The loss of an intimate partner in the second half of life is a major challenge and a critical life event. Even if, for most individuals, a critical life event is stressful and psychologically and socially destabilizing, the ways of coping with it and the long-term outcomes (ranging from increased vulnerability to stabilization and growth) are very different. Whether or not this critical life event turns out to be a chronic stressor depends on the individual’s personal and social resources. Based on recent research, we propose a complementary and extended view of the crisis and chronic stress models of adjustment to critical life events (Amato, 2000) Lorenz et al., 2006). In fact, turning point experiences bear the potential for new chances, the awakening of a person’s potential, overcoming the crisis and contributing to personal growth. For others, however, the same turning point is not only a crisis, but can also mean the onset of chronic disadvantage and stress with the threat of loss of control and increased physical, psychological and social vulnerability. What we also know from life-span and differential psychology is that there is a considerable continuity in psychological well-being over the life-span, independent of adversities and losses (Perrig-Chiello, Jäggi, Buschkühl, Stähelin, & Perrig, 2009).
Based on these insights, the rationale of our project is a transactional model of personality, which claims that individuals try to cope with negative life events (turning points) by activating their available personal and external resources. This view postulates that individuals – based on their biographical experience (e.g., attachment style, past experiences with silent and age-normed transitions, quality of relationship with partner/spouse) and on their actual physical, psychological (e.g., personality; control beliefs; self-esteem; and personal, familial and cultural values) and social resources (e.g., having children, relatives, friends to rely upon) – develop strategies, which allow them to adapt their life perspectives in order to bring continuity in their lives and assure their well-being. We therefore expect that there is a considerable biographical continuity in the way individuals cope with critical life events, and that the loss of an intimate partner is solved in very similar ways. We conceptualize these strategies as adaptive mental mechanisms (such as control beliefs). Based on an integrated bottom-up/top-down conception of subjective well-being (Schimmak, 2007), we expect that the impact of both top-down (dispositional variables, personality) and bottom-up variables (life conditions, financial satisfaction) are essential for the explanation of the outcome variables. However, we anticipate that top-down processes contribute substantial amounts of variance to well-being measures compared to bottom-up effects, which are expected to be less important. Based on subjective well-being research, we hypothesize that the process of coping with loss involves several phases.
First, the period during which the loss occurs (i.e., the first year of loss) is a time of destabilization (periphase). This is followed by a phase of active adaptation to the new situation (second and third years after the loss, past-phase). Finally, a phase of stabilization and return to the habitual baseline level can be expected.
Building upon this theoretical framework and considering the different research gaps outlined above, this project will focus on the following areas:
a) The incidence of bereavement, separation and divorce (cause, point in time) in a representative sample belonging to two age groups (middle and old age). These groups will represent both the German and French-speaking parts of Switzerland.
b) The reasons and circumstances of bereavement, separation and divorce, i.e., the quality of the relationship, marital and sexual satisfaction, agency (initiator or reactor), perceived level of anticipation and control (mastery).
c) The determinants that lead either to (increased) vulnerability or growth after experiencing the loss of an intimate partner. This analysis will take into account the following individual resources: psychological resources (personality; coping style; character strength; personal, familial, cultural and spiritual values; control beliefs; early childhood experiences/attachment; experience of silent and age-normed transitions), social resources (having children, partner, parents, friends), and financial resources and SES.
d) The short-term and long-term outcomes and the process of coping with this critical life event: psychological well-being (mastery, life satisfaction, sense of life), physical well-being (subjective health, health complaints, medication intake), social well-being (emotional and social loneliness, quality of contacts) and financial well-being in the different phases of coping. We will examine the first year of loss (phase of destabilization, peri-phase), the phase of adaptation (2-3 years after loss) and the post-phase or phase of stabilization (3-5 years after loss).
More specially, tthe scientific goals are:
- To initiate a prospective study, where men and women recently divorced and widowed after a long-term marriage are compared to long-term married persons (controls) (data collection 1st wave 2012; second wave 2014, third wave 2016).
- To investigate the reasons and circumstances of bereavement, separation and divorce, i.e., the quality of the relationship, marital and sexual satisfaction, agency (initiator or reactor), perceived level of anticipation and control.
- To analyse the determinants that lead either to vulnerability or growth after experiencing the break-up of marriage or partnership. These analyses will take into account the following individual resources: past critical life events and life trajectories (using a life calendar); psychological resources (personality; coping style; character strength; personal, familial, cultural and spiritual values; control beliefs; early childhood experiences/attachment; experience of silent and age-normed transitions), social resources (children, partner, parents, friends), financial resources and SES.
- To examine the process of psychosocial adaptation to the critical life event and the short-term and long-term outcomes: psychological well-being, physical well-being (subjective health, health complaints, and medication intake), social well-being (emotional and social loneliness, quality of contacts) and financial well-being in the different phases of coping. We will examine the first phase of loss (phase of destabilization, i.e. first two years), the phase of adaptation (2-5 years after loss) and the phase of stabilization (5> years after loss).
The middle and long-term scientific goals of the study are (2013/2014 and beyond):
- Dissemination of research findings (publication in national and international journals, presentation at national and international conferences), and practice (publications, presentations, training, teaching).
Research aimes Phase II (2015 - 2018):
- Continuation of survey (3rd wave 2016):
a) to track the trajectories of psychological adaptation to spousal loss and marital breakup after a long-term relationship;
b) to explore continuities and change in marital satisfaction in long-term married.
- Intervention for vulnerable individuals (complicated grief after separation, divorce, widowhood) recruited from the 2nd wave 2014 (and additinal recruitement).
- Exploration of identity processes and social groups as resources for overcoming psychological vulnerability (especially due to loneliness) in older age.