The study established that a marriage is 6% more likely to end up in divorce when a wife was diagnosed with a serious illness compared to marriages where the wife remains healthy. In the study, researchers examined data from more than 2,700 marriages where at least one partner was over the age of 50. An illness affecting the husband did not influence the chances of divorce.
There is no explanation about what specifically in the marriage went wrong when the wife was sick, but stress resulting from wife’s illness could affect the wife in many ways, says Amelia Karracker, lead author for the study.
The researchers were not surprised to find that when either spouse fell ill with a serious diseases, there was a raised risk that the most likely reason for marriages ending during the 20 years of the study was widowhood – that is, death of a spouse.
“Life or death experiences may cause people to re-evaluate what’s important in their lives,” said Karraker, an assistant professor at Iowa State University. “It could be that women are saying, ‘You’re doing a bad job of caring for me.’ ‘I’m not happy with this,’ or ‘I wasn’t happy with the relationship to begin with.’”
One way that spouse illness can stress a marriage is when the healthy spouse is the primary caregiver and may also have to take on sole responsibility for supporting the household. Prof. Karraker explains:
“There is a difference between feeling too sick to make dinner and needing someone to actually feed you. That’s something that can really change the dynamics within a marriage. If your spouse is too sick to work, we know that financial strain is a major predictor of divorce in and of itself.”
Of the marriages examined in the study, about a third ended in divorce, while almost a quarter of the marriages had a death of one of the spouses.
The findings were published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.