The study examined the association between relationship problems, divorce and general life satisfaction through a fifteen-year period. The authors used questionnaire data from 369 heterosexual couples that were married or living together in 1993/1994. They asked the women about the level of quarrelling and serious problems in the romantic relationship at the beginning of the study, and asked both men and women about their general life satisfaction in 2008.
During the course of the study, eighty-eight (24%) of the couples had divorced (including those who were not married but had moved apart). Overall, those who had divorced were less satisfied with life than those who had stayed together. However, this was not the case for those who came from relationships with relatively severe problems. In such circumstances, couples who divorced were more satisfied with life fifteen years later.
Assess the degree of problems in your relationship
These findings suggest that divorce can be positive for couples in highly distressed relationships.
“The association between divorce and life satisfaction depends on the degree of problems in the relationship”, says researcher Kristin Gustavson, who recently completed a Ph.D. and is the main author of the study.
“This is useful information for those working with prevention efforts to promote good mental health. The results are also important for those working in therapy with couples who are struggling,” says Gustavson.
Personality not as important
The findings are also useful in light of previous research, where there has been disagreement about the importance of stable romantic relationships for overall life satisfaction. Other studies claim that stable personality dispositions (such as negative emotionality) largely influence general life satisfaction. However, having examined the effects of divorce and the long-term association between relationship problems and life satisfaction, the results in this study indicate that personality traits do not explain life satisfaction alone, but that characteristics of the relationship are also important.
The study was carried out at the Division for Mental Health, Department of Child and Adolescent Mental Health. This is part of the TOPP study, which has followed families with children from 1.5 years old to 18-19 years of age.
About the TOPP Study
The TOPP study "Tracing Opportunities and Problems in Childhood and Adolescence" has collected seven waves of questionnaire data about children and adolescents and their families. The study examines the developmental trajectories to well-being, to good mental health and to mental disorders in children, adolescents and their families.
Gustavson, K., Røysamb, E., von Soest, T., Helland, M. J. and Mathiesen, K. S. (2012) Longitudinal associations between relationship problems, divorce, and life satisfaction: Findings from a 15-year population-based study. The Journal of Positive Psychology. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2012.671346