Sell My House, Check. Plane Ticket To Africa, Check. But Should I Divorce?

I once asked a stranger at a busy café in Brussels, “What’s the one thing you could be doing right now that would inspire you more than anything in the world?”

“I always wanted to buy a motorbike and ride around Africa,” he said. “My hero is some guy who motorcycled Africa for four years in the 1970s and wrote three books.”

I told him, “You can do that.”

“In three years time. I have a house.”

“Sell it.”

“It’s not finished,” he said.

“Finish it.”

“It’ll take three years.”

“That long? Is a house the only thing stopping you from living your dream?”

“I’m also married,” he said.

I didn’t tell him to get rid of his wife.

That conversation occurred years ago, but I have continued to wonder what might have happened if I had advised him to get a divorce--if indeed leaving his wife would have helped him live his dream of riding a motorbike from South Africa to Somalia to Senegal.

New research suggests that, regardless of its effect on his dream trip, my reserve may have had some important health benefits. The University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University recently looked into the long-term health effects posed by marriage, divorce, and widowhood. It examined four areas of health: chronic conditions, mobility limitations, self-rated health, and depressive symptoms. Based on a study of 8,652 people aged 51 to 61, they found that marital disruption not only damages health, but that those who have been divorced show worse health in all four of the studied areas.

Findings by researchers Linda Waite and Mary Elizabeth Hughes will be published in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in the article, “Marital Biography and Health Midlife.” Here’s a PDF of the article on the American Sociological Association’s website,

By Lee Bob Black.

Notes and sources:

1. “Divorce undermines health in ways remarriage doesn’t heal,” University of Chicago,

2. Tara Parker-Pope’s article, “Divorce, It Seems, Can Make You Ill,” New York Times, Aug 3, 2009,

3. “Marital Biography and Health at Mid-Life,” by Mary Elizabeth Hughes (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) and Linda J. Waite (National Opinion Research Center and the University of Chicago), Journal of Health and Social Behavior 2009, Vol 50 (September):344–358.  

Extract: “This article develops a series of hypotheses about the long-term effects of one’s history of marriage, divorce, and widowhood on health, and it tests those hypotheses using data from the Health and Retirement Study. We examine four dimensions of health at mid-life: chronic conditions, mobility limitations, self-rated health, and depressive symptoms. We find that the experience of marital disruption damages health, with the effects still evident years later; among the currently married, those who have ever been divorced show worse health on all dimensions. Both the divorced and widowed who do not remarry show worse health than the currently married on all dimensions. Dimensions of health that seem to develop slowly, such as chronic conditions and mobility limitations, show strong effects of past marital disruption, whereas others, such as depressive symptoms, seem more sensitive to current marital status. Those who spent more years divorced or widowed show more chronic conditions and mobility limitations.”

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