Divorce rates have declined, but the statistics are still startling. An estimated 39 percent of marriages will end in divorce in the United States.
This number seems high to me on one end. I know a startling amount of young people already going through a divorce. On the other hand, it seems normal. I know many more people that are married and have stayed married throughout the years--for better or for worse.
It goes without saying that divorce can be a life-altering, traumatic experience. In fact, separation or divorce can increase your risk of mortality by 23 percent—and if that’s not a downer, I don’t know what is.
Besides the obvious changes divorce can bring to your life, here are seven surprising ways it can affect both your physical and mental health.
1. Divorce Can Leave You Unable to Deal With Your Emotions
Hey, I have trouble dealing with my emotions on a good day. A significant life change can throw anyone off balance when it comes to managing your feelings.
For many people, divorce can bring a vast, complex web of emotions, some of which is unnamable, others of which we know all too well: anger, sadness, rage, guilt, loneliness. For others, separation or divorce can leave you feeling numb and unable to handle whatever emotions may come your way.
Numbness affects people differently, and many don’t act like themselves. Some people may even engage in risky behaviors or make poor decisions because they simply aren’t prepared to handle the trauma of divorce. Research shows that people can have a lack of emotional control when going through a breakup, and this can last weeks or months.
2. Goodbye Marriage, Hello Anxiety
For many couples, getting married means sharing your life with another person, often nearly every aspect of your life. Statistics show 1.4 million couples in the United States not only live together, but work together too. For people going through a separation or divorce, the end of the relationship is only part of the trauma.
Suddenly being alone in many aspects of your life, missing that role that your partner used to fill—how are you supposed to get through that? How are you supposed to manage the spaces you used to fill together, now attempting to fill them alone on a new journey, one you never expected to take?
The thought of continuing alone can create anxiety where there wasn’t anxiety before. Not knowing what will happen or how to manage the suddenly empty physical and emotional space your partner left behind can feel unmanageable.
3. Heartbreak Is a Very Real Thing
Heartbreak is a cliché, romanticized term for many people, according to Good Men Project. In reality—and anyone who has ever experienced a soul-crushing breakup before knows this—heartbreak is very real.
While science has identified the brain changes and emotional responses that happen with heartbreak, it still can’t explain the physical sensation that happens when our hearts are broken. Some experts speculate that our sympathetic and parasympathetic activation systems simultaneously engage to create the physical sensation of heartbreak—but no one is really sure.
Regardless of how behind science is on actually understanding heartbreak, it’s a very real thing and a divorce or separation can create a crippling physical and emotional response that can feel impossible to navigate.
4. You May Be at Risk to Develop a New Addiction
Whether you feel numb, heartbroken, or angry, it’s easy to seek refuge in things that we feel bring us comfort, whether consciously or subconsciously.
The problem is that not everything that brings us comfort is actually beneficial to us. A divorce is a pivotal life change, and it’s absolutely understandable that you’d want to find comfort in whatever you can during this extremely difficult time.
However, drug use, drinking, smoking, or risky behavior is not the answer. It will not bring your spouse back and instead will exacerbate your problems. Research shows that unmarried fathers, in particular, are more likely to drink alcohol, use illegal substances, and smoke cigarettes—as well as have higher rates of depression—than married fathers.
Navigating a divorce can be scary, overwhelming, and depressing enough as it is without navigating a new addiction or dealing with the consequences of risky behavior.
5. Who Am I, Exactly?
It’s normal to wonder who you are when going through a separation, according to Online Divorce. Many couples identify with their partner. This person has become part of who they are, and many couples share a last name, further entwining their identities.
During a separation or divorce, some people change everything about themselves in an effort to redefine this “new” person, this person who isn’t bound to their spouse anymore. The truth is that while you may not be the same person you were before, we all are changing, all the time. Wondering who you are is okay, as long as you realize that who you are doesn’t have to be anything in relation to your spouse, whether in spite of them or in reaction to their presence or absence in your life.
6. Sleeplessness and Other Health Issues
It’ll come as no surprise to those going through a divorce that conflict during this process can reduce deep, restorative sleep. In addition, many married couples get used to sharing a bed together, and when you’re no longer with that person, you can have trouble finding peace at night.
Unfortunately, sleep isn’t the only thing that can affect your health during a divorce. Married people have long been considered to be healthier than unmarried people (although, of course, one could certainly argue that staying with a toxic spouse can wreak havoc on your health).
Married couples can encourage each other to make healthy choices and fulfill a need for connection, and research shows marriage can even lower your risk for high blood pressure and a heart attack. However, there are many complex factors that influence your health, and marriage is only one of them.
7. Did You Lose (or Gain) Weight?
People going through a divorce can experience dramatic weight loss or gain. As one of the most stressful life events people can experience, it’s understandable that your weight can fluctuate during this challenging time.
Stress and depression affect people differently. I love to eat when I’m stressed, but when I’m upset, my appetite is gone. Others are the opposite. For others still, a divorce is a huge change in routine, and they may not eat regular meals like they should, or eat too much at one sitting.
Food can be a comfort or repulsive when you’re going through an experience such as divorce. Although it can feel challenging to take care of yourself during this difficult time, check in with your doctor or dust off the scale to be sure you’re still maintaining a healthy weight.
Divorce Isn't Easy, But You Can Do This
It’s not easy to know when someone is struggling while going through a divorce. Many people put on a brave face and go about their day, but check in with them. If you’re going through a divorce, be patient with yourself and give yourself time to adjust. The journey ahead won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.