Volume 44 - Article 41 | Pages 993–1022

Marital dissolutions and changes in mental health: Evidence from rural Malawi

By Tyler W. Myroniuk, Hans-Peter Kohler, Iliana Kohler

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Date received:15 May 2020
Date published:12 May 2021
Word count:5509
Keywords:divorce, Malawi, marriage, mental health, widowhood


Background: Advancing efforts to unpack the complex relationship between marital dissolutions and health outcomes increasingly requires assessing the marital histories and health of individuals who have lived long enough to experience divorce or widowhood ‒ or even multiples of each ‒ and measurable changes in health.

Objective: To explore this line of inquiry, we chose a sample from rural Malawi where a high prevalence of marital dissolutions and remarrying exists, as an ideal theoretical foil to the predominant literature found in high-income countries (HICs). We examine if changes in having experienced a marital dissolution, one’s total number of dissolutions, and the percentage of one’s life spent outside of marriage since first becoming married are associated with changes in mental health.

Methods: Our analyses focus on 1,266 respondents aged 45 years and older who participated in the 2012 Mature Adults Cohort of the Malawi Longitudinal Study of Families and Health (MLSFH-MAC), linked back to cohort information from 2008 and 2010 available through the MLSFH. Fixed-effects regressions guide our inferences over the 2008, 2010, and 2012 waves of data.

Results: For men, spending more life outside of marriage is associated with worse mental health, while more marital dissolutions are surprisingly associated with better mental health for women.

Conclusions: These results could suggest that larger portions of one’s life spent unmarried are associated with a type of role strain for men or simply that men are burdened with taking up tasks that their spouses had previously done in order to survive. For women, many may have gotten out of ‘bad’ marriages that otherwise would have been detrimental to their mental health and/or those in good mental health are the ones able to remarry.

Contribution: Our research from rural Malawi provides a type of litmus test for many HICs where marriage, remarriage, and dissolution rates are lower but quite consequential for mental health outcomes. Measuring time outside of marriage should be more strongly considered in such settings. These results also inform increasingly important research on the relationship between marital dissolutions and mental health in other African nations as noncommunicable diseases play a continually more important role in people’s lives.

Author's Affiliation

Tyler W. Myroniuk - University of Missouri, United States of America [Email]
Hans-Peter Kohler - University of Pennsylvania, United States of America [Email]
Iliana Kohler - University of Pennsylvania, United States of America [Email]

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