Divorce is likely to affect eating. We look at why this is the case and offer some advice to help you.
Getting divorced or having a breakup – emotional effect
Divorce is a major transition for any individual and family unit. Some research has found that on average this difficult transition can take up to 2 years (Heathrington, 1987). This transition involves both concrete, as well as massive emotional mood swings.
Some of the practical changes include: having to move house, adjusting to a reduced standard of living as the family finances are split, you may need to start working, and on top of this, you may have to learn to be the sole caregiver to your children when you look after them. These changes are highly likely to cause stress, especially if they were unexpected as you did not see your divorce coming.
Some of the emotional changes include going from love and yearning for your soon-to be ex, to anger, as you may blame them for the distress of the divorce, and sometimes people experience downright hatred if the divorce become fractious, often around the issues of money and custody.
Disliking your soon to be ex is also a defence mechanism to protect you from the sadness of losing someone you care/cared for. This is one of the reasons that people become fixated on the legal side of the divorce. However, research has shown that those who adjust best to life-post divorce are those who are able to reduce positive and negative feelings to their ex-spouse (Tschann et al., 1989)
Depression and anxiety are nearly inevitable. You are mourning the relationship you had, the life you thought you would have, and are aware of being alone. You will spend time questioning “where you went wrong”, “how 2 people who loved each other so much got to this point”, “whether you can save the marriage”. You may also worry about the future, whether you will ever meet someone, the effect on your children, whether you will ever love again or be loved, and you might even worry about dying alone.
People also report a loss in confidence after a divorce, either because they blame themselves for a marriage failing, and/or they feel rejected by their ex-spouse.
Even those who initiate the leaving have been found to have similar rates of depression and anxiety. They might also feel guilt for leaving their partner and breaking up the family if they left.
There is no way around experiencing intense and difficult thoughts and feelings during this period. This is why there is an increase in mental health illness, drinking and binge-eating. Divorce has generally been associated with weight gain (Mata et al., 2018)
How can divorce affect our eating habits?
This can happen for a number of reasons. Given the life changing adjustments needed to cope with the issues above it is very likely that going through divorce gives way to whole host of confusing and overwhelming emotions. It is also entirely possible that you may have learnt over your lifetime, to “eat your emotions” as a way to self-soothe, seek comfort or distract yourself from unpleasant experiences (something that is reported in both clinical and research settings e.g., Frayn, Livshits & Knauper, 2018).
Secondly, on a practical note, divorce is likely to involve finding new routines in the home, feeding fewer people and having to budget differently for food. This can mean that we lose touch with some of the helpful habits/mealtime routines that may have helped us maintain a healthy balanced diet, possibly finding ourselves being time and cashflow-short whilst trying to still feed a family. This can very easily leave us wide open to the possibility of reaching out for quick, cheap, convenient options which, if not careful, can easily be met with heavily processed foods. On the odd occasion this doesn’t have to be a problem, however regular reliance upon these options runs the risk of our bodies starting to start craving high fat, high salt/sugar processed foods and this becoming an established habit.
Finally, whilst divorce is undoubtedly a difficult process (even if it feels the right thing for your family), it is a natural human instinct to feel confusing or negative feelings about the decision and to strive to avoid unpleasantness as much as possible throughout the experience. In response we can find ourselves subconsciously over-compensating by using food as a “treat” or “pick me up” – this can apply to both ourselves and for our children as we strive to protect their feelings and maintain joy in their (and our) lives. We might also feel that we all “deserve” a “takeaway treat” on a Friday night as a reward for coping with another difficult week and when hooked by such thoughts and feelings we are very likely to place our health at the bottom of the priority agenda.
*One caveat to note is that sometimes people will lose their appetite in response to the stress of divorce and find that they lose weight and see this as a “silver lining”. This is another example of how divorce can impact upon our eating habits and whilst this may be seen as a positive in the short term (especially if weight loss is desirable), it is very unlikely that dramatic and quick weight loss is without health risks and very unlikely to be sustained.
So how can we minimise the impact of divorce upon our eating habits and associated health? Well, taking a psychological look at our eating is the first step. One evidence-based approach known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (a form of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or ‘CBT’) suggests that:
1. We can start to notice our personal triggers, feelings and behaviour. By opening up and taking an honest look at how you are feeling, how you respond to your emotions surrounding your divorce and the action you take to deal with this you are putting yourself back in control to decide if you want to make any changes.
a) It is important to work upon your general awareness of your thoughts, feelings and behaviour (be it around food or otherwise) in your everyday life to start to look for patterns and triggers to possible emotional eating patterns.
2. We can ask “what matters right now” and act accordingly.
Ask yourself: in the process of dealing with this:
- What qualities of mine do I want to draw upon to help me get through this?
- What is most important to me to keep in mind?
- What do I want to do more of in my day to day life and with whom?
If you notice that your current behaviour is not in line with what matters most then this is your opportunity to change something. For example: when it comes to eating and health you may wish to consider your strengths/qualities as an ‘organised’ and/or ‘engaged’ parent and start to sit down with the kids and meal plan together.
3. Explore other ways to self-soothe. If you notice that your eating habits do appear linked with stress, overwhelm, tiredness or boredom then you may wish to consider experimenting with other activities that may help your overall stress levels.
- Examples that people tell me have been helpful to them include mindfulness/meditation, taking a walk, aromatherapy, holistic therapies, taking a bath, reading, a new hobby or journaling/talking with others.
4. We can accept that this is tough, sometimes we will revert to default unhealthy behaviours and that (in the most part) this is ok!
- During the midst of a life-changing event such as divorce is not necessarily the right time to be considering huge changes and a complete overhaul of your eating habits.
- However that doesn’t mean that you can’t use the steps above to become mindful of your health and make small changes that will have a significant ripple effect upon how you feel in your mind and body over time.
Remember to be kind to yourself on the occasions that you may lose touch with this and find yourself at the bottom of the tub of Ben & Jerrys before you realised it, you are human, sometimes we want to soothe ourselves with food and on the odd occasion this is not a problem (plus sometimes ONLY ice cream will do!).
Takeaway (no pun intended!) message:
Psychological theory and therapies tells us that whatever life throws at us, remaining aware of our core values, taking action in line with these and learning to deal with the difficult painful emotions that may arise along the way is at the centre of living a rich, full and meaningful life (Harris, 2019). If the overwhelm and enormity of the changes brought about by break up or divorce have pulled your eating behaviours off this track then taking this psychological approach can help you take back control and feel better in both your mind and body.
Frayn, M., Livshits, S., & Knauper B. (2018) Emotional eating and weight regulation: A qualitative study of compensatory behaviours and concerns. Journal of Eating Disorders, Vol 6, 23.
Dr Victoria Baxter, Weight Management Clinical Psychologist
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