Women suffer a greater jump in stress when marriage ends, compared to men. And separated and divorced people — especially women — are also more likely to report they use drugs and alcohol to relax, according to the recently released Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
Based on 131,159 interviews with American adults, the survey released Oct. 15 found married Americans rate their own personal well-being higher than do those who are not.
Women generally report better well-being then men regardless of their marital status — except those who are separated, the category where people rate their own well-being the lowest. The survey found no gender difference in terms of well-being between men and women who have separated.
The findings were calculated using what Gallup calls a "Well-Being 5" score, which includes ratings on five elements: purpose, social, financial, community and physical well-being.
The report's authors speculated about the differences between those who were married and others.
"Entering into a marriage can foster a sense of purpose through a shared perspective on life and a need to support another person," wrote Gallup's Dan Witters and Lindsey Sharpe. "Similarly, marriage can expand a person's social connections and relationships, increase household wealth and lead to a more permanent housing selection and a related connection to the community. In addition, multiple studies have confirmed that married adults have better health outcomes, likely attributable to reduced stress and having a partner to encourage healthy behaviors and to hold one accountable for choices affecting one's health."
Gallup found that 38.6 percent of married Americans felt stress "a lot of the day yesterday," a number that rose "significantly" for other marital statuses and jumped to 51 percent in cases of separation.
Women reported more stress than men generally, "but there is a visibly pronounced stress gap by gender when one compares women who are separated to men who are separated," the report said. While the well-being ratings were comparable for men and women who were separated, stress increased for both genders in that circumstance, but it increased much more for the women than for the men.
Megan Bearce, a marriage and family therapist in Minneapolis, who was not involved in the poll, believes stress jumps during separation in part because "there's anxiety over what's going to happen." Women are often the primary caregiver for a couple's children and may find themselves worrying not just about the relationship, but about practical challenges like finding day care or figuring out how finances will work.
The survey didn't specify how old the women were, but Bearce thought stress would be especially high among those with children. "I think that a lot of times, when the kids are done with high school, it's a convenient time for couples to separate if they're miserable," she said, adding she's seen that in her own practice.
David Simonsen, a marriage and family therapist in Olympia, Washington, believes some women may suffer more when marriage falls apart because of their expectations.
"In our society, young girls dream of being princesses. They plan for weddings, they look forward to finding Mr. Right," he said. "When they do, the dreams that society and their family had for them are fulfilled. Then the reality of a challenging relationship happens. These challenges often lead to a divorce that no dreams could prepare one for."
If they have children, it may be worse, said Simonsen. "A woman who had hopes and dreams for how her children would be raised in a two-parent home has to deal with the guilt and sadness that they now have to raise their children amidst the remnants of a broken marriage. No one wants to do this. It creates depression, anxiety and sometimes a feeling of worthlessness."
Married men and women are both less likely to use drugs or medications to relax, at about 17 percent, compared to the roughly 30 percent of separated or divorced men and women who say they do.
Bearce said she sometimes advises clients to play a game of what-if as a coping mechanism for stress. It doesn't matter what's causing anxiety; it may help to look at one's own worst-case scenario, then address it with "what is."
Someone in the middle of a divorce might fear going broke, losing the house and being estranged from the kids. The "what is" might include having good skills that are likely to lead to a decent-wage job, savings that can tide one over in the interim and recognizing one's strong relationship with the kids.
Just the act of listing one's worst-case fears aloud often removes some of their power, Bearce said. "It's easy to forget your skills and strengths when you're worried."
The findings are striking in part because while women would seem to do worse in divorce and separation, research shows men do worse than women when a spouse dies, said Karen Sherman, a Long Island, New York, psychologist. Neither she nor Simonsen were involved in the survey.
Sherman believes how both parties do depends at least partly on who sought the divorce because feelings of rejection and self-esteem issues all complicate one's sense of wellbeing. "If the woman asks for a divorce, he's not going to do as well," she said.
"What I'd like to see is that they be as amicable as possible, not only for each other, but for the sake of the children," Sherman advised. "What often happens is that all the hurt turns to anger."
Even before that, she suggested, couples should see if they can save their relationship.
Often, "a marriage could still be a good marriage, if they work on it. If they truly have to get divorced, they have to each try to respect their mate and acknowledge that each is a human being with good qualities," Sherman said. "Be as respectful and amicable to each others' feelings as you can, especially for the sake of the children."
Bottom line, Witters told the Deseret News, "Women have more stress then men, regardless of marital status. Separated women have even greater amounts of stress than separated men, so the already existent gap widens still further when separated or divorced."
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