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.

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

  1. This is an interesting article. I read a few of the comments that where posted, there are a few that are bias, I noticed that a few females content that women are more of vow keepers than men, this of cause is not entirely true because disloyalty is prevalent in both sexes, some women cannot stay in a marriages where the husband struggles to provide, they simply leave and look for better providers, I guess men and women have different basic expectations in a relationship, women want security while men want beauty and sexual appeal, if any of these lack in the other partner the marriage is placed in jeopardy. That is why some Men cheat on their women when they are pregnant, it is simply because their wives do not have the appeal they used to have. which also applies to when they are sick.

  2. I find it quite hard to believe that there is any truly significant proof for the ideas stated in this article. First of all, they only looked at around 2200 marriages, which is almost nothing if you look at it on a large scale. Secondly the cultural and ethical backgrounds of the couples have to be brought into the equation, as some country have a higher divorce rate than others. you also need to look at the quality of the specific marriages before one partner became ill. If they were already having problems beforehand, they could possibly already have been heading towards divorce. I believe that if you add in all these different dynamics and variables, you will probably find that there would always have been around a thirty percent chance of divorce, irrelevant of the gender of the person that became ill. Therefore I do not agree with the research done in this article. I do believe that it is possible that some couples may get divorced if one becomes ill, but I think it has more to do with the character of the people in the relationship, and less with who becomes ill

  3. Indeed illness in a marriage is major obstacle which has conquered many marriages, but going through this article made me realize that we men are the weak link, we always opt for an easy way out. However not every man is like that, some stand by their partners just like they committed themselves from day one.

    I believe illness is just one of the contributing factors to most marriages u find that a couple has been facing ups and downs long before it is known that one of them is suffering from a certain illness, so they might be in the process of breaking up, and the researchers might just conclude that the illness is the main cause of everything.

    in conclusion lets not generalize, we must take into account every possible contributing factors in order to increase the results’ validity and reliability.

  4. Even at a younger age men still divorce their wives when their sick it can not miraculasly change at an older age.Woman naturally cares and is mostly dependent on their husband as most of the time he is s the breadwinner and the pillar of strength, woman think they are more dependent on men thab men ate on woman.According to my experience I think sickness brings the care out of a men it leaves him vulnerable and distressed and they do not like feeling that so their resort is divorce

  5. Interesting .i was being so ignorant .i thought this only happened in young people’s relationships. i look up to older couples .they are the ones that keep my dream of getting married one day because they understand commitment ,obedience and what is sacred to God than younger people. Generation “Z” understands the fun part of the relationship. they get married for various reasons like travelling, sex, looks, class, etc., while they don’t realize that hardships lie ahead .this is the reason they don’t stick around when the going gets tough.

  6. What has been stated in this blog is really saddening,heartbreaking and sorrowful,to think that a couple of about ten-plus years of marriage would seriously throw in a towel over an illness just like that.I mean this is the time where they should hold on tight to each other more than ever and show that love when they first met each other.And i strongly disagree with a saying,women are better caregivers than men,if your partner really really loves you he or she would not be so hesitant in taking good care of you regardless of anything.I also think these couples should really mean what they are saying to each other when they exchange their vows,they can’t just separate because one of them is experiencing a heartbreaking setback!This is really wrong.

  7. This article was a huge eye opener for me because it is something I have never thought about. Being 18 years old, one does not think about illness in marriage, and the effects thereof. I only think about marriage as being happily ever after. This is really something for me to consider before one day making a huge life long commitment. When couples get married I think they do not seriously think about what their commitment means, because at that stage they are happy and healthy. It is very sad that sickness can cause couples to divorce. But I do not think we can judge anybody that cannot deal with this situation because one can only judge somebody if you have been in the same situation. Because women are natural caretakers, I think it is easier for a women to look after someone sick, and to take care of the daily household. For men this does not come natural, and they need a women to take care of the household. If the wife cannot take care of everyday household responsibilities because of sickness it can be a huge strain on the man although this cannot be an excuse for divorce. I seriously have much more respect for any man or women looking after a sick person because this requires a lot of patience and commitment.

  8. ‘Reading this blog, I fail to understand how researchers can make such a big generalization on this topic. There are so many factors that could contribute to a couples divorce when one of them is ill. They did not take into account the history of the marriage and the time of illness (whether it has happened before or whether it is the first time). This post is also very vague about how long these couple have been together.
    For example a couple who have been together for 35 years seem less likely to divorce over an illness whereas perhaps a couple of 10 years may feel a bit more pressure and unsure about what to do in this situation, hence being more likely to get divorced. I also feel that the generalization about males being the ones to divorce their sick wives is too big of an assumptions, it needs to be further studied rather than basing this knowledge on few facts that males ‘seem’ to find it harder to nurture sick wives.

  9. The findings in this blog are sadly true. The most powerful words to me in the marriage vows are the ones that say that the couple will be together in sickness and in health, and it is the best promise you can make to someone. To know that no matter what that your soul mate may suffer from or go through that that will not change anything between the two of you, is for me the definition of love that will never end. To see from the study that has been done that that promise gets broken by spouses is heartbreaking to me. How can one (especially men) leave or more specifically divorce the person that he/she loves the most? How can one make the most precious promise and when it comes to implementing it, suddenly break that promise? The study shows that it divorces usually takes place when the woman gets chronically ill, because the man can’t properly take care of her and then she tells him that he can go and shifts her care taking to family and friends. That to me is the most astonishing, because if the man really love her and he realizes that he can’t provide the necessary care for her, then he must get some family and friends to help him take care of her, not get a divorce (that put more stress onto the shoulders of his “loved one”) and run away. That to me is not love! So yes I understand the fact that to take care of someone who is really sick is hard work and tiring, but when it’s the person you love the most that is sick, then instead of making him/her sicker through divorcing him/her and running away, I think people should keep to the most reassuring promise that they will stay with their loved one trough sickness and in health as long as they both shall live!

  10. marriage is a lifelong commitment and i believe that people tend to forget that when you get married you practically become one with your partner, this implies that whatever they go through , whether it is joy or pain affects you as well. There are many factors which prove that men and and women view the concept of love very differently and women are believed to be more caring so this could be a contributing factor to why there is a high number of women who get divorced when they fall ill than men. We also need to remember that the feelings one has before the marriage and years into the marriage can differ greatly. Could it be that the vow ‘in sickness and in health’ loses its value with time? that should not be the case or marriage would surely lose its meaning, it is therefore critical for both men and women to make sure that they are ready for that commitment and that they are with a partner they would never leave no matter what situations arise.

    Divorce is a harsh reality that negatively affects a lot of people and there are many reasons behind it but to divorce simply because one partner is sick really shows a lack of commitment.

  11. As we know that a divorce is not accepted in Christianity, yet people continue to do it. The moment you married her/him you vowed to be there through thick and thin, what was the point of that? What could have happened if you the one who want a divorce because of an illness was the one who was sick? we must learn to be assured about any probability that may come along the way of a marriage life. A marriage is not just something to drop along the way because of mere looks and perishing health, it is something to be watered,cared for and to provide endless support to your partner. Let this not be something to teach our kids about marriage. Marriage is something special, knowing that someone cares for you might also decrease the chance of illness.

  12. I think a man chooses to take a divorce when his wive is sick because he is now faced with responsibilities that might have never thought he might never face. He is used to the wife taking care of him for all these and now it is him who has to take care of his wife. Everything becomes hard for him and the only out is divorce otherwise he will have to live the rest of his live taking care of his wife because of this chronical disease. But I still say if he truly loves you he would want to spend the last days with you and nobody else.

  13. The article is very good because it encourage people from the benefit of being tells us that if u are fit it is good for your healthy and your mind because the mind will be able to retain the information for a long also explain the negative effects of being not fit and being out of shape as such person will be easily forget and not storing the information for a long also tells us that the excess in oxygen within our brain also help the brain to retain the information for long the conclusion the exercise is good in mind and also in the healthy of a person.

  14. This blog evokes many emotions to me and I’d like to commend Karraker for embarking on such an interesting topic.

    The results obtained from the study are appalling. It is unfortunate that most women will end up without husbands if we are to fall critically ill. This study proves that all men are the same! Yes, the responsibility to care for the family is the wife, however, the husband must assume the role of nurturing the family; should the mother cease to do so herself.

    I stand by what most people are saying in their comments that “In sickness and in health” is a vow to be kept no matter what and should go both ways.

  15. I found this topic very interesting and it cannot be totally cast out as a blatant lie as there is a hint of truth to it. When you truly sit down and give it some thought what comes to mind would be the sad truth that, when it’s the wife and not the husband who falls ill, the marriage is more likely to end in divorce. This can be explained on the basis of social expectations about how men will always keep an eye on the horizon and therefore if the opportunity presents itself they have no difficulty just uprooting and starting a new life with someone else. Most men also do not always possess the compassion and patience to sit by and nurse their spouse through good times and bad. And its also been proven that divorced men especially in older marriages have more choices among prospective partners than divorced women

  16. I found this topic very interesting and it cannot be totally cast out as a blatant lie as there is a hint of truth to it. When you truly sit down and give it some thought what comes to mind would be the sad truth that, when it’s the wife and not the husband who falls ill, the marriage is more likely to end in divorce. This can be explained on the basis of social expectations about how men will always keep an eye on the horizon and therefore if the opportunity presents itself they have no difficulty just uprooting and starting a new life with someone else. Most men also do not always possess the compassion and patience to sit by and nurse their spouse through good times and bad. And its also been proven that divorced men especially in older marriages have more choices among prospective partners than divorced women.”

  17. I found this article very interesting and very shocking at the same time. To think that something(effects of a chronic disease) that needs a couple to come together and support each other many times leads to the marriage’s failure is disheartening. Maybe marriage vows aren’t taken as seriously as they should be? Maybe divorce is just a much easier way out than facing the problem head on? I can imagine that disease surely doesn’t make a marriage easier and that it does result in a lot of strain but a divorce is quite an extreme measure in this circumstance – can’t fathom what ill women go through dealing with both disease and divorce simultaneously.

  18. I agree with this biog. Marriages do tend to end in a divorce when the women gets chronically ill. People say the vows “in sickness and in health” because they are forced to or because that is what is expected of them. Men are generally not as strong as women. That is why most women are always there for their husbands when they get sick and most man are not. Truth is also that when a man really loves a women, hey would stick by them. No matter how sick they are, or how hard it gets.

    I personally think people should get to say their own vows, not what the pastor tells them to repeat.

  19. When women make a vow that they will stay with their husbands in sickness and in health, they promise for real. But when it comes to men, it becomes difficult to keep the promise and they even forget that they once made a vow. To men, a woman is a woman when she is able to take care of her husband, once she becomes ill, she is not useful anymore.Women naturally have care, they can be with their husbands during hardtimes and goodtimes. But men are just not used to taking care of someone,they don’t have that care naturally. That is why they divorce their wives once they are ill.

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