According to a new study by Amelia Karraker, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, marriage is more likely to end in divorce when wives get sick; however, a husband’s illness did not increase the rate of divorce according to the study.

The study, published in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, found a 6 percent higher probability of divorce for couples in which wives got sick compared to marriages in which wives remained healthy.

“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,” Karraker said. “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 is another factor. Wives are generally less satisfied with the care from their husbands”, Karraker said. “That’s because 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, Kenzie Latham, an assistant professor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, used data from the Health and Retirement Study, which does not indicate whether the husband or wife initiated the divorce.

“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.’”

Of the 2,701 marriages included in their study, 32 percent ended in divorce, compared to 24 percent due to widowhood. The marriage data covered a nearly 20-year time-frame and one spouse had to be at least 51 years old at the beginning of that period. Divorce was more common when respondents in the study were younger, whereas death was more likely as respondents got older. Researchers found the probability of widowhood increased by 5 percent when husbands got sick and 4 percent when wives got sick.

“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.”

Researchers focused the study on four illnesses – cancer, heart disease, lung disease and stroke – to determine if the type or severity made a difference in divorce rates. While there was some variation, the results for each individual illness were not statistically significant.

According to Iowa State, Karraker’s interest in studying illness and marriage was sparked by criticism of politicians, such as John Edwards and Newt Gingrich, for divorcing their sick wives.

Photo Credit: By Petar Milošević (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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