When a Sick Spouse Can Mean an Unhealthy Marriage

Divorce was more likely when the wife got sick than when the husband got sick

Marriage vows are likely familiar to many people. But how many people keep those vows — particularly the one about sickness and health?

A new study revealed how important health may be to the longevity of a marriage. The results? Not so promising for women. These researchers found that only a wife’s illness was tied to a raised risk of divorce.

In sickness and in health, indeed.

But good news for men: when a husband became ill, there appeared to be no impact on the odds that the couple would divorce.

The authors of this study looked at 2,700 couples to see just how well men and women kept the sickness and health part of their vows.

Dr. Amelia Karraker and Dr. Kenzie Latham looked at data collected over an eight-year period. All the couples were 51 or older. These researchers used data on marriages collected by the Health and Retirement Study at the University of Michigan.

They looked at how serious physical illness like cancer, heart problems, lung disease and/or stroke affected a marriage. They said these were the most prevalent illnesses in people of that age.

Dr. Karraker told The Washington Post that not only do women find themselves at an increased risk of divorce after being diagnosed with a serious health condition, but they're faced with another stressor.

“These women may be particularly vulnerable for further health declines considering the negative health consequences associated with marital dissolution,” she said.

So what’s up with this report? Why does the wife’s illness increase the chance of divorce?

Drs. Karraker and Latham noted several theories. One theory is that an illness causes the other spouse's role to change to that of a caregiver. They noted that this can be taxing. They cited a 2005 study that revealed that husbands may find caring for an ill spouse more stressful than wives might.

Also, these researchers said, men have an increasing advantage in the remarriage market over the course of life because there is an ever-expanding pool of potential partners. Statistically, women live longer, and there are more available women on the market, they said.

These researchers adjusted for other factors like income and religious views but found that these factors didn't appear to make much of a difference. However, the sample size might have been too small to really bring these differences into view, Drs. Karraker and Latham said.

This study was published March 10 in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. The National Institute on Aging funded this research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.