Couples Are More Likely To Divorce When Wives Get Sick, Not Husbands

‘In sickness and in health’ seems to be an unfortunately gendered vow.

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A sick woman in a hospital bed holding her husband's hand.
Stígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir / Getty

Serious illness may increase a couple’s chances of divorce — but only when wives get sick, according to a growing body of research. As much as the risk of dissolution depends on how strong the relationship is and how serious the disease, studies show that when women have health problems, their marriages are less likely to survive than when men fall ill.

“Only measures of wife’s illness onset are associated with elevated risk of divorce,” concluded one 2015 study in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior. “These findings suggest health as a determinant of marital dissolution in later life, via both biological and gendered social pathways.”

Indeed, several clinical studies have found that women who are diagnosed with cancer are at increased risk of divorce. The most recent study on the subject, conducted by a team of researchers from Iowa State University and Purdue University, focused on how cancer, heart problems, lung disease, and stroke impacted 2,701 marriages. They found that stroke and heart problems increased women’s divorce risk more than cancer or lung disease. Not so for men.

“Research generally finds that men’s health benefits more from marriage than women’s,” Mieke Beth Thomeer, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who researches illness and divorce risk (but was not involved in the study), told Fatherly. “One explanation is that women provide more care and support for spouses within marriage than men do — many men reap more benefits from marriage than women do while women are doing more work.” And when those benefits dry up due to disease, men are more likely to walk away from the marriage.

Women also tend to have more sources of support outside of their marriages, in the form of friendships and extended family, whereas men tend to rely more on their wives as a sole support system. So when a man becomes sick and can no longer fill the role of husband, wives have a fallback plan. Husbands, however, often have no one else. Men also have an advantage in the marriage market as they age, with more opportunities to remarry than women, making them potentially more prone to leaving a marriage. “Same-sex couples are more often on the same page when it comes to what they expect from their spouse in terms of caregiving, and this means less conflict around illness for same-sex couples compared to different-sex couples.”

It’s important to note that this research is based on older cohorts of couples who are more likely to adhere to traditional gender roles as well. As couples move toward more modern and equitable relationships, it’s entirely possible that this phenomenon may disappear. And while sickness ends some marriages, it strengthens others. When a husband stands by his sick wife, “not only has he shared her burden, but this also gives them more time to hang out, even if this means they sit together on the recliners in the infusion center and watch Netflix,” Thomeer says.

“Stress is easier to handle when you have someone to share it with.”

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