Divorce refers to the termination of a marriage or a marital union. Divorce usually involves the cancellation or reorganization of a person’s legal duties and responsibilities which were extended to him/her through marriage. In most countries, divorce is required by law so as to allow the former partner to marry another person [Gilman, Kawachi, Fitzmaurice & Buka 2003]. However, divorce is not usually a smooth process and has significant impacts on the partner’s physical, social, psychological, and economic wellbeing. In this post, I will focus specifically on the stigma and mental health impact of divorce from a Nigerian perspective.
The process of getting a divorce could be extremely grueling and challenging psychologically and financially for women. Moreover, the social stigma associated with divorce impacts one’s mental health, especially in absence of a strong support system which is often the case for divorced women in many societies. Many studies have reported a negative impact of divorce on health although it is still not clear to what extent it is due to early vulnerability, material and social consequences of divorce, or its direct emotional effects.
In Nigeria, especially in the Igbo tribe, divorce is often seen as taboo. As a result, women prefer to stay in dysfunctional marriages over getting a divorce. Divorced women are often seen as second-hand/inferior, troublesome, and the cause of the failed marriage. Sometimes they don’t receive support even from their immediate family members who prefer to join others to persecute and humiliate them. This often causes mental health breakdown.
It’s pertinent to note that divorce and stigma have effects on somatic and mental health most of which can be seen/associated with increased anxiety, depression, increased risk of alcohol abuse, aggression, financial hardship, and lack of confidence. While for some, divorce is a relieving end to a dissatisfying relationship, for others the disintegration of the relationship and the divorce itself cause deep psychological distress. For some, the common feelings of anger, resentment, confusion, fear, shame, and anxiety during and after divorce takes up permanent residency in one’s emotional makeup and wreaks havoc on both mental and physical health. This can be the case even if you were the one who chose to leave the marriage. As divorce has carved a niche in the community so does the stigma surrounding it. Thus we must recognize its destructive impact on both emotional and physical well-being as well as the need to support people who are struggling during and after divorce. The lack of access to good mental health care coupled with stigma regarding mental health issues makes the situations more challenging and complicated for many divorced women.
STIGMA ASSOCIATED WITH DIVORCE INCLUDES
Discrimination, Rejection, and Segregation by Family and Friends:
As mentioned before, divorced women are not socially respected or accepted in society and often find themselves alone and being avoided by close friends and family. It’s a common notion among people in Nigeria and many other societies that divorced women are evil and can have a negative influence on other women. And, having a close friendship with a divorced woman might cause problems in one’s marriage or relationship. Sometimes, even family members or siblings tend to come up with such discriminatory attitudes, instead of rendering support to each other.
Moreover, it’s a norm and culture in the Igbo tribe that landed properties are for the male child as the girls will become part of another family after marriage. When a girl’s marriage doesn’t work out and she comes back to her father’s house after the divorce, she faces rejection and segregation within the family so that she can’t claim her father’s house or property. When a woman with children gets a divorce, the prospects of remarriage are really less. Therefore, divorced women with kids, psychologically, emotionally, and financially are traumatized as a result of the divorce process and rejection by friends and family.
Job Discrimination, Denial, and Hostility at Workplace:
Divorced mothers or divorced women often find themselves discriminated against in the workplace, during the job interview and hiring process. The social perception that divorced women are troublesome and their presence might distort an establishment is responsible for this. It might be extremely challenging for someone to be at the receiving end of such discrimination as it reduces one’s self-esteem and impacts mental health and wellness. Moreover, the impact of workplace gossip, grapevine communication, and name tag surrounding a divorced woman could be extremely traumatic and detrimental to one’s psychological health.
It is observed that society reacts antagonistically to the divorced woman and on numerous occasions avoids/excommunicates her, thanks to rural to urban migration such behavior is able to be contained as financial well-to-do women who can afford relocation to a different state do so for a change of environment.
Mental Health Issues Caused by Divorce:
The effects of divorce on women can be devastating. The stressful effects of divorce can leave women feeling rejected, insecure and depressed. Divorce can be most devastating for women in traditional marriage who lose their identities as well as their financial security with the loss of a husband [McGoldrick, M, C. Anderson & F. Walsh 1989] According to a study by Hayward M & Zhang, Z .
The effects of divorce are not just confined to the emotional realm but may be articulated through specific behavioral disturbances that endanger physical health. One particularly common phenomenon experienced by people struggling with the stress of marriage breakdown is the development of disordered eating patterns. While many jokes about the benefits of the ‘divorce diet, in reality, weight loss following separation and divorce can be indicative of a serious and destructive physiological response to overwhelming stress. However, undereating is not the only eating disorder caused by divorce. Some turn to food for emotional comfort leading to overeating, and binge eating in an attempt to cope with psychological pain.
While some seek comfort in food others experience overwhelming distress following divorce and self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to find relief from psychological pain. When the seed of substance abuse is planted by marriage dissolution, it’s imperative that the psychological effects of divorce are treated in concert with the substance use itself to address the full scope of the problem and ensure lasting sobriety.
Women are more susceptible to the physical and psychological effects of divorce than their male counterparts. Mental health is an integral component of health as The WHO  constitution states ‘health is a state of complete physical, psychological and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity An important aspect of this definition is that mental health is described as more than the absence of mental disorders or disabilities. Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with everyday stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community therefore it is necessary that women passing through divorce receives help psychologically, mentally, socially, physically and financially to be able to cope with challenges divorce comes with and have a good mental capacity to carter for family and community.
Gilman, S.E., Kawachi, I., Fitzmaurice, G.M., & Buka, S.L. (2003). Socio-economic status, family disruption and residential stability in childhood: Relation to onset, recurrence and remission of major depression. Psychological Medicine,33(8), 1341-1355. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291703008377
McGoldrick M, C Anderson & F. Walsh (Eds). 1989. Women in families: Framework for family therapy. New York:Norton professional books
Hayward M & Z. Zhang 2006: Divorced middle-aged women more prone to heart disease than those who remain married. J. marriage and family 68 (3): 639-657
WHO 2010. Mental health: Strengthening our response, Geneva.