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Diseases Increase Divorce Rates in Older Couples

Update Date: May 01, 2014 10:00 AM EDT

When people get married, they make a promise to stay with one another "in sickness and in health, until death do us part." In a new study, researchers set out to examine the truth behind these common American vows. The researchers discovered that for older couples, divorce rates increase when the wife, in particular, falls seriously ill.

For this study, researchers Amelia Karraker from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and Kenzie Latham of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis reviewed 20 years of data available on 2,717 marriages. The data came from the 1992 Health and Retirement Study, which was conducted by the Institute for Social Research. The participants were all over 50-years-old at the time of the first interview. Over the span of the study, the researchers focused on how cancer, heart conditions, lung disease and stroke impacted marriages.

By the end of the study, 31 percent of the marriages had ended in divorce. Men were more likely than women to be diagnosed with a chronic illness. However, the researchers found that divorce rates increased when women were sick as opposed to men.

"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 Karraker according to the press release. "We found that women are doubly vulnerable to marital dissolution in the face of illness. They are more likely to be widowed, and if they are the ones who become ill, they are more likely to get divorced."

The researchers did not identify why divorces tended to happen to older couples when the wife fell ill. They theorized a few possible explanations. First, due to gender norms and social expectations, men might find caretaking overwhelming and difficult. This could influence their decision to leave the situation whereas women are more likely to stick through it and care for their husbands. Second, the dating pool and marriage markets are arguably better for older men than they are for older women. The researchers explained that older men tend to have more options.

Third, even though the researchers did not know who wanted the divorce in this particular study, women in general are more likely to initiate it. The team believes that if men are not providing enough care, women would rather have friends and family help out.

"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," Karraker stated. "Offering support services to spousal caregivers may reduce marital strain and prevent divorce at older ages. 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."

The study's findings were presented at the Population Association of America annual meeting.

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