Mental health problems and marital disruption: is it the combination of husbands and wives’ mental health problems that predicts later divorce?



Divorce has been established as an adverse social consequence of mental illness. There is, however, little research that has considered how the mental health of both spouses may interact to predict relationship disruption. The aim of the current study was to use data from a large population-based survey to examine whether the combination of spouses’ mental health problems predicts subsequent marital dissolution.


Prospective analysis of data from a longitudinal national household survey. 3,230 couples were tracked over 36 months, with logistic regression models used to determine whether the mental health problems of both spouses at wave 1 (determined by the SF36 mental health subscale) predicted subsequent relationship dissolution.


Couples in which either men or women reported mental health problems had higher rates of marital disruption than couples in which neither spouse experienced mental health problems. For couples in which both spouses reported mental health problems, rates of marital disruption reflected the additive combination of each spouse’s separate risk. Importantly, these couples showed no evidence of a multiplicative effect of mental illness on rates of subsequent divorce or separation.


The results do not support the notion that a combination of mental health problems in both spouses uniquely predicts marital dissolution. Rather, there is an additive effect of individual mental health problems on the risk of dissolution.

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The authors wish to thank Ms Tamar Oz for research assistance. This paper uses the confidentialised unit record file from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. The HILDA Project was initiated and is funded by the Commonwealth Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (MIAESR). The findings and views reported in this paper, however, are those of the authors and should not be attributed to either FaHCSIA, or the MIAESR. Funding: Financial support for this project was received from the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services, and Indigenous Affairs through the Social Policy Research Services Contract. Peter Butterworth was supported by NHMRC Public Health (Australia) Fellowship No. 316970. Bryan Rodgers was supported by NHMRC Research Fellowship No. 148948. Competing interests: None.

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Correspondence to Peter Butterworth PhD.

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Butterworth, P., Rodgers, B. Mental health problems and marital disruption: is it the combination of husbands and wives’ mental health problems that predicts later divorce?. Soc Psychiat Epidemiol 43, 758–763 (2008).

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  • social psychiatry
  • mental disorders
  • divorce
  • marriage
  • epidemiology