First Marriages Often End in Divorce

From the WebMD Archives

May 24, 2001 -- How long your marriage lasts may well depend on how old you were when you took your vows. When CDC researchers surveyed nearly 11,000 American women, they found that one in three had divorced within 10 years of their first wedding. The odds were much better, however, among those who'd tied the knot later in life. This is important information, experts tell WebMD, because divorce can wreak havoc on your health.

"We found that 33% of first marriages end within 10 years and 43% end within 15 years," says study leader Matthew Bramlett, PhD, a statistician with the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. While 75% of the divorced women remarried, he says, "47% of those remarriages dissolve within 10 years."

According to Bramlett, "younger age at marriage was associated with a higher probability of disruption." Of women who got married when they were younger than 18, almost two-thirds got divorced, compared with about a third of those married at age 20 or older. And even though younger divorced women were most likely to remarry, he tells WebMD, "younger age at remarriage was also associated with a higher probability of divorce."

The prevalence of divorce among young marrieds was not unexpected, says Bramlett, "but we were surprised by the magnitude of the differences. The lowest age group had twice the probability of divorce as the oldest."

"Divorce is a terrible stressor, and all the things that happen with stress happen during a divorce," says Linda Waite, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, and co-author with Maggie Gallagher of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better off Financially. She commented on the CDC report for WebMD.

It's been known for some time that divorced men are "much more likely than married men to commit suicide, and that single men in general are more likely to die in accidents and from homicide -- the [outside] forces of mortality," she says.

Recently, says Waite, researchers at Ohio State University compared endocrine and immune system function in women who were married, divorced a year ago, or divorced five years ago. They measured disease-fighting T-cells and lymphocytes, and how quickly immunity developed following vaccination. "The hypothesis was that divorce was a stressor, and that women who'd gotten divorced in the past year would have worse function," she tells WebMD.

And they did. In fact, the most recently divorced women "had substantially worse endocrine and immune system function compared to the married women," says Waite. But surprisingly, the same was true for the women who'd already been divorced for five years.

So it's not just the transition of going through a divorce that affects health, says Waite, it's the state of being divorced. "The transition is tough, that's true," she says, but five years down the road "they were still more likely to get a cold or flu, less likely to recover from cancer, if they got it, or from a heart attack."

What's more, says Waite, the recently and not-so-recently divorced women were more likely than the marrieds to be depressed, anxious, and to feel less satisfied with their life and health overall. And there's every reason to believe that these findings would hold true for men, she tells WebMD.

Still, getting divorced does not necessarily mean that you will become ill. "These are tendencies, not absolutes," says Waite. "Not everybody is going to have these consequences."

One of the best things a divorced person can do to increase his or her overall health is to find someone -- whether a counselor, a friend, a parent, or a support group -- to confide in. Being able to openly discuss problems and feelings with someone who'll listen is critical to remaining healthy, says Waite.

Of course there is never a guarantee when you say, "I do," but if you'd like to improve your odds against the heartache and health risks of divorce, keep this in mind: "The older you are at [the time of] marriage, the more likely your marriage will last," says Bramlett. "And being younger may help you get remarried, but it doesn't help you stay remarried."

Bramlett tells WebMD that a follow-up CDC study now under way, which includes men, may help clarify the reasons behind these significant differences in marital success.