Sick Wives More Likely to Get Divorced

Mar 4, 2015

Can serious illness increase your odds of divorce? If you're a women over the age of 50 that seems to be the case.

A new Iowa State University study looking at the divorce rate for older heterosexual adults has found that if a wife experiences a serious illness like cancer or stroke, the probability of her marriage dissolving increases by 6 percent. A husband becoming ill, however, has no statistical impact on a couple’s chances of divorce.

The study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, sources data from 2,701 couples collected in the University of Michigan's "Health and Retirement Study." At least one spouse was between the ages of 51 and 61 when data collection began in 1992.

The study's lead author Amelia Karraker, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at ISU, says the data did not track which spouse initiated the divorce. She does, however, have a couple theories based on previous research to explain her findings.

U.S. Census Bureau's 2013 population estimates. Note how the older a population segment, the greater its gender gap. (Click to enlarge image.)

"We know that when women get sick and their husbands are caregivers, the perceived care...is not as good as compared with say when husbands are getting care from their wives," Karraker says. "Caregiving is stressful in general, but it may be particularly stressful when it is husbands who are doing the caregiving for their wives. " 

This isn't surprising since, as Karraker points out, the men in her study were raised in an era where girls, not boys, were socialized as caregivers. 

Another possible explanation Karraker offers as to why only a wife's sickness increases the odds of divorce is due to the fact older women out number older men.

"If you are a man who is alive, you have more potential female partners than surviving women have potential male partners," Karraker says. "So men have more options outside of the marriage itself."