Commonly, we are told that marriage is better for your health (when compared to divorce or singlehood). But is health better for your marriage? A new study found the risk of divorce among older married couples rises when the wife — but not the husband — becomes seriously ill. “We found that women are doubly vulnerable to marital dissolution in the face of illness,” said Dr. Amelia Karraker of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. “They are more likely to be widowed, and if they are the ones who become ill, they are more likely to get divorced.”

Health & Marriage

For many people, it could be said that good health clears the path to marriage. One study demonstrated how men and women who survived childhood or adolescent cancers were less likely to marry than their healthy siblings, while another showed how people suffering psychological problems in childhood had an 11 percent lower probability of walking down the aisle. Being overweight or obese is also associated with fewer weddings, particularly among women. Within marriage, though, the impact of health is not so clear. Compared to the past, people live longer with chronic diseases these days and so this decreases the possibility of extended widowhood in some cases. Yet, some researchers suspect survival with a chronic illness may increase the risk of marital discord as research has revealed a suspicious doubling in divorce rates among those over 50 during the years 1990 through 2010. In fact, one in four of all divorces during 2010 occurred among the over-50 crowd.

To investigate the relationship between good health and good marriage, Karraker and her co-author Dr. Kenzie Latham of Indiana University analyzed 20 years of data concerning 2,717 marriages from the Health and Retirement Study, conducted by the Institute for Social Research. Among the participants in the survey, at least one married partner was over age 50 at the time of the first interview. In particular, the researchers examined how four serious physical illnesses — cancer, heart disease, stroke, and lung disease — impacted marriages. What statistics did they uncover?

Sadly, nearly one-third (31 percent) of all marriages ended in divorce over the period studied. The same period showed an increasing rate of a chronic illnesses over time, with more husbands than wives developing serious health problems. While generally a husband’s illness was not linked to divorce, by contrast, a wife becoming sick appeared to raise the possibility of marital dissolution.

Oddly, the researchers found that when a wife suffered from heart or lung disease, an elevated divorce risk occurred; but cancer did not seem to increase the rate of couples separating. Another unusual discrepancy: the data indicated a slightly higher probability of divorce when a husband suffered a stroke, whereas a wife suffering a stroke did not decrease the survival rate of marriage.

The researchers could only theorize why divorce rates rose more often after wives became seriously ill. "Gender norms and social expectations about caregiving may make it more difficult for men to provide care to ill spouses," Karraker stated in a press release. "And because of the imbalance in marriage markets, especially in older ages, divorced men have more choices among prospective partners than divorced women.” Given nationwide concerns about increasing health care costs caused by a spike in the number of older folks, Karraker believes policymakers should be aware of the relationship between disease and divorce.

Yet, lest you immediately fall into the trap of thinking men are the evil culprits, while women innocent victims, consider Karraker’s final comments on the matter. "We did not have information on who initiated divorce in this study. But it's important to keep in mind that in most cases, it's women who do so,” she observed. “So it could be that when women become ill and their husbands are not doing a very good job caring for them, they would rather that he just go and they rely on friends and family who will take care of them.” So-called independence, then, may really be a matter of preferring the better nurse. Then again, the easiest way out of a marriage may be getting yourself ‘fired’ for poor performance.

Source: Karraker A, Latham K. In Sickness and in Health? Physical Illness as a Risk Factor for Marital Dissolution in Middle and Older Ages. Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America. 2014.