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Does divorce change your personality?

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Painting of Two People facing away

Artist: Elisa Masschelein

Experiencing a divorce can have a lasting impact on people's lives, both financially and in terms of wellbeing. But can separating from your spouse also cause your personality to change?

Personality is a complex concept, which has fostered a multitude of measurement instruments and theoretical models. The most widely used personality model is the Five Factor Model, also known as the Big Five. This model states that your entire personality can be captured using five core traits. These traits include neuroticism (e.g., anxious, depressed, emotionally unstable), extraversion (e.g., gregarious, energetic, talkative), conscientiousness (e.g., organized, self-regulating, high impulse control), agreeableness (e.g., kind, empathetic, trusting), and openness to experience (e.g., novelty-seeking, curious, original).  Decades of research has shown that these traits remain quite stable throughout adulthood, with only small changes taking place. These changes are a result of our personalities ‘maturing’. On average we become less neurotic and more conscientious, agreeable and socially dominant. The reason for this change is not entirely understood. Most scholars agree that it cannot be attributed to mere genetic predisposition. Environmental factors likely also have a role to play, as personality change has been recorded after life events such as starting a relationship, entering the labour market, marrying or becoming a parent. Some scholars have argued that divorce might also be able to disrupt personality stability.

This idea was put to the test by Sascha Spikic (University of Antwerp), Dimitri Mortelmans (University of Antwerp) and Inge Pasteels (PXL University of Applied Sciences and Arts). The researchers examined data from multiple countries in order to examine the replicability of a divorce-induced personality change. The hypothesis was that if a consistent personality changing effect of divorce exists, then this should be noticeable in multiple samples. They examined data consisted of large panel surveys from Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, which totalled more than 35,000 observations of married individuals. The researchers looked at individuals who separated during a period of four to six years. The change in personality traits of those who separated during this time was then compared to those who remained married. The focus was not only on formal divorce because this process can drag on for a very long time. Instead, all events of marital separation were examined, since separation itself probably has a far greater impact on people's lives than a change in their legal status.

The researchers recorded multiple findings. First and most important, no replicable effect of divorce-induced personality change was found in the three countries under investigation. This suggests that divorce is not associated with any consistent personality change. Secondly, some small effects were detected which could not be replicated across countries. Thirdly, these effects consisted of positive changes, which is not what you would expect to happen to someone after seeing their marriage end. Fourthly, one slight replication was found, as divorcees became more agreeable in two of the three countries. It is possible that although on average divorce does not lead to personality change, some individuals might become more agreeable because their new single life requires personality traits that are useful in rebuilding a social network, such as agreeableness.  Nevertheless, the main finding remains that, all in all, divorce does not seem to result in any personality change. This holds true even after the researchers controlled for possible gender differences, differences in the length of time that one is separated and anticipation effects where personality could change before the separation takes place.  If we regard being the same person as having the same personality, then this study seems to show that divorce does not change you.

Author(s) of the original publication
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Sascha Spikic