Ten Years on: The effects of separation and divorce on men
Peter K Jordan
Counsellor in Private Practice
[formerly Family Court Counsellor]
P O Box 466,
Indooroopilly Q 4068
Phone No. (07 3378 3411)
This research was initiated to examine men's attitudes, feelings and reactions to separation/divorce in the 1990s. It was decided to use the research undertaken by Jordan (1985) as a basis for investigating where and how men have travelled the divorce/separation road since the 1980s. The researcher has had a continuing interest from many media sources as to how men have coped with separation since the previous research and whether there have been changes in men's attitudes and actions about relationships and separations. Specific groups and services for men have been developed within the last twelve years and there have been at least two National Conferences on men's health needs. It was hoped that this research would add to an ongoing informed debate about men's issues as well as establishing criteria for implementing services to meet the actual needs of men following separation and divorce.
Aims of Research
This research investigated the experiences of separated men over a ten year period. It assessed the situation of men who had separated in the early 1980s and men who separated in the early 1990s. It compared the same sample of men over a ten year time span to see what changes had occurred since their original separation. This research sought to establish what factors may contribute to men not coping with marital separation. The factors assessed were the immediate and long term effects of marital separation upon, (a) physical and psychological well-being, (b) coping with day to day living activities, i.e. work, social relationships, household tasks, finances, (c) loss of husband and/or father roles, (d) attitudes and beliefs. The research also aimed to find out who made the decisions about separating, what help was sought, and to establish areas which caused men most distress following separation.
The general overall trend of the literature on this subject was that men are affected by marital separation in many ways from physical and mental health, social living activities and practical living problems. It was also evident that decisions about marital separation and relationships ending continued to be made by women in the majority of cases during the past decade. There were also research which suggested that men were still not readily accepting the responsibility for problems in their relationship and for it coming to an end.
Attachments men have to their partners and their children continue to be of great importance to men's well-being and there is growing interest in the role of fathers and their importance to the development of children's well-being.
There are some different findings as to when and to what extent men
recover from the effects of separation and divorce, although it is
apparent that new relationships and contacts have a positive effect
on the levels of recovery from the grief and pain.
The two sample groups surveyed were as follows;
1 The follow-up sample: The respondents who had participated in the 1984 study were contacted and asked to become involved again. Their addresses were checked against those on the Family Court of Australia records, and a check was undertaken of the Commonwealth Electoral Roll. The addresses of 147 of the 168 respondents from the 1984 sample were ascertained and they were forwarded a questionnaire. Thirty of those questionnaires were returned unclaimed and 63 were returned completed, providing a response rate of 54%, of those who could be contacted, which amounted to 38% of the original 1984 respondents.
2 The 1994
sample: The sample was selected using the same criteria as used
in Jordan's (1985) research, with the exception of the inclusion of
men from the Brisbane and Gold Coast areas. The criteria used
(i) They had filed a divorce application in the Brisbane Registry of the Family Court of Australia;
(ii) They had been separated for between one and two years at the time of the study.
A sample of five hundred was identified as meeting the criteria and these were asked by way of letter to participate in the project. One hundred and fifty eight men responded to the request to participate and completed the questionnaire. Eighty two letters were returned for reasons such as address unknown, changed address and unclaimed. This produced a response rate of 38% compared to the response rate of 41% for the original research (Jordan, 1985).
Note: For purposes of clarity, the men originally surveyed in
1984 are referred to collectively as' the 1984 sample',
those surveyed ten years later are described as' the 1994
sample', and the sub-group of those who formed the 1984 sample
and were re-surveyed in 1994 are called' the follow up sample'.
On some occasions the 1984 and 1994 samples are described as
'the major samples'. Jordan's original project is referred to
as 'the 1985 research'.
The particular findings of each sample group are presented, followed by general conclusions across each of the sample groups.
THE FOLLOW-UP SAMPLE
The demographic and relationship data indicated that
the follow-up sample was representative of the 1984 sample.
Country of Birth; No. of children under 18; Living arrangements of children.
A feature of the follow-up sample respondents, who had been separated from their ex-wife for between 11 to 12 years, was the high number of men who still reported strong feelings and attachments toward their ex-wife. Some 46% still felt angry towards their ex-wife, the same percentage as ten years before. Some 27% of the follow-up sample still spent time thinking about their ex-wife 11 to 12 years after separating.
Their continuing attachment to their marriage relationship some 11 to 12 years after separating was also evident from their responses. Some 63% reported still feeling as though they were dumped, which is only a 2% drop from 65% over the ten years since the original response. Similarly, there was little change in the responses about feeling that they would never get over the divorce, with 35% of the follow-up sample still feeling that way, compared to 39% of them feeling that way ten years ago. Around a third of the respondents continued to feel that the separation and divorce was a horrible mistake A factor which may have contributed to a number of the follow-up sample finding it difficult to cope with the loss, was the fact that they reported a number of other significant losses such as, in the intervening years, the deaths of family members or friends.
The importance of fatherhood to men was evident in the data recorded about the respondents' subsequent relationships where 40% of them had children to their second relationship. A further factor was that more than 50% of the fathers continued to have contact with their ex-wife even though only 38% of them still had children under 18 years. This would suggest that family contacts between separated families continues to occur for reasons other than contact/access between the children and parents.
The follow-up sample respondents reported that they were fairly confident of coping with life after separation, with 35% reporting that they were very confident and saw or felt that they had no problems and 62 % reporting that they had some difficulties but they thought they could cope. Therefore while 97% of respondents saw that they were coping fairly well, it was evident from the data about strong feeling of attachments to their ex-wife and their previous marriage, that a number of the men were still holding on to possible painful feelings and attitudes. This points to potential incongruities between external images and internal feelings.
It was anticipated that over time, the respondents would have gradually come to accept the contribution they made to their marriage coming to an end. However, this was not evident in the responses of the follow-up sample. A higher proportion of respondents in 1994 (39%) stated that it was their wife's contributions that led to the separation, compared to 34% in 1984. Further a lower proportion of the follow-up sample reported that their own contributions led to the relationship ending, from 22% in 1984 to 15% in 1994. This trend was continued in the responses to the statement 'I went ahead with the divorce only because it was what my wife wanted', when in 1984, 46% agreed with that statement and in 1994 this increased to 60%.
The main predictor of the respondents not coping with the separation was whether the men were living alone. It was found that those men who were assessed as likely to have problems with the separation in 1984 were living alone when they responded in 1994. The value the follow-up sample placed on relationships was evident from the extent to which they committed themselves to subsequent relationships. The data showed that 72% of the follow-up sample had repartnered at the time of completing the questionnaire in 1994, with 61% in a marriage and 11% in a defacto relationship. In the general comments the men reported that the best thing to happen to them over the past ten year period was the development of and involvement in new relationships.
While living alone was consistent as a predictor of distress across both sample groups, low occupational status was a significant factor in predicting whether men would experience difficulty coping with a separation. It was found that those respondents classified as low occupational status (unskilled blue collar workers, farmers, and retired/pensioners) were more likely than respondents of other occupational status to be affected after the separation by some health complaints/symptoms, financial difficulties, personal relationships difficulties and with strong negative feelings about their ex-wife.
The follow-up sample actually reported an increase in the incidence of physical complaints and symptoms over the intervening 10 years. The particular areas where increases were noted included sleeplessness (up from 36% to 47%), headaches (20% to 41%) poor memory (28% to 37%), reduced energy (32% to 48%), excessive tiredness (28% to 41%) and tight muscles (23% to 43%). In contrast, the incidence of crying - which is usually associated with an acute period of grief and loss - reduced from 25% to 10%. In the data reported by the men about important events during the past ten years it was found that 58% of the respondents had changed their jobs and 22% had been unemployed for more than a year. In particular that unemployment figure was high when compared with the average for Australia in recent years being under 10%.
Financial difficulties, as measured by comparing responses from the
1984 and follow up samples, are reported to have increased over
the ten year period, but domestic problems decreased. Men had
presumably either learned to cope with activities around the house,
or had relied on new partners to carry them out.
THE 1994 SAMPLE
The most traumatic period for the respondents of both the 1984 sample and the 1994 sample was at the time of separation. This feature was significant in each sample and across each of the scales of psychological well-being, health complaints/symptoms and practical living problems. This factor highlights the need for services for men to focus on this particular time period before men may choose to shut down their hurt by suppressing or externalising it.
The demographic data of the 1994 sample showed that men were marrying later in accord with the ABS statistics and that the median length of the marriages had increased from 8 years (the 1984 sample) to 9.5 years (the 1994 sample). Together with this data and the increased community and media interest in the role of men in relationships, it was expected that the 1994 sample would show differences concerning decisions to separate and allocation of responsibilities for the separation ending.
However, the data from the 1994 sample indicated that there had been no statistically significant changes in the decisions about ending the relationship. For example, when asked who had decided to separate, the respondents of the 1994 sample reported that the decision had been theirs in 24% of cases, and had been made by their former wife in 58% of cases. Responses to the same question from the men in the 1984 sample were 19% and 65% respectively. Therefore the decision to separate continued to be made by women in the majority of cases. The pattern, of men not seeing themselves as making the decisions, persisted when the question of who had wanted the separation was considered, with 60% of the 1994 sample stating that they had not wanted to separate. Further, over two thirds of the 1994 sample had sought a reconciliation.
The intensity of responses to the ending of the marriage some two years after separating were consistent across the 1994 and the 1984 samples. Forty six per cent of men in 1984 and 50% in 1994 expressed feelings of anger towards their former wife. There was also little variation in the proportions of those who said they felt dumped, with over two thirds continuing to state this feeling (65% in 1984, 67% in 1994). Responses to the question of thinking a lot about their wife resulted in 46% of the 1994 sample stating that they were continuing to do that some one to two years after separating, with the response in 1984 being 55%. Again more than a third of the respondents from the 1994 and the 1984 sample reported, one to two years after the separation, that they felt that they would never get over the divorce (35% in 1994 and 39% in 1984). This data points to the high level of importance and aspiration the respondents had continued to place upon their marriage and their ex-wife over the past decade.
The heightened interest in men's issues and the prominence given to the role of fathers in recent years would suggest that men would be strongly motivated to maintain their fathering role. The significance of children for the fathers was evident in the 1984 sample and this significance was again evident in the responses of the 1994 sample. The perceived loss of their children was the most strongly expressed response elicited from the 1994 sample, with 95% of the respondent fathers expressing their desire to be near their children, 90% not wanting to be separated from them and 97% reporting they had strong feelings for their children.
An unexpected outcome from the 1994 sample responses was the attribution of responsibility for the marriage ending. More men of the 1994 sample placed the responsibility for the relationship ending on to their former wife than did the 1984 sample, the increase being from 47% to 61%. Consistent with this, fewer respondents in the 1994 sample than in the 1984 sample blamed themselves for the separation, and areas of conflict within the marriage were more likely to focus on the woman according to the responses of the 1994 sample (34% to 44%). Other areas of conflict which the men reported as contributing to their separation were financial problems (20% in 1984, 27% in 1994), and also differences and incompatibilities (18% in 1984, 26% in 1994).
were asked about any physical symptoms and complaints they
experienced (i) before, (ii) at the time of, and (iii) after (1 to
2 years) separation. The incidence of these symptoms and complaints
was similar for both the 1984 and 1994 samples, but there was some
variation. The respondents in the 1994 sample more than in the
1984 sample reported that symptoms and complaints such as reduced
energy, excessive tiredness and tight muscles occurred before and
at the time of, rather than following the separation.
The Bradburn psychological well-being scale highlighted that it was at the time of separation that the respondents' well-being was most adversely affected. It found that there were no significant differences in the scores on positive experiences between the 1984 and the 1994 samples. However, the respondents in the 1994 sample were more likely to report significantly fewer negative experiences, both at the time of separation and one or two years later, than were reported by the 1984 sample. This may suggest a reduction in the stigma associated with marriage separation over the decade.
The research data showed that the responses of both
the 1984 and 1994 samples concerning coping with daily living
activities were not significantly different. However, there were
some areas in which more of the 1994 sample found difficulties and
these included receiving few invitations to social activities,
finding a house or rent payments too high and had no money for
outings or personal pleasure. The common issue in a number of
these areas was related to financial problems.
Helpseeking data showed only sight variations, except for an increase in the use of Marriage guidance agencies from 20% to 31% for 1984 sample and 1994 sample respectively
When factors from each of the 1984, the 1994 and the follow-up samples were combined it was established that living alone was the main predictive factor of who would find coping with marital separation difficult. It is this factor which therefore needs to be given close attention by counsellors and those involved with assisting men to cope with separation.
The data from the samples surveyed in 1994 indicated that there has been little change in men's attitudes and feelings about relationships over the past decade. Further the data suggested that there may even be a trend towards women being blamed to a greater extent by men for their relationship ending in the 1990s than in the 1980s. This trend was not surprising for the researcher, whose work as a counsellor within the Family Court suggests that men are now more likely to verbalise their anger and distress, about losing their marriages, towards their ex-wife and the Family Court in particular and governments and society in general. This trend underlines the importance of services to be attentive to the needs of men in this situation and to provide them with the time, consideration and opportunities to be heard and understood.
It was evident that the majority of respondents had found ways and means to deal with the loss of a relationship, with many of them moving into new relationships. However, while the respondents reported that they were confident about coping with life some one to two years after separating, this research also raised the question of underlying feelings and attachments about their past relationship remaining with the men for many years after separation.
In the 1994 sample there were indications of more men having problems with health complaints/symptoms and finance which may suggest higher levels of stress in the 1990s. However, this is an area which requires more investigation as it may also be the case that in the 1990s more men are prepared to acknowledge personal problems than in the 1980s.
Of significance in this
research was the extent to which the men valued their relationships
and their children. Unfortunately it would seem they did not spend
the effort and time necessary to maintain and nurture the
relationship prior to separation, or maybe that they did not know
how to or that they were reluctant or unwilling to seek outside
assistance. For men, one of the great challenges is to reconsider
and possibly redevelop their working and social lives so that their
relationships and families receive the priority necessary for
ongong nurture and maintenance.
Jordan, P.K. (1985). Men Hurt: The Effects of Marital Separation on Men - Research Report No. 6. Family Court of Australia, Sydney.
Jordan, P. (1988). The Effects of Marital Separation on Men Journal of Divorce, 12, suppl. 1: pp57-82.