August 3rd, 2009
06:15 PM ET

Fighting divorce: An endemic public health crisis

By Akash Goel
CNN Medical intern

New research contradicts the age-old adage, "'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all."

A study, “Marital Biography and Health at Mid-Life” appearing in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that the middle-aged divorced or widowed have 20 percent more chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes and 23 percent more mobility limitations such as difficulty climbing stairs.

While it may seem odd to think of it as such, divorce can be viewed as a public health crisis with national rates estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be nearly 50 percent nationally.

A large field of research suggests that people who are in close, social relationships are healthier. When marriages are functional, they are perhaps the ideal form of social and emotional support. When marriages fail, however, these mental health bedrocks crumble (among other parts of your life.)

Kristi Williams, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University, believes changes in societal perceptions of the idea of marriage are influencing rising divorce rates.

"We've come to view marriage as a source of individual satisfaction whereas in the past marriage was viewed largely as an institution that was necessary in order to raise a family," she says. "When that goes away, it is much easier to dissolve the marriage."

Tal Ben-Shahar, positive psychologist and former Harvard professor, argues instead that we're philosophically less committed to relationships.

"In the past, people stayed together even when they were not happy together — for religious reasons, because of convention, or because they had no real choice," he says, "Today, both men and women have more choice, and it’s more acceptable to divorce — hence easier. And when they face challenges in their relationships, instead of dealing with these challenges, they opt to leave."

Williams suggests that many studies have linked poor marriage quality to poor health outcomes, and thus improving marriage quality should be a worthy public health pursuit.

One example of this is the Department of Health and Human Services’ support of the “Healthy Marriage Initiative,” which provides $150 million each year towards relationship education to help strengthen families.

However on an individual level, one of the most important things we can do to ensure a successful marriage according to Ben Shahar, is learn how to handle gridlock: a term coined by sex therapist David Schnarch that refers to the point at which couples feel stuck in a conflict surrounding issues of children, in-laws, money, or sex and see no way out. While gridlock is often the tipping point leading to divorce, Schnarch believes we should embrace these "the drive wheels and grind stones of intimate relationships" as essential stepping stones towards realizing a successful marriage.

"Marriage operates at much greater intensity and pressure than we expect," Schnarch writes, "so great, in fact, couples mistakenly assume it’s time for divorce when it’s really time to get to work.”

Have you been through a divorce? Did you feel unhealthy as result?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.