As Boomers enjoy longer lives, staying in a challenging marriage “until death do us part” becomes a less than attractive option. No wonder almost 40 percent of marriages end in divorce. But, while marital transition can ultimately lead to greater happiness, separation and divorce can take its toll on one’s health.
Leaving a romantic union is stressful for anyone. But Boomers, in particular, need to take care of their health. “The body is a little bit more weathered and worn and our immune system is not as strong as we get older,” says Victoria Lorient-Faibish, a Toronto-based registered psychotherapist and holistic psychotherapist.
She says that people may experience chest pain without an underlying heart condition: “It’s literally broken heart pain.” But a broken heart can literally be bad for the heart. A study found that middle-aged divorcees had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease than their married counterparts. Middle-aged women are at higher risk. This may be explained by higher levels of inflammation caused by stress, such as bearing greater financial hardship than their ex-husbands.
Lorient-Faibish emphasizes the connection between our minds and bodies. “We’re not just talking heads,” she explains. “Every single experience that we’re going through emotionally is reflected in our bodies at every turn.” In fact, one study found that many chronic conditions in mid-life, including depression and mobility limitations, are exacerbated by marital disruption.
Neck and jaw pain is common. “There’s all these disagreements going on and a lot of people feel like they have to restrain themselves from speaking or they’re exhausted from the fighting,” says Lorient-Faibish. Stomach disturbances from anxiety are common, too. And, some conditions, such as lower back pain may be symptomatic for not feeling well supported by life, she points out.
While both men and women suffer emotionally through separation and divorce, Lorient-Faibish says that men are not as socialized to express their emotions. A review of scientific literature published in The Journal of Men’s Health found that divorced men have higher rates of substance abuse, as well as an increased risk of mortality and depression than married men. They are twice as likely as women to gain weight after divorce, according to one study.
But it’s not all bad news. Lorient-Faibish has actually seen the health of some of her clients improve following separation. Often, they are confident with their decision to leave a marriage. She advises clients not to rush into divorce. “Leave no stone unturned so you don’t look back and feel any regrets,” she suggests. This is especially important when children are involved. But once clients are firm in their decision, she says their health complaints such as poor sleep, headaches and stomach pains will often disappear.
Top tips on how to stay healthy during separation and divorce
•Boost your immune system
Not surprisingly, our immune system takes a hit when we are under stress. This makes us vulnerable to illness. “Anything that boosts your immune system will be really important,” says Lorient-Faibish. Prioritizing sleep and eating healthy food is a good place to start. Poor food choices such as processed food, sugar and alcohol may feel comforting at the time, but will not serve you well during this transition. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is always a good choice, but particularly now. They contain antioxidants which helps with depression. And drink plenty of water. Dehydration can increase stress hormones.
Feeling down often leads to weight fluctuations. Exercise offers many benefits during marital transition. Not only does it help you maintain a healthy weight, it will help you sleep better too. Exercise also produces those feel-good endorphins that help to reduce stress and anxiety. Consider spending more time close to nature—a walk, a hike, cycling—which can energize you even more.
•Slow your breath
Slowing our breath turns on the relaxation response in our nervous system. “This increases the ability of your body to heal itself,” says Lorient-Faibish. There are good ways to do this including meditation, visualization and mindfulness.
•Seek emotional support
Help is out there. There are many options including individual and group psychotherapy. Reaching out to friends for emotional support can be very comforting during this time. Marital transition, even when it is amicable, is still a huge life change. Get the support you need.