In sickness and in health: How illness affects the risk of divorce

In the classic marriage vow, couples promise to stay together in sickness and in health. But a new study finds that the risk of divorce among older married couples rises when the wife—but not the husband—becomes seriously ill.

“Married women diagnosed with a serious health condition may find themselves struggling with the impact of their disease while also experiencing the stress of divorce,” said Amelia Karraker, a researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, who presents her findings May 1 at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America.

Karraker and co-author Kenzie Latham of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis analyzed 20 years of data on 2,717 marriages from the Health and Retirement Study, conducted by the Institute for Social Research since 1992. At the time of the first interview, at least one of the partners was over the age of 50.

The researchers examined how the onset of four serious physical illnesses—cancer, heart problems, lung disease and stroke—affected marriages.

They found that, overall, 31 percent of marriages ended in divorce over the period studied. The incidence of new chronic illness onset increased over time as well, with more husbands than wives developing serious health problems.

“We found that women are doubly vulnerable to marital dissolution in the face of illness,” Karraker said. “They are more likely to be widowed, and if they are the ones who become ill, they are more likely to get divorced.”

While the study did not assess why divorce is more likely when wives but not husbands become seriously ill, Karraker offers a few possible reasons.

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

“We did not have information on who initiated divorce in this study. But it’s important to keep in mind that in most cases, it’s women who do so. So it could be that when women become ill and their husbands are not doing a very good job caring for them, they would rather that he just go and they rely on friends and family who will take care of them.”

Given the increasing concern about health care costs for the aging population, Karraker believes policymakers should be aware of the relationship between disease and risk of divorce.

“Offering support services to spousal caregivers may reduce marital strain and prevent divorce at older ages,” she said. “But it’s also 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.”

Karraker is a National Institute on Aging Postdoctoral Fellow at the ISR Population Studies Center.

80 thoughts on “In sickness and in health: How illness affects the risk of divorce”

  1. One person’s illness is a stress on the couple and has also been identified as a reason for decreased marital quality.
    Because women tend to be caregivers, it can cause extra strain when a man has to assume the role thus causing nothing but divorce.
    “Women are more willing and able to battle for love. When a stressor like illness comes into play, the man will disappear and the woman will be the one to fight,

  2. it is really devastating to know that women go through divorce when they are ill. I wonder what happened to in sickness and in health till death do us apart. where the spark of love had disappeared to I really don’t understand. I thought that when they decided to take their vows it was because they believed that their love would stand the test of time, this blog gives me grief because I was wrong

  3. “In sickness and in health”,a phrase which is misinterpreted to literally mean in sickness and in health.The phrase means that your partner will be there for you through tough times,to love,care and remind you that even if the world turns against you just because he/she loves you they`ll be there.The issue of men being less caring than women is a general misconception,a misguided norm.

  4. Research tells us that the reason why men left their wives was because the wives weren’t satisfied with the way they were being taken care of. Women don’t understand that they were created in different reasons . Men weren’t created to nurture like women .Yes, men did vow to their wives to be there in sickness and in health but in one way or another we break promises.

  5. 14084822 (Sesing TK). Sickness adds to the already (however enjoyable) heavy burden of marriage in a very exponential way. It adds strain to many aspects such as the financial and emotional situation pf the spouse. Divorce is also influenced upon by the foundation of the marriage: were both parties brought together or were there some circumstances that pushed them together.

  6. not only due to statistics can one agree to the fact that sickness of a partner in a marriage have high influence in divorce.Mostly when women get sick no one is there to take care of them unlike when men are sick they have their wife to take care of them.Men dont tend to understand when it is the women’s turn to get sick which lead to divorce

  7. i agree with the article, lots of men tend to change their vows when illness knock to their wives. it is in their nature to do so, men seems as if they define love in a different way as women that’s one of the reason men think divorce is the answer when one’s health is no more in good condition

  8. ”In sickness and in health “this is an agreement between two people basically it has to be considered. What is running in my mind is how can you leave someone you love just because he/she is sick? Marriage is about lifting each other up in conditions like this, why run away because you vowed that ‘till death do you apart’ basically I don’t believe that illness can cause a divorce but it should be the moment that you get closer to you partner to show that you love and care for them. I know women are more nurturing than men but in conditions like this men should also play their role.

  9. According to this blog women care so much when their spouse is ill than men do of which I agree, women are so emotional and naturing and when it comes to men indeed it is something else they care more about you in health and not in sickness forgetting that they vowed to care in sickness and in health,. Once they know that their wife is infected with a serious illness they tend to feel that she is no longer important and her days are numbered forgetting the vow, so they star bringing up the issue of divorce. As for women they are afraid to lose their husband, they think of the kids and house responsibilities, which is not so for men. Men needs healthy wives and they can divorce a mother of his children in order to get another healthy wife.

  10. After reading this article and from previous information regarding divorce and sickness it is mainly the man who cannot deal with the sickness of his wife and hence turns to divorce in my opinion the reason for this is due to the fact that women in most cases are much more patient and can withstand a lot more pressure than a man, however this is not enough to justify that all males are of this nature, because there are many husbands out their who do posses the fine charming qualities of an ideal husband they care for their wives in sickness and in many cases they tend to start appreciating their wives more than ever before realizing the importance of her well being and how much she actually contributed to the nourishment of their marriage as the saying goes u only realize what you had once its gone. Many of the comments are quite bias as in most divorce cases its the husband and wife that go against their wedding vows.

  11. Firstly I would like to accentuate the fact that the article was based in the United states. People who live in other countries and continents follow different beliefs and form part of different cultural systems where a vow has more meaning or permanence to it. Secondly one of the biggest problems with the research that was done is that it only includes couples where at least one of the spouses is over 50. This excludes the majority of married couples, yes theoretically a couple that have been together for a longer period of time will have more reason to stay together than say one where the couple is 30 years old. We live in a different time to them, we have been raised as a new generation where something like feminism has gained a lot more support and power than it used to, where in the participating couples youth, it was the social norm for the father to be the breadwinner whilst the mother stayed at home and looked after the kids and raised them, and at most would have a small part time jobs teaching children how to swim or something along those lines. Where as now, when we look at a family both genders have equal responsibility in raising the family and providing for the family.

    “We did not have information on who initiated divorce in this study. But it’s important to keep in mind that in most cases, it’s women who do so. So it could be that when women become ill and their husbands are not doing a very good job caring for them, they would rather that he just go and they rely on friends and family who will take care of them.” This quote shows that there is quite a big lack of information, what is stopping us from assuming that the researchers do not even know what the cause of the divorce was? It is so easy for them to say that the reason the participants got divorced was because one of the parties became sick, there are countless other reasons that were the cause of the divorce. Examples include the couples wanting to get a divorce before the diagnosis but decided not to because of the history the couple have shared together, or maybe the sick spouse feels that it is unfair for them to putting all this extra stress and pressure onto their spouse, these are just 2 reasons for divorce in the situation.

    According to the findings, 31% of marriages ended in divorce, I do not see how that is vastly different from the rate in America, with some states having about a 50% divorce rate. Taking all of what has been said in to account, I do not believe that sickness can cause divorce to be more frequent, I believe that it can act as a catalyst as it can change the situation and the way people think but it is not the main cause for the divorce, it simply helps to materialise the divorce papers.

  12. I think fear is what leads to one partner divorcing the other partner when ill simply because no one wants to grow old. In marriage should it not be about “we” rather than “I”. If that is how partners would respond to their ill partners, seeking to desert them at a time when needed most , then why vow to “in sickness and in health”?

  13. I agree with the above article. the reason for this is because men aren’t as king and loving as women, men will find the easy way out, even if it is to go against the oath that they swore the day they got married.

  14. this article is good and it is telling the truth according to my view because mostly men are the ones who devorce their wives when they are sick or ill and this is not good thing to do because most of them when they get married they promise not to separate no matter what will happen between them.but when their wife get sick they overcome the woman power and divorce them because the cannot be able to take care of them.

  15. i have read many articles on this same topic that have coined the term “till sickness do us part”. illustrating that many marriages end within a period of illness. it has been said that wives who fall ill are more likely to divorce their husbands especially when specific roles are seen as not being fulfilled by their counterparts. one can say that it all boils down to how seriously one takes their marriage and thus their marriage vows. one can also say that this is a pattern that needs to be examined.

  16. this article is good and it is telling the truth according to my view because mostly men are the ones who devorce their wives when they are sick or ill and this is not good thing to do because most of them when they get married they promise not to separate no matter what will happen between them.but when their wife get sick they overcome the woman power and divorce them because the cannot be able to take care of them.

  17. I completely agree with this because I believe men are not as nurturing as women are. Yes, women need their husbands more than anything during those devastating moments but sometimes you find that men just can not handle the pressure and the responsibility.
    Men just don’t have that soft touch that women are best known to have and just because they are unable to nurture their women when they’re sick does not mean they love them less or anything of that kind

  18. While I do find some information so informative and relatively new to me in this article, I must say there are some cases that I agree to disagree with what the writer has to say. What the writer in my opinion failed to address was that perhaps some of these marriages may have had already serious underlining issues way before the long term illness took place. What we have to ask ourselves is,would a marriage that was already on the brink of divorce survived and withstood the test of time against a gruesome period,as that of a loved one suddenly at the mercy of a deadly illness? If for instance,the husband was already sick of his wife way before her illness,then it would’ve most likely been difficult for him to stand by her side during her time of need,caring for her and taking care of the day to day activities,that would normally have been done by her. And need I say taking care of a sick person is no child’s play it is a very demanding job. However having said this I love how the writer alludes to the fact of that gender roles,and social expectations about caregiving may make it more difficult for men to provide care to their ill spouses. I found this very interesting and also agree with it,since men from an early age are not raised to become caregivers,it is usually seen an accepted as a woman’s job in society to be caring and affectionate. I would also like to raise a question that why wasn’t the study also conducted with also younger married couples instead of the elderly,that way it would have made the information more applicable and relevant to everybody.

  19. This article is very interesting because it talks about something that happens in reality, its just that most people are not aware of such things.. Indeed illness can separate a marriage of years

  20. @mavis thanks for clarifying that to me, I now know that men do not live to their promises…..

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