Scientific studies traditionally rate the effects of divorce based on only one or two main areas. Popular areas of study are finance and health outcomes. When researchers limit studies to a subset of all possible effects in a phenomenon, particularly when a sufficiently large percentage of all research focuses more on the same limited areas, the validity of divorce outcomes touted in media is questionable.

Typically, men appear to fare better than their spouses—an unsurprising result when a majority of divorce outcome studies focus on finance and health outcomes. Fewer studies include multiple variables, skewing findings and resulting in popular media portrayals of males emerging victorious in the race while their former spouses remain at the starting line. There is some basis of research agreement in these narrow studies, but the limited areas of study preclude examination of other factors in divorce outcomes.

Meta-analysis of divorce research

A meta-analysis combines data from a large number of independent studies and, through statistical analysis, derives conclusions and identifies data trends that may not be as apparent in smaller sample sizes. Meta-analysis produces a higher level of accuracy not possible in individual studies.

In a well-designed landmark study carried out over two decades on 18,030 originally married individuals aged 21-60 years, a meta-analysis was performed on two groups, the observation group and a control group. The observation group consisted of those married couples who divorced within five years after the beginning of the study. The control group consisted of people who did not divorce at any time during the study. Researchers further enhanced accuracy by using the gold standard of statistics analyzing each subject’s response rather than an aggregate of study totals.

Study parameters and significant results

For this meta-analysis, the hypothesis was that including a range of potential outcomes would affect the large gap between positive to negative divorce outcomes between genders. To widen the range, meta-analysis was performed on studies that included 20 outcome areas covering four research categories: economic, housing and domestic, health and well-being, and social.

For divorced people, the meta-analysis revealed: Men initially experienced a poor sense of well-being while both genders experienced similar mental and physical health, financial well-being, social integration, home ownership and expectation to find new partners. The only gender gap that persisted was a disproportionately higher male income. Their ex-spouses showed a higher risk of poverty and single parenting.

In individual studies not included in the meta-analysis, researchers found men to be more vulnerable in the areas of unhappiness with custodial arrangements, greater loneliness and social isolation, far more dissatisfaction with family life, larger health declines, higher risk of taking up bad health habits and elevated mortality. Associating with a positive support network of men during divorce is a positive step that may lessen vulnerability and hardship during the process and aftermath of marital dissolution.