As a result of two demographic trends, the aging of the population and rising rates of marital instability, individuals are experiencing increasingly complex sequences of marital transitions over their life courses. However, the mental health effects of marital history have received limited attention in medical sociology.
This research examines the effect often distinct marital trajectories, conceptualized as sequences of marital transitions, on symptoms of three mental illnesses: depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and substance abuse/dependence. Data are drawn from the second wave of the Piedmont Health Survey of the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study, collected in 1982-83 in five counties in North Carolina. The study sample consists of adults 30 years of age and older (n=2,502). General linear models and ordinary least squares regression are used to examine the process linking marital history and mental health. Several potential mediators are examined including financial well-being, social integration, negative life events, and perceived social support. To examine potential differences by gender and race, separate analyses are conducted for women, men, African-Americans, and Whites.
Results indicate that marital history influences mental health. Marital history moderates the health-protective effect of marriage such that the remarried following divorce have more symptoms of anxiety than the continuously married. Results also suggest that marital losses exert a cumulative, negative effect on depression and substance abuse/dependence. Evidence is stronger for the effect of multiple widowhood, compared with multiple divorce. Although experiencing a marital loss for a second time is associated with worse mental health, other results indicate that a second dissolution is associated with a steeper decline in symptoms during the years following the loss.
Results provide clues about the process through which marital history influences mental health. Financial well-being, social roles, negative life events, and perceived social support mediate the relationship; however, the role of each varies across the marital trajectories. The hypothesized mediators play larger roles among the separated and never-married than trajectories ending in widowhood, remarriage, or divorce. Results reveal that the mechanisms underlying social causation vary by gender and race.