Does Previous Trauma Experience Affect Adjustment After Divorce?

Divorce occurs in more than fifty percent of married couples. For some people, divorce causes an immense amount of stress that can result in negative health conditions, such as depression and decreased social functioning. “Although most adults ultimately fare well following the end of marriage, which is consistent with humans’ general capacity for resilience in the face of difficulty experiences, a subset of people become stuck on pathways of long-term stress and strain,” said Jessica L. Borelli, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at Pomona College in California. Curious as to why some people adjust better than others after divorce, she theorized that previous trauma affected this outcome. “Said differently, we ask if people who have experienced trauma and who respond behaviorally to their divorce in a particular way are at unique risk for poor outcomes over time,” said Borelli, of her recent study investigating the relationship between trauma and divorce adjustment.

Research has shown that there are physical changes that occur in the brains of people who have suffered traumatic events. These changes impact how they respond to future trauma. “The documented link between prior experiences of trauma and pathological reactions to subsequent trauma supports the general idea that trauma sensitizes people to respond differently to stressful events,” said Borelli. For her study, Borelli interviewed 99 adults in the midst of a divorce and again seven and half months later. “We found that the greater the number of different (self-reported) traumatic experiences, the greater the individual’s self-reported psychological distress (emotional intrusion and physiological hyper-arousal) at Time 1.” Borelli added, “The greater the number of traumatic events the participant reported experiencing, the more difficulty he or she reported experiencing when talking about his or her divorce experience.” In addition to narrative impairment, Borelli found that self-blame was a common factor for those who had experienced previous trauma. She said, “Overall, the findings suggest that trauma history is associated with more negative concurrent psychological reactions to the divorce, and when coupled with self-focused processing of the experience, increases in distress over time.”

Borelli, Jessica L., and David A. Sbarra. “Trauma History and Linguistics Self-Focus Moderate the Course of Psychological Adjustment To Divorce.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 30.7 (2011): 667-698. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • Jen


    November 3rd, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    For me it could depend on how the divorce goes down. I mean, I would be a lot more traumatized if he cheated on me than say if we just had some differences and grew apart. Divorce is hard no matter which way you slice it, but there are some things that are bound to be a lot more difficult to get over.



    November 3rd, 2011 at 6:08 PM

    I would think previous trauma would teach a person how to handle it and get over it. But it seems like trauma is something that only gets harder to beat and a person eventually falls flat in its presence!

  • Wayne Turner

    Wayne Turner

    November 4th, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    You know, I think that divorce has become so commonplace today that most of the time it does not affect either one half as profoundly as it probably should. It is like we have all become so immune to it that we have come to expect it. I know that there are some who get blindsided by it and find it hard to bounce back. But I see far too many people who bounce from one marriage or relationship to another, and I have a hard time thinking that this was the way that it is supposed to be.

  • D.T.Vedanayagam


    January 3rd, 2012 at 7:36 AM

    If wife is deeply loved but husband misunderstand her love lead to adjustment disorder that may spoil their marriage life mutual understanding.if the husband divorced his wife may be the one of causative factor for trauma .

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