Study Finds “Grey Divorce” Takes Heavier Toll on Women’s Mental Health


A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health sheds light on the psychological toll of “grey divorce” on women, indicating a significant increase in antidepressant use following relationship dissolution among older individuals.

Led by researchers utilizing data from Finland, the study underscores the challenges women face in coping with late-life relationship transitions.

Grey divorce, the phenomenon of divorcing at age 50 and older, has been steadily rising in high-income countries, attributed largely to the aging baby boomer generation. As couples in this demographic reassess their relationships later in life, more divorces occur at a stage when retirement and enjoying golden years together are expected.

Grey Divorce Impact On Mental Health

The study, motivated by a need to understand the mental health implications of these late-life relationship changes, examined data spanning over two decades from 1996 to 2018.

Researchers analyzed information from Statistics Finland and the Social Insurance Institution, encompassing records of all permanent Finnish residents, to track life events and their impacts accurately.

Focusing on 228,644 individuals aged 50 to 70 who experienced significant relationship transitions between 2000 and 2014, the study honed in on antidepressant use as a measure of emotional well-being.

Results revealed a clear pattern: antidepressant use increased leading up to and following a union dissolution, with women showing a more pronounced increase compared to men, indicating a substantial emotional toll on women associated with these events.

This gender disparity persisted across all types of union dissolution, whether through divorce, non-marital separation, or bereavement, suggesting broader gendered differences in coping with significant relationship changes. The study suggests that the costs of union dissolution on mental health weigh more heavily on women than men.

Furthermore, while re-partnering initially led to a temporary decrease in antidepressant use for both genders, indicating a short-term improvement in mental health, this benefit was short-lived, especially for women.

Despite expectations that finding a new partner might provide lasting emotional support, any reduction in antidepressant use following re-partnering among women quickly returned to or exceeded pre-re-partnering levels.

The study identified several potential explanations for these findings, including the idea that marriage may benefit men’s mental health more than women’s and that older men are more likely to seek emotional support from re-partnering.

Additionally, women may take on greater responsibilities in managing interpersonal relationships within blended families, which could undermine their mental health.

Despite its strengths, including the comprehensive dataset used, the study has limitations. It did not consider the quality of relationships before dissolution or the cumulative effect of multiple unions over an individual’s lifetime, factors that could significantly influence mental health outcomes.

Additionally, broader social support networks and living arrangements were not fully examined.

These findings highlight the need for further research to explore how various factors, including relationship quality and social support networks, impact the mental health of older adults undergoing significant relationship transitions.

Understanding these dynamics can inform interventions aimed at supporting individuals, particularly women, through the challenges of late-life relationship changes. As grey divorce rates continue to rise, addressing the mental health implications becomes increasingly important for promoting overall well-being in aging populations.

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