Illness Increases the Risk of Divorce (But Only for Women)

“In sickness,” the traditional marriage vow goes, “and in health.”  But if the disheartening results of a recent study are any indication, perhaps it’s time for those adoring words to be rephrased. The results of a long-running study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan are finally in, and the verdict is a depressing one: illness significantly increases the risk of divorce.  At least, it does if you’re a woman. But just how much worse do your marital odds become?  And perhaps more importantly, why? 

Wedding Couple 19

U of Michigan Study Tracks 2,717 Married Couples for 20 Years

Scientific studies are sometimes criticized for failing to use sufficiently large and representative population samples to collect data.  That complaint certainly can’t be leveled at this sprawling study, which tracked a whopping 2,717 couples (or 5,434 individuals) over the course of two full decades.

The Population Association of America unveiled the long-awaited findings in Boston on Thursday. Conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, the massive study began over 20 years ago in 1992.  Over a 20-year period, the study tracked how marriages were impacted by serious health conditions like lung disease, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer.  Researchers found that while devastating illness didn’t prompt wives to leave their husbands, husbands were more likely to leave their sick wives.  Researcher Amelia Karraker puts it rather simply: “If women become ill, they are more likely to get divorced.”

In particular, if women over the age of 50 become ill, they are more likely to get divorced.

When the study first began in 1992, at least one member of each participating couple was 51 or older.  According to Karraker, the overall divorce rate for the 51-plus age demographic has risen as it is over the past 20 years (which is a particularly interesting trend when you consider that the divorce risk is also high for people under 25, at the opposite end of the age spectrum). Now, it’s been statistically determined that the wife falling sick only boosts an already increased risk of divorce even higher.

Sad elderly couple. Divorce. Isolated over white background

Half of All Participating Women Were Divorced After Becoming Ill

By the time the study concluded, approximately 31% of the couples — about 842 marriages — had ended in divorce.  That’s nearly a full third of all of the couples included.

However, the findings weren’t distributed evenly across genders.

“When the wives became ill,” says Karraker, “about 50% of the marriages ended in divorce.”

For accuracy’s sake, it is important to note that women aren’t always the victims in matters of “sickness and health.”  While women were more likely to be left by their spouses in the above-50 age range, a study completed by Western Washington University sociologist Dr. Jay Teachman in 2010 indicated that men were more likely to be left by their wives if they fell ill during their younger, income-earning years.

In addition to the 31% of marriages which ended in divorce following an illness, another 24% of marriages ended with wives becoming widows.  Among the entire group, just under half of all participants (47%) developed a new illness during the course of the study.

The numbers are fascinating as they are; but in order for the results to be fully understood and appreciated, we have to ask ourselves why.  We have the data — but what’s behind it?

The study did not formally address the cause of the findings, but researchers have formed their own (divergent) opinions.

Hands tear picture with wedding rings isolated on white background

Age, Gender Roles, or Something Else to Blame?

In the words of study author Amelia Karraker, it is “important to recognize that the impetus for divorce may be health-related, and that sick ex-wives may need additional care and services to prevent worsening health and increased health expenditures.”

While accurate, this statement seems to disregard the gender question.  After all, serious illnesses are almost always associated with emotional strain and enormous medical expenses, particularly for those who are underinsured or lack insurance coverage altogether.  There has to be more to the story.

Once again, Karraker may have an answer — and it has to do with the traditional gender roles of decades since passed.

“Gender norms and social expectations about caregiving may make it more difficult for men to provide care to ill spouses,” Karraker says.  “And because of the imbalance in marriage markets, especially in older ages, divorced men have more choices among prospective partners than divorced women.”

In other words, Karraker is trying to politely say that older men confronted with uncomfortable caregiving tasks sometimes simply abandon ship in favor of healthier, less financially burdensome wives.

“If a divorced woman suffers from a serious illness,” Karraker theorizes, “it is likely she will have to rely on an outside caregiver, which can be very expensive and may not be entirely covered by Medicare or other insurance.”

Based on these statements, Karraker attributes the study’s gender-skewed findings to financial pressures, social stigmas, and the temptation of having “more choices among prospective partners.”

Others, however, are not so sure.

Neuro-oncologist Dr. Marc Chamberlain, who works with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, doubts the findings can be pinned to the zeitgeist of yesteryear.  “I think that theory is a bit weak,” Chamberlain says.

He doesn’t speak without reason.  In 2009, Chamberlain published his own study tracking the effects of a brain cancer diagnosis on marriage and divorce.  While his data arrived at roughly the same conclusion as Karraker’s — only 3% of men were asked for a divorce, compared to 21% of women — Chamberlain’s study included patients of all ages. Therefore, he says, the culture of decades past cannot explain the phenomenon.

Instead, Chamberlain thinks it boils down to stubborn, timeless gender expectations.  “…Caring for a sick person,” he says, “is perhaps a role that men are not adequately equipped to deal with.”

What do you think explains the data?

Divorce is always a complex matter, both emotionally and legally speaking.  The experienced family law attorneys of Maselli Warren can help you understand and navigate the process, and will work diligently to help lighten your burden during this difficult time.  If you are thinking about filing for divorce in New Jersey, or if you simply have questions about how our firm may be able to assist you, call our law offices at (800) 891-2657, or contact us online today to schedule a private consultation.

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