Caring for a sick loved one is tough. Staying married is tougher if the sick one is the wife. The stressful situation often ends in the couple divorcing. However, the risk of a marriage ending in divorce is higher when the wife gets seriously ill than if the husband does, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Michigan looked at how marriages are affected by four illnesses: heart disease, lung disease, cancer and stroke. Overall, they found that 31 percent of marriages that dealt with serious illness ended in divorce. However, they found that when the wives became ill, approximately 50 percent of the marriages wound up dissolving, as shown in the study presented today in Boston at the annual Population Association of America meeting.
The finding indicates that “if the wife gets sick, the marriage can be at risk and is more likely to wind up in divorce,” according to researcher Amelia Karraker, from the university’s Institute for Social Research. The health consequences of divorce are known, but prior studies had not really examined the effect of health leading to divorce, especially among baby boomers, Karraker noted.
The research team looked at 20 years of data on 2,717 marriages. When the researchers first interviewed the couples who participated in the study, one of the partners in each couple was at least 50 years old.
It should be noted that about 36 percent of all U.S. marriages end in divorce, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, this study looked at couples where at least one member was in over 50, not couples in general. Karraker noted that the study “speaks to a different season of life.” She noted that, unlike prior studies, this one looked at risk factors in the 50 plus population, which has seen a increased divorce rate over the part two decades.
The researchers did not ascertain which spouse initiated the divorce. However, prior research suggests that women initiate approximately two-thirds of divorce proceedings.
The study did not try to determine why the divorce risk increases when wives become ill. The researchers theorize that when the wife decides to exit the relationship after becoming seriously ill, it may be because she is dissatisfied with how her husband is caring for her. Likewise, Karraker posed the theory that, when the husband decides to leave, it may be to pursue a relationship with a healthy partner. However, the team hopes to gain more insight into these aspects through further research.
With health care costs for the aging population increasing, Karraker suggested that policymakers pay attention to the relationship between disease and the divorce risk. When a divorced person has a serious illness, he or she will probably have to rely on an expensive outside caregiver, which may not be entirely covered by Medicare or other insurance, she noted.
Some researchers expressed hope that more studies examine effects on relationships as people move through mid–to-late adulthood. They also noted the need for ways to broaden support so marriages are not at risk when experiencing the illness of one partner, particularly winding up in divorce when the wife gets sick as the study showed. Studies like this help people who are aging, their family members and health care providers about how illness affects caregiving requirements.
By Dyanne Weiss