Divorce is six percent more likely when the wife becomes seriously ill, compared to marriages in which the wife remains healthy, according to a new study by Iowa State University researchers.
When a husband becomes ill, however, there is no increase in divorce risk.
The study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, analyzed the divorce rate for couples when one of the spouses had been diagnosed with a serious illness.
The researchers focused on four illnesses — cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and stroke — to see whether the type of illness or its severity made a difference in divorce rates. While they found slight variations, the results between each were not statistically significant.
According to the findings, 32 percent of the 2,701 marriages ended in divorce, compared to 24 percent which ended in widowhood. The marriage data covered nearly 20 years, and one spouse had to be at least 51 years old at the beginning of that period.
Divorce was more common among the younger participants, whereas death was more common as respondents got older. Researchers found the odds of widowhood increased by five percent when husbands got sick and four percent when wives got sick.
There are a few reasons why illness can add stress to a marriage. First, the healthy spouse is often the primary caregiver and may have to take sole responsibility of managing the household.
“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,” said Dr. Amelia Karraker, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State.
“If your spouse is too sick to work, we know that financial strain is a major predictor of divorce in and of itself.”
Quality of care may be another factor. Overall, wives seem less satisfied with the care from their husbands, Karraker said. In general, men — especially older men — have not been socialized to be caregivers in the same way women have, and are less comfortable in that role.
Karraker and colleague Dr. Kenzie Latham, an assistant professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, used data from the Health and Retirement Study, an ongoing University of Michigan longitudinal study that surveys a sample of approximately 20,000 Americans over the age of 50 every two years.
Although the data does not indicate whether the husband or wife initiated the divorce, it is possible some women ended the marriage because of their care.
“Life or death experiences may cause people to re-evaluate what’s important in their lives,” Karraker said.
“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.'”
Prior studies have shown that married couples have better physical and mental health. Ironically, Karraker’s research shows that illness puts women at risk of losing those health benefits from marriage.
“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 said.
“People in poor health may have less access to beneficial social relationships, which in turn can compromise their health further.”
Source: Iowa State University