The Role of Personality in Adaptation to Stress Associated With Separation and Divorce: A Guide for Human Services Professionals and Mental Health Providers

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Abstract

The prevalence of marital separation and divorce among populations served by human services professionals and mental health providers is evident to those in the field. Marital disruption through separation and divorce appear to produce divergent reactions in adults ranging from negative to positive forms of adaptation. This study was designed to examine the potential roles played by personality traits based on the Five Factor Model of Personality as they relate to adaptation to stress among individuals experiencing a separation or divorce. The major findings are that individuals who rate high in openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness tended to exhibit better adaptation to divorce than those who were low in these domains and individuals low onneuroticismand high on extraversion had better adaptation than those with an opposite pattern.

Divorce is a source of both major stress and everyday stressors for many individuals and families. Though divorce rates vary based on numerous factors, studies indicate that a significant percentage of first marriages in the United States end in divorce (Markman, Rhoades, Stanley, &Peterson, 2013; Tejada-Vera & Sutton, 2010). Stressful life events (such as divorce, bereavement, and job loss) require a significant life readjustment and studies have demonstrated that marital disruption can impact one’s susceptibility to both mental and physical dysfunction. Separation from a spouse is associated with depression, anxiety, and feelings of rejection, failure, abandonment, and helplessness (Krumrei, Mahoney, &Pargament, 2011).

Numerous studiesdocument the increased incidence of emotional distress for those in the process of divorce, however, little has been reported on the positive and transformative aspects of divorce. Opportunities may exist forgrowth and development (Amato, 2000). Some studies have begun to produce evidence that positive responses to separation and divorce are possible (Tashiro, Frazier, & Berman, 2006;Kulik & Heine-Cohen, 2011). Such positive responses have been shown to include relief, personal growth and development, and enhanced self-esteem (Krumreiet al., 2011). The current study focuses on the role that personality plays in one’s positive adaptation to stress associated with separation and divorce.It was hypothesized that individuals low in neuroticism, high in extraversion and high in openness would demonstrate higher levelsof positive adaptation to divorce.

Personality, Coping, and Positive Adaptation to Stress

Personality, coping, and psychological growth have been the focus of considerable study over the past several years (Lee-Baggley, Preece, & Delongis, 2005). One model of personality that has been found particularly useful in understanding coping is the Five-Factor Model, a broad based taxonomy of personality dimensions that arguably represent the ‘‘minimum number of traits’’ needed to describe personality (Oh, Wang & Mount, 2011). Self-reports of growth have been demonstrated to be positively related to openness to experience and extraversion, and negatively related to neuroticism (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2010). For a full review of the relation between each of the FFM personality constructs as they relate to coping and adaptation, see Lee-Baggley, Preece, & Delongis (2005).

Five Domains of Personality

Neuroticism. Individuals high on neuroticism are prone to experiencenegative emotions such as depression, anxiety, or anger and tend tobe impulsive and self-conscious. For reviews see McCrae, Kurtz, Yamagata & Terracciano (2011). Neuroticism has been found to be related to the useof coping strategies that are typically related to poorer outcomes(Caspi& Shiner, 2006)such as an increase inend-of-day distress, increased anxiety, and sensitivity to threat (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2009). Those higher on neuroticism have been found to use more emotionfocusedstrategies such as avoidance and self-blame, and interpersonally antagonisticmeans of coping such as hostile reactions (Caspi & Shiner, 2006).

Extraversion. Extraverts have a propensity to experience positiveemotions and tend to be sociable, warm, cheerful, energetic, andassertive (Glassman&Buettner, 2005). As compared tothose lower on extraversion, research suggests that those higher on extraversionrely onhigher levels of problem-focused coping (Peng, Riolli, Schaubroeck& Spain, 2012) and employ less maladaptiveforms of emotion-focused coping such as self-blame, wishful thinking,and avoidance (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2009). Individuals higher on extraversion tend to use adaptive forms of emotion-focused coping such as support seeking(Peng et al., 2012) and positive thinking(Carver & Connor-Smith, 2009).

Openness.Those high on openness tend to be creative, imaginative,curious, and flexible in their thinking (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2009). They are likely to experience a diversity of emotions,to have broad interests and a preference for variety, and tohold unconventional values (DeYoung, 2013; Carver & Connor-Smith, 2009).Evidence suggests those higher on openness are more likely to employhumor in coping (Greengross, Martin, & Miller, 2012),and to plan their coping (Van Hoye& Lootens, 2013).

Agreeableness. Those high on agreeableness tend to be altruistic, acquiescent,trusting and empathic (Graziano & Tobin, 2013).Consistent with models of agreeableness, individuals higher on agreeableness are more likelyto cope in ways that engage or protect social relationships (Floyd, Seltzer, Greenberg,& Song, 2013) and avoiding confrontation (Komarraju, Dollinger& Lovell, 2012). They appear less likely to employ emotion focusedcoping such as self-blame, avoidance, and anger(Meier & Robinson, 2004),use active problem solving and are concerned with maintaining relationships (Graziano & Jensen-Campbell, 2001).

Conscientiousness. Those higher on conscientiousness tend to be organized,reliable, hardworking, determined, and self-disciplined (Campbell-Sills, Cohen, & Murray, 2006). Conscientiousness has been found to be related to the use of more active, problemfocusedstrategies, however, specific qualities associated with this trait vary across measures (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2009).

It has been proposed that researchin which all five personality dimensions are examinedwithin the same study is needed (Lee-Baggley et al., 2005). The limited research that hasbeen done including all five has found that the role of personality inadaptation is not limited to neuroticism and extraversion (Lee-Baggley et al., 2005). Personality researchers have shown that the Big Five personality traits interact in multiple ways when predicting adaptation to stress(Kochanska, Kim, & Nordling, 2012). This suggests that failing to examine these personalitydimensions may result in gaps in our understanding of the personality-adaptation relation(Lee-Baggley et al., 2005). Moreover, researchers have noted that failing to control for the other personality dimensions when examining a specific personality dimension may lead to spurious(and potentially contradictory) results (Mirnics et al., 2013). This present studyexamined all five dimensions of personality in an attempt to clarify the relation between personality andadaptation to stress within a particular context, namely, divorce.

Positive Adaptation to Stress

In order to facilitate analyses and provide efficiency in interpreting results, a composite measure of adaptation to stress was computed. The three dimensions which form the composite, namely: growth related stress, satisfaction with life, and hope are inter-related and speak to a person’s ability to thrive (Bailey & Snyder, 2007; Tashiro et al., 2006). Creation of this composite measure was intended to capture an outcome dimension that appreciates the multi-dimensional impact that divorce has on people’s lives. The purpose was to provide a comprehensive sampling of the different domains that contribute to that thriving. Affective well-being (Carr & Umberson, 2013), hope (Amato, 2000), and growth capacities (Tashiro et al., 2006), are 3 dimensions selected to create a composite outcome variable which speaks to the overall ability of individuals to provide a resilient adaptive response to marital disruption and divorce.

Method

Participants

The participants were 573 divorce litigants who had been parties to divorce pleadings in the Circuit Court for Howard County, Maryland. Data from 64 subjects who failed to provide complete responses were eliminated leaving 509 subjects whose responses were included in the analyses (356 women, 153 men). The sample was 62% women and 27 % men, with 11% not indicating gender. The sample was 51% Caucasian, 6% African American, 2% Hispanic, 1% Asian, 30% other, and 10% not indicating ethnic background. Percentages of the sample reporting having acquired a Ph.D. was 14%, a Master’s degree was 28%, a college degree was 33%, a high school degree or GED was 23%, and 2% reported no high school degree.

Measures

Revised Measures for Stress-Related Growth (RMSRG). Developed by Roesch, Rowley, and Vaughn (2004), the RMSRG contains 29 items and three subscales assessing rational/mature thinking, affective/emotional growth, and religious/spiritual growth. This instrument is revised from a version by Park, Cohen, and Murch (1996) after examining the factorial validity and dimensionality of the Stress-Related Growth Scale. Evidence for both the reliability (Frazier, Stewart, Mortensen, 2004; Park, 2005; Park et al., 1996) and validity (Park et al. 1996) of the measure has been provided elsewhere within the stress and coping literature. See also Roesch et al. (2004) for a fuller discussion.

The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS).Developed by Diener, Emmons, Larsen, and Griffith (1985), this scale was designed to measure the global life satisfaction component of subjective well-being. A 7-point Likert-like scale was used to measure the items from strongly agree to strongly disagree. This scale contained 5 items including: In most ways my life is close to my ideal; The conditions of my life are excellent; I am satisfied with my life; So far I have gotten the important things I want in life; and, If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing. Pavot, Diener, Colvin, and Sandvik (1991) provided evidence for the convergence of the SWLS with numerous measures of subjective well-being and life satisfaction.The SWLS is the most commonly used measure of life satisfaction worldwide and shows good psychometric properties including validity, internal consistency, test–retest reliability, and adequate invariance across gender and age (Nes et al., 2014).

The State Hope Scale (SHS). This scale contains 6 items including: “If I should find myself in a jam, I could think of many ways to get out of it”; “At the present time, I am energetically pursuing my goals”; “There are lots of ways around any problem that I am facing now”; “Right now I see myself as being pretty successful”; “I can think of many ways to reach my current goals”; and, “I am meeting the goals that I have set for myself”. Responses are contained in an 8 choice Likert-like scale; namely, 1 = Definitely false, 2 = Mostly false, 3 = Somewhat false, 4 = Slightly false, 5 = Slightly true, 6 = Somewhat true, 7 = Mostly true, 8 = Definitely true. For results confirming validity and reliability of scores, see Snyder et al. (1996).

The Bi-Polar Adjective Rating Scale (BARS). This scalecontains 80 bipolar items devised by McCrae and Costa (1987) and based on 40 item adjective pairs. The adjective pairs contained in this measurement have been shown to be a valuable assessment tool for measuring the FFM of personality (McCrae & Costa, 1987).The BARS captures the five major dimensions of personality: Neuroticism (N), Extraversion (E), Openness (O), Agreeableness (A), and Conscientiousness (C). Responses are measured on a 1 to 7 point Likert-type scale. McCrae and Costa (1987) have shown this scale to capture stable, trait dimensions of adult personality that exhibit cross-instrument, cross-observer validity. Score validity was assessed both by self- and observer-ratings as well as by comparison of the 80-item pairs with the NEO (assessing neuroticism, extraversion, and openness to experience). Convergent correlations for Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Openness ranged from .57 to .65 in the self-report sample, and were .52 in the observer-rated sample, all p’s < .001. In a second validation study, McCrae and Costa (1987) compared the 80-item adjective pairs to the NEO Personality Inventory for both self- and observer-ratings. Varimax rotation revealed five clear factors with coefficients of factor comparability ranging from .95 to .98. For peer ratings, convergent correlations between adjective factors and the corresponding NEO scales ranged from .70 for Openness and Extraversion to .80 for Agreeableness (all p’s < .001). Correlations between self-report and peer ratings for each of the five factors showed substantial significant correlations, especially as the number of raters increased. Interclass correlations, measuring the extent to which different raters agreed on traits, were calculated for subjects having more than one rater. Correlations were significant at the p < .01 level, and ranged from .30 to .65.

Procedure

Self-report data. Each of the participants completed self-ratings on all measures. The order of the measures was randomized based on month of birth to reduce order effects and to distribute fatigue effects evenly across measures. Participants received uniform instructions to complete the questionnaires in a relatively quiet, comfortable place free from distraction.

Recruitment and data collection strategy.The Administrative Courts of the State of Maryland provided a list of 5067 names, selected randomly from the population of divorce litigants for cases filed in the Circuit Court for Howard County, Maryland, after January 1, 2004. The list included each parties name and address. Letters of invitation to participate in the study were mailed to each individual soliciting participation in the study. The letters identified the principal investigator and a website where each subject could complete the items contained in the study. Letter recipients were advised that their responses would be anonymous and aggregated.
Individuals who participated in the study accessed it over the Internet by visiting a designated website hosted and managed through SurveyMonkey.com. All entries were encrypted to maintain security in the collection of responses. The first page viewed by each participant was an informed consent form describing the purpose of the study, the parameters of its anonymity and confidentiality, contact information for the study administrators, a statement that participation in the study could be terminated at any time, and a statement that this project had been reviewed and approved by the Human Subjects Review Committee with the committee’s direct phone number.This study and its components were submitted to the Human Subjects Research Review Committee of a medium size university in a mid-Atlantic state and approved.

Design and Analysis

Predictive Role of Personality versus Adaptation to Stress.In order to better isolate the unique contributions of personality domains to adaptation to stress, a multiple regression analysis was conducted. This regression analysis tested whether the FFM personality domains were significantly related to the outcome variable, total adaptation to stress (TAS).

Results

Descriptive statistics

Table 1 presents descriptive data for the key variables in this study. Overall for the personality domains, the scores tended to be within the normative ranges for mean level (e.g., t scores between 45 and 55). The alpha levels for scores from all scales were above .60 and considered satisfactory. In preparing for the correlations and multiple regression analyses, issues for multi-collinearity and non-linear effects were examined and none were found.
The 3 measures of adaptation used in this study, hope, satisfaction with life, and stress related growth were all significantly, positively inter-correlated (mean r = .32). The outcome variable, total adaptation to stress (TAS) was created by standardizing scores from responses to the Revised Stress Related Growth Scale, the Satisfaction with Life Scale, and the Hope Scale and adding them together. A Cronbach alpha of .58 for this composite indicated that the dimensions do have commonality with each other but are not redundant (Bollen & Lennox, 1991). The correlations of the composite variable among Neuroticism, r(487) = -.46, p< .001; Extraversion, r(487) = .41, p< .001; and Conscientiousness, r(487) = .46, p< .001 indicate that this composite variable is a good measure of adaptation.

Hypotheses: The dimensions of the FFM of personality would evidence significant relations with positive adaptation to stress.

It was hypothesized that neuroticism would be negatively related while extraversion and openness would be positively related to positive adaptation to stress. Table 2 reveals the correlations between the FFM personality domains and adaptation to stress. As can be seen, neuroticism was negatively correlated with the adaptation variable and extraversion was positively correlated with adaptation. The other dimensions of personality also had significant contributions. Individuals who were high in openness, high in agreeableness, and high in conscientiousness tended to exhibit better adaptation than those who were low in these domains.
In order to better isolate the unique contributions of personality domains to the stress related outcomes, a multiple regression analysis was conducted. A residual analysis indicated that the variables met all the basic assumptions for this test. The initial regression analysis tested whether the FFM personality domains were significantly related to the outcome variable, total adaptation to stress (TAS). In order to test this, the composite adaptation to stress variable was used as a criterion variable and the five personality scores were entered simultaneously into the equation. After entering the five factors of personality as one block, a significant effect was found, R² = .35,F(5, 483) = 51.71, p< .001. Significant effects were found for both neuroticism, ß= -.26, t(483) = -5.74, p< .001, and extraversion,ß= .25, t(483) = 5.41, p< .001. A significant effect was also found for conscientiousness,ß = .25, t(483) = 5.64, p< .001. Individuals low onneuroticism, high on extraversion, and high on conscientiousness had better adaptation than those with an opposite pattern.

Discussion and Implications for Human Services Providers and Educators

Human services providers and mental health professionals offer unique, varied, and broad interventions in helping individuals adapt positively to stress associated with separation and divorce by explicitly focusing on the exploration, establishment, and implementation of individuals’ resources. This approach should incorporate a view that personality plays an active role in adaptation to stress associated with marital disruption. The results of this study provide empirical evidence which suggests a unique contribution of personality in one’s adaptation to stress. The results also enhance a growing body of evidence that suggests the unique and practical roles of personality traits in the human mental and physical systems.
Consistent with data in other studies, Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Conscientiousness were significant predictors of adaptation to stress in this study (Lee-Baggley et al., 2005). Neuroticism was significantly negatively correlated with positive adaptation to stress indicating that higher scores in neuroticism correlated with lesser scores in positive adaptation to stress. Extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness were all significantly positively correlated to positive adaptation to stress. Openness correlated positively with positive adaptation to stress.
Human Services providersmay need to accommodate and be cognizant of their clients’ personalities, as personality will have implications for coping skills, defense styles, and overall adaptation to stress. Working in the realm of positive coping and centering techniques for individuals who rate higher in neuroticism may reduce or eliminate the intrinsic pain or distress some clients carry. Developing external resources for those who rate high in introversion may be a way to create durable changes in clients, offering a doorway for intervening in people’s lives and helping them to adapt and maintain that adaptation as a permanent aspect of who they are. Understanding the personality traits of those we work with can be useful in dealing with their sense of woundedness, anxiety, hurt, and guilt which some individuals feel about the failure of their relationships. These may be places where self-understanding of one’s personality traits and tendencies can be developed and, in turn, lead to a better sense of adaptation. Administering the BARS measurement early in therapeutic interventions may be a useful tool to assist both the human service provider and the recipient of services gain better insight about maladaptive coping tendencies and likely outcomes. Such awareness is the first step in substituting ineffective, ego-syntonic coping modalities with more effective ones.
Educators within the human services field should consider incorporating instruction about personality and coping into their lesson plans. In so doing, instructors will help future human service providers gain a better appreciation for the intricate ways that one’s unique personality operates in coping with stress. It will also serve to encourage self-reflection of each student’s coping proclivities as informed by their unique personality traits. To the extent that programs in the higher education of human services providers offer personality assessments, studies like this one can help contextualize the role that personality plays in coping and overall wellbeing.

Limitations of This Study

This study was correlational, looking at individuals in one moment of time. It would be useful in discerning how predictive the variables studied are to conduct a longitudinal study. This study lacked a control group (e.g., individuals who are not divorcing). It is likely that a self-reporting bias played a role in some respondents as it is expected that respondents would want to demonstrate that they adapted well to their divorce. In addition, all subjects were going through or had recently concluded a legal divorce procedure. Individuals going through a divorce may bring unique and confounding attributes associated with their disunion. Divorce can be a momentary traumatic event or a chronic ongoing circumstance. This was not addressed in this study. This study does not address why people change or why they experience positive adaptation to stress. This study lacked assessments of different types of psychosocial mechanisms which may have been promoting people toward growth. Social involvement andfamily histories were not measured in this study.

Future Research

The supplemental analyses of a subset of the data collected raise questions for future research regarding the nature of stress related growth, adaptation to stress, and coping. To what extent are these mechanisms a factor of time? Are we measuring something unique, do all people simply heal over time, and is it a question about whether some people heal quicker than others? Another area for future research involves cohort effects, namely, to what extent do the views of society, one’s community, friends, and family impact the way in which one adapts to separation and divorce? Although we know that separation and divorce have been rated high on the list of most stressful events an individual can experience, an impact of events scale would establish a clearer connection between conclusions drawn and the impact actually experienced by participants. Other factors which may be worth exploring include length of marriage, prior marriages, or age at marriage and divorce.

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TABLES

Table 1

Descriptive Statistics for all Study Variables:

table1

Table 2

Correlations among FFM Personality Domains with Adaptation Outcome Measures.

table2

Thomas K. Swisher, J.D., Ph.D.

Stevensonx University

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