uniquely difficult about remaining separated or divorced that accelerates time of death.”

The follow-up study’s results adjusted for baseline health status and other variables and still found mortality rates higher for divorced or separated persons. The risk of early mortality was 23 percent higher for divorced persons than those who are married.

But Sbarra and Nietert point out that the death rate is not a result of divorce alone, but what comes along with it, such as the financial strain of being a long-term single parent. The study points to the amount of time the divorcee lives separated or divorced and their personality as factors that can kill a marriage as well as a person.


The study pinpoints personality traits such as neuroticism, hostility, and negativism which have been proven to correlate with illness.

In an interview with The Christian Post, Dr. Karen Ruskin, a marriage counselor in Boston, Mass. for almost two decades, said patients predisposed to depression, anxiety, or a sociopathic personality all contribute to ending marriages.

“If one person is not healthy emotionally, and lacks good coping methods, they may become verbally abusive, physically abusive and emotionally abusive. This affects the other partner’s health and eventually the health of the marriage,” she said.

Dr. Ruskin explained that these traits- when combined with the trauma of divorce- makes individuals who have a harder time coping, and their emotional health declines. Our physical and emotional health is closely and intricately related.

“I have seen people become physically ill after emotional events,” Dr. Ruskin added.

Dr. Ruskin said the general sum of the study that divorce can lead to deteriorate one’s health is true, but it is important to keep in mind that divorce is not causal.

John Wagner, a marriage therapist and author of "Rebuilding Broken Marriages," said psychological stressers do come out through the body. Through his studies, he says, he has learned that "heart conditions, cataracts, and eczema are all linked to outside stressers."

In Dr. Ruskin’s manuscript, “Dr. Karen’s Marriage Manual,” she states three legs of marriage: emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, and sexual intimacy. These provide the “overall umbrella,” intertwined with trust and communication.

Emotional intimacy involves respect and trusting one’s spouse.

Physical intimacy, which is not to be confused with sexual intimacy, is as simple as a touch on the back when making a request or an embrace when greeting a spouse coming home from work.

Human beings communicate with one another physically, so a lack of sexual intimacy diminishes communication.

When these legs are broken, so is the marriage.


The study points out that mortality rates are not as high for those persons who are able to find a second chance at love.

“We are relational beings. Often times we feel special and measure our happiness by what others tell us,” said Dr. Ruskin. “We will stay in a relationship even if it isn’t all that good because the fact that we were able to receive love and were able to give love makes us feel special.”

But Dr. Wagner notes that second marriage divorce rates are even higher than first marriage rates and getting a divorced again can cause somewhat of a regression.

"From what I see," Wagner said about mental stress and health,"it can create a feeling of hopelessness. For a newly single mother trying to take care of her kids, and wondering of she can ever be loved again, the stress can be great."

Effect on husbands

The "Death and Marriage" study found ex-husbands feel the effects of separation and divorce even more than their female counterparts as far as early mortality rates.

The study pointed out that men are less likely to seek professional help during the grieving process. The authors did note that they were unsure if it was just the fact that men overall die sooner than women.

Wagner says in his experience with counseling, "men are are usually dragged into the office by their mates." He finds that women are usually more open to therapy.

But Dr. Ruskin says she often sees men seeking marriage and individual counseling from her. She says they feel compelled to ask her if they are in the minority, and in her opinion, they aren’t.

“There is no way to tell. But we must be cognizant of the fact that both men and women are greatly affected by emotional trauma.”