The Grapevine

In Sickness And In Health: Marriages Are More Likely To End In Divorce If The Wife Gets Sick

Divorce
Marriages are more likely to end in divorce if the wife gets sick. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

It seems the words “in sickness and in health” are lost on some unsavory husbands in the United States. A recent study conducted at Iowa State University has found that the risk for a married couple getting divorced increases by six percent when the wife gets sick compared to when the wife stays healthy. On the other hand, a husband falling ill has absolutely no effect on a married couple’s risk for divorce.

“There is a difference between feeling too sick to make dinner and needing someone to actually feed you. That’s something that can really change the dynamics within a marriage,” Amelia Karraker, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State, said in a statement. “If your spouse is too sick to work, we know that financial strain is a major predictor of divorce in and of itself.”

Karraker and her colleague Kenzie Latham, from the Department of Sociology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, gathered data on 2,701 married couples from the Health and Retirement Study. Married couples, which had at least one spouse, 51 years old at the beginning of the study, were followed over a 20-year timespan. The research team focused on four illnesses a spouse could be suffering from, including cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and stroke.

Findings revealed that 32 percent of marriages ended in divorce, while 24 percent ended due to the death of a spouse. While a husband falling ill had no effect on divorce, if the wife of a marriage got sick the marriage was six percent more likely to end in divorce compared to if the wife stayed healthy over the course of the marriage. Clearly divorce was more common among younger couples, and widowhood was more common among older couples.

“I think the research shows the potential vulnerabilities for people in society who are sick. There is an elevated risk for depression with illness and now you’re also at risk for divorce,” Karraker explained. “People in poor health may have less access to beneficial social relationships, which in turn can compromise their health further.”

Now before we go running to the whole “boys' club” argument, Karraker’s data also showed that quality of care played a major role in the likelihood of a couple getting divorced. Unlike women, men are rarely socialized enough to be caregivers and are often uncomfortable in that role. Due to poorer quality of care among husbands, wives tend to be less satisfied with the care they receive from their spouse when they’re sick.

“Life or death experiences may cause people to re-evaluate what’s important in their lives,” Karraker added. “It could be that women are saying, ‘You’re doing a bad job of caring for me. I’m not happy with this, or I wasn’t happy with the relationship to begin with, and I’d rather be alone than be in a bad marriage.’”

Source: Latham K, Karraker A. In Sickness and in Health? Physical Illness as a Risk Factor for Marital Dissolution in Later Life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2015.  

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