Women with serious illnesses more likely to get divorce

30th May 2014

Rachel Kayani

One partner having a serious illness can undoubtedly put a strain on a marriage, but a study from America has suggests that if it is the wife that falls ill it can significantly increase the couple’s risk of filing for a divorce.

The observation was made by doctors looking at how the onset of a serious illness affects the future of a couple’s marriage, they observed that  while husbands were more affected by serious health problems than wives over the study period, it seemed to be the wife becoming ill that triggered the most break-ups.

The study was conducted by scientists at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who analysed data relating to 20 years of marriage among 2,717 couples. The details had been collected for a previous University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study on health and retirement. Couples in the study were healthy to start off with and at least one of the partners had to be over 50 years old. They were asked a series of questions about the state of their marriage over the 20 year period, which began in 1992. Doctors were interested in how the onset of serious illnesses affected the future of the couples’ marriages, with a primary focus being placed on cancer, lung disease, strokes and heart problems.

The couples were followed over 20 years and in this time 47% of participants experienced a new illness, 31% of the marriages resulted in divorce and 24% of the marriages ended in widowhood, with the rest remaining married. The reasons for the divorce were not explored during this study, but analysis of the results showed that when it was the wife who became ill the couple were more likely to divorce; 15% of the marriages where the wife fell ill ended in divorce. The researchers do not have a definite reason why this should be the case but they feel gender norms, especially among the older generation, may play a part.

Amelia Karraker, lead author of the study, explained: “Gender norms and social expectations about care giving may make it more difficult for men to provide care to ill spouses.” Karraker added, “We found that women are doubly vulnerable to marital dissolution in the face of illness. They are more likely to be widowed and if they are the ones who become ill, they are more likely to get divorced.”

Although the researchers did not track who asked for the divorce, they note that it’s typically women who initiate the divorce, meaning that it’s also possible that women don’t feel like their husbands are giving them adequate support, and they decide they would prefer to rely on friends and family.

The author is calling for more support to be given to marriages where one party is providing care for the other in order to potentially reduce this divorce risk in the future.

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