Personality and Divorce
Personality traits are typically defined as relatively enduring, automatic patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that distinguish people from one another. Despite their relative stable character traits are malleable and can change as a result of life events such as divorce. Divorce is typically defined as a life event, but it rather reflects a gradual process from marriage to dissolution that includes affective, cognitive, behavioral, social, and socioeconomic changes.
To date, almost every second marriage is divorced (National Center for Health Statistics 2017). Divorce is typically associated with various adverse consequences, such as declines in physical health, psychological and social well-being, and economic status (Demo and Fine 2010). Several individual and social factors have been discussed as potential risk factors for divorce such as lack of social competence, lack of commitment, stress, as well as a risky personality profile with high neuroticism and low agreeableness and conscientiousness. This entry focuses on two hypotheses regarding the directionality of the Big Five personality traits and divorce: First, personality traits are risk factors for divorce (selection effects). Second, personality trait changes are results of divorce (socialization effects). This entry also discussed several underlying mechanisms and moderators regarding the two directions.
Do Personality Traits Predict Divorce?
The selection effects hypothesis would suggest that having a risky personality profile with high neuroticism and low agreeableness and conscientiousness predisposes one for divorce. This hypothesis has been tested in previous prospective longitudinal work (Bleidorn et al. 2018). For example, a meta-analytic review summarized the results of 13 prospective studies (Roberts et al. 2007). The studies differed with respect to sample size (N’s ranging from 87 to 1490 persons), nationality, control variables (e.g., gender, education, age at marriage, no control variables), duration of the study, and nature of predictors. The results indicated that high neuroticism and related traits such as being anxious and overly sensitive, low agreeableness, and low conscientiousness are risk factors. People with this risky profile had a significantly higher likelihood of experiencing a divorce. In contrast, low neuroticism, high agreeableness, and conscientiousness were protective, as they were related with a decreased probability of getting divorced and a higher likelihood of staying longer in their marriages, respectively. Note, however, that the magnitude of the predictive effects of these personality traits on divorce represented small effects. Nevertheless, they were larger than those reported for socioeconomic status (SES). A study using a nationally representative, longitudinal Australian sample (Solomon and Jackson 2014) replicated the meta-analytic results with respect to the three personality traits. An additional result was that people who are more open to new experiences also have a higher risk of getting divorced. According to the authors, this positive association might reflect a wandering eye and a less stigmatized view of divorce, which may alleviate dissolution. Again, the effects of the study were small, and some predictive effects were not stable and they disappeared after controlling for the other Big Five traits and demographic variables such as relationship duration, having children, or socioeconomic status. A final example refers to a recent study that analyzed a large data set from the British Household Panel Survey to test the selection effects hypothesis (Boertien et al. 2017). Some personality traits significantly predicted the likelihood of dissolution. For example, people who are less conscientious or more extraverted tended to have a higher risk of getting divorced. For men also being less open to experience increased the likelihood of dissolution. Again, the magnitude of the predictive effects was generally small. Some limitations considering the summarized research should be noted. First, most studies were based on self-reports of personality, leaving open the possibility that participants responded on the basis of what would be socially desirable. Instead multi-method approaches combining self-reports with observer-reports and behavioral data may be valuable. Second, potential synergistic relations between personality traits and social environmental factors have not been considered. It is possible that the combination of particular personality traits and particular social conditions promotes or undermines outcomes such as divorce (Roberts et al. 2007). Third, to our knowledge, the study by Solomon and Jackson (2014) was the only one using both actor and partner reports of each of the Big Five traits to investigate the effects of traits and their combined effects on changes in relationship satisfaction.
To summarize, available empirical evidence suggest that the Big Five trait of neuroticism is the most commonly identified personality trait causing marital instability and divorce. The literature provides further support for the importance of the traits of agreeableness and consciousness with respect to marital stability, whereas the roles of extraversion and openness to experiences for divorce are not clear. In general, small predictive effects were found at the sample levels. However, at the individual level, even small effects can have extensive consequences on an individual’s life, especially in the case when the effects of the life events accumulate across life (cf. Roberts et al. 2007).
Why Do Personality Predict Divorce?
The fact that some personality traits do predict divorce leads to the important follow-up question of why personality traits reflect risk factors. One important pathway by which a risky personality profile may predict divorce is by reducing relationship quality. Three competing theoretical models have been proposed to understand the associations between personality traits and divorce through the effects on relationship quality. First, through the lens of the prominent Vulnerability-Stress-Adaption Model (VSA; Karney and Bradbury 1995), personality traits can be conceptualized as enduring individual vulnerabilities (e.g., high neuroticism) and individual resources (e.g., high agreeableness). In tandem with adaptive processes (e.g., problem-solving interactions between spouses), they affect relationship quality and ultimately marital stability. Put differently, relationship quality depends on how people deal with stressful relationship circumstances (e.g., daily hassles), their enduring vulnerabilities and resources, and the nature of stressful events spouses have to deal with. The VSA model suggests that low relationship quality predicts marital dissolution. Second, the Enduring Dynamics Model (Solomon and Jackson 2014) proposes that personality traits continually influence relationship quality. Poorer marital quality increases the likelihood of dissolution. This pathway is very similar to the VSA model, in which enduring vulnerabilities influence marital stability through marital quality. Third, the Emergent Distress Model (Solomon and Jackson 2014) postulates that personality traits promote changes in relationship satisfaction. For example, neuroticism would lead to decreases in relationship satisfaction through more frequently experienced daily hassles and dysfunctional interpretation of these events. Data from the study by Solomon and Jackson (2014) provided first empirical support for both models, albeit with stronger support for the Enduring Dynamics Model. However, the distress pathway was stronger for spouses who encounter certain life events, implying that personality traits may matter in adapting to shifting life circumstances (Solomon and Jackson 2014). This is consistent with the VSA model that suggests that enduring vulnerabilities may influence adaptive processes, which are needed when spouses experience stressful events. All these theoretical models focus on marital dissolution through decreases in marital quality. According to other empirical findings, some spouses remain in a relationship despite low quality, whereas others get divorced despite high quality (Hawkins and Booth 2005; Hetherington 2003). Therefore, personality cannot only be a cause of divorce through decreases in marital quality but also contribute to alleviating conditions. In general, there are several pathways by which personality traits may predict divorce. Especially three processes deserve consideration. First, personality traits may influence the exposure to relationship events. For instance, highly neurotic individuals may be more likely to experience frequent everyday conflicts and stressful events in their relationships (Suls and Martin 2005). Second, personality traits may shape the reaction to the partner’s behavior. Finally, personality traits trigger behavior from the partner contributing to relationship quality and satisfaction (Roberts et al. 2007).
In summary, although there are some theoretical ideas and first empirical evidence about how some personality traits increase the likelihood of dissolution through effects on marital quality, there is a lack of empirical studies on other potential mechanisms. Future research is needed to study potential underlying mechanisms behind the predictive effects of personality traits on divorce.
When Do Personality Traits Predict Divorce?
Another important follow-up question refers to under which conditions personality traits reflect risk factors. It is possible that the association between personality and divorce varies as a function of demographic and psychological variables. The discussion of potential moderators focuses on age, gender, education, and relationship duration. For example, it is possible that age moderates the association between personality and divorce. On one hand, one would expect a stronger role of personality traits for divorce among older adults due to age differences and age-related changes in personality. Research has shown that people who were older at marriage were less likely to divorce and were more conscientious than people who were younger at marriage (Tucker et al. 1998). On the other hand, the power of personality effects may decrease as people age due to lower levels of neuroticism and higher levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness. Research is needed to test for the potential moderating role of age. There is some preliminary evidence for differential effects due to gender based on actor and partner models (Solomon and Jackson 2014). Higher actor levels of neuroticism were related to lower relationship satisfaction for women but not for men. Concerning partner effects, having a highly neurotic partner was more strongly associated with lower relationship satisfaction for women than for men. Having an agreeable partner predicted higher levels of future relationship satisfaction. This effect was further augmented for women but not for men whose partners had especially high levels of agreeableness. Moreover, the predictive effects of personality on divorce may differ as a function of education. For example, a recent study examined whether lower educated people are more likely to possess personality traits that have negative effects on relationship stability since higher education was found to be related with lower likelihood of divorce (Boertien et al. 2017). The results indicated that although personality traits which are related to a higher likelihood of getting divorced are unevenly spread among educational groups, they do not generally favor the higher educated. The study did not explicitly examine the moderating effect of education but rather investigated the moderating role of personality on the association between education and divorce.
Finally, duration of marriage may reflect a potential moderator, but previous studies showed mixed results. In a study, participants with an early divorce (within 20 years) were compared with participants with a late divorce (after 20 years) (Kelly and Conley 1987). The results have shown that early divorced men were more neurotic and had lower impulse control, an aspect of low conscientiousness compared to stable married men. Late divorced men were more neurotic, more socially extraverted, and less agreeable than nondivorced men. Divorced women were more neurotic compared to married women irrespective of the duration of marriage. Tucker et al. (1998) also found differential effects of personality traits as a function of duration of marriage: Traits related to disagreeableness and lack of conscientiousness represented a risk factor in the first 20 years of marriage, whereas characteristics related to neuroticism are a risk factor after more than 20 years. One explanation may be that different personality traits create or contribute to different types of problems affecting the timing of divorce. Over time, couples may adapt to certain risk factors, such as a partner’s disagreeableness, while other traits such as neuroticism continue to pose problems. However, also studies do exist that did not find moderating effects of duration of marriage (Solomon and Jackson 2014).
In summary, there are few studies testing potential moderators of the association between personality traits and divorce. The mixed findings clearly illustrate that more research is needed to investigate which conditions intensify or weaken the effects of personality traits for marital dissolution.
Does Divorce Predict Personality Trait Change?
The socialization effects hypothesis would suggest that a divorce promotes personality trait changes. To date, very few longitudinal studies have tested personality change as a reaction to various life events including divorce and the findings are mixed (Bleidorn et al. 2018). For example, a study using a large prospective sample from North Carolina found that divorce differently impacts men and women (Costa et al. 2000). Middle-aged divorced women showed modest increases in extraversion and openness to experience, whereas divorced men showed decreases in conscientiousness and increases in facets of neuroticism. Moreover, a study using the German Household Panel examined selection and socialization effects of personality and divorce (Specht et al. 2011). The findings suggest that regardless of gender, people who got divorced became slightly more agreeable and conscientious across the 4 years of research. Furthermore, a study of middle-aged German adults found only a small decrease in extraversion and a related facet (positive affect) across 12 years compared to people who did not experience a divorce (Allemand et al. 2015). Finally, a longitudinal study using the Dutch household panel solely reported a moderate negative anticipatory effect on life satisfaction as individuals moved to becoming divorced, but no significant effects on the Big Five personality traits emerged across the 9 years of research (Denissen et al. 2018).
The current research on the effects of divorce on personality trait change has several limitations. First, most studies have been limited to linear change model analyses since they were conducted as two-wave designs. Second, the timing of personality trait change during life events represents an essential issue. Thus, the measurement of the event may not represent the critical element (Luhmann et al. 2014). For instance, the crucial affective, cognitive, and behavioral changes linked to dissolution of a marriage may emerge long before the legal divorce. These may be processes instead of an event that have a more transformative influence on personality traits rather than the legal duties of a divorce. This idea is consistent with the finding of a negative anticipatory effect from divorce on life satisfaction, as reported by Denissen et al. (2018). Third, most of the studies assessed personality traits with self-reports, which may be prone to biases. Finally, little is known about how divorce, conceptualized as a gradual process rather than an event, develops in tandem with personality traits.
In summary, the results with respect to the socialization effects hypothesis lack a consistent picture. Although there is some preliminary evidence suggesting that personality traits can change as a result of life events, the few studies differed with respect to found traits, effect sizes, and even directions of the effects. More longitudinal work is needed to reach more accurate conclusions.
Why Does Divorce Predict Personality Trait Change?
To date, the pathways by which a divorce may predict personality trait change are largely unclear. Two theoretical perspectives seem to be helpful to stimulate research on potential mechanism. First, life events can be defined as a specific transition and change process, respectively, that requires new cognitive, behavioral, or emotional reactions. This transition designates the start or the end of a particular status like the change of status from married to divorced (Bleidorn et al. 2018). The critical life events perspective proposes that life events such as divorce may be related to fundamental changes in life circumstances, self-beliefs, and attitudes of an individual, which may occur in a way that requires adaptation to new situations and giving up of daily routines (Filipp 2007). This view promotes that critical life events may evoke self-development and activate change processes. Second, the role continuity perspective suggests that stable social roles promote stability of personality traits (Roberts et al. 2008). Social roles function as steady subjective environments wherein people are acting. In so doing, these environments facilitate personality stability over time. Divorce is associated with major changes and transitions regarding role status. Subsequently, changes in social roles related with the new transition (e.g., being a single parent) may cause changes in personality traits since new roles are accompanied by new expectations and demands (e.g., parental responsibilities). Although this perspective supports the idea of personality change occurring due to social role changes, the direction of change remains unclear. Research is needed to explicitly test why a divorce may lead to personality trait change.
When Does Divorce Predict Personality Trait Change?
It is possible that the association between divorce and personality vary as a function of demographic and psychological variables. Potential moderators are age, gender, education, and relationship duration. For example, Allemand et al. (2015) explored various moderators, but the association between divorce and personality change did not differ as a function of age and education. So far, no study investigated duration of marriage as a moderator. However, based on the role continuity perspective, people may be firmly in their role after a long-term marriage. Suddenly changing their role could lead to more pronounced personality trait changes compared to people in shorter marriages who have not been this experienced with the social role. Moreover, a study has evidenced a moderating effect of gender (Costa et al. 2000). Divorced women showed modest increases in several facets of extraversion and openness to experience and a decline in one facet of conscientiousness (deliberation). Men decreased in one facet of neuroticism (depression) and in several facets of conscientiousness. The general picture suggests that divorce seems to be liberating for women and demoralizing for men (Costa et al. 2000). Finally, Specht et al. (2011) examined gender as a moderator for separation but not divorce. One significant interaction effect was found for openness to experience. Men became more open after a separation, whereas women did not.
In summary, research on moderators of the association between divorce and personality trait change are in their infancy. Future research is needed to investigate which conditions promotes or inhibits the predictive effects of divorce on personality change.
Studying the association between personality and divorce is an important topic in personality science. Available research provides empirical support for the selection effects hypothesis, suggesting that certain personality traits are risk factors for divorce. Neuroticism, in particular, seems the key Big Five trait related to low relationship satisfaction and a higher likelihood of getting divorced, whereas high agreeableness and conscientiousness are related to marital stability. Personality traits may influence divorce through several pathways such as decreases in relationship satisfaction. There is also some preliminary evidence for the socialization effects hypothesis that assumes that divorce may promote personality trait changes. However, the current picture is not consistent, and more research is needed to provide further evidence for both hypotheses and the mechanisms and moderators underlying the effects of personality on divorce and vice versa.
- Demo, D. H., & Fine, M. A. (2010). Beyond the average divorce. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
- Denissen, J. J. A., Luhmann, M., Chung, J. M., & Bleidorn, W. (2018). Transactions between life events and personality traits across adult lifespan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000196
- Filipp, S. H. (2007). Kritische Lebensereignisse [Critical life events]. In J. Brandstädter & U. Lindenberger (Eds.), Entwicklungspsychologie der Lebensspanne (pp. 337–366). Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.Google Scholar
- National Center for Health Statistics (2017). National marriage and divorce rate trends for 2000-2017. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/dvs/national-marriage-divorce-rates-00-17.pdf
- Roberts, B. W., Kuncel, N. R., Shiner, R., Caspi, A., & Goldberg, L. R. (2007). The power of personality: The comparative validity of personality traits, socioeconomic status, and cognitive ability for predicting important life outcomes. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 313–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Roberts, B. W., Wood, D., & Caspi, A. (2008). The development of personality traits in adulthood. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (3rd ed., pp. 375–398). New York: The Guildford Press.Google Scholar
- Specht, J., Egloff, B., & Schmukle, S. C. (2011). Stability and change of personality across the life course: The impact of age and major life events on mean-level and rank-order stability of the Big Five. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 862–882. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024950.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar