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Whatever Happened to 'In Sickness and in Health'?

Pensive older couple

Well, this is depressing: A new study finds that an older couple is more likely to divorce if the wife gets seriously ill, but not if the husband does.

While the health consequences of divorce are well known, researchers wanted to see how marriage in couples age 50 and older was affected when one spouse developed a serious health condition like cancer, heart disease, lung disease or stroke.

They examined 20 years of data on 2,717 marriages from the Health and Retirement Study, conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. At the time of the first interview, at least one of the partners was over the age of 50.

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During the two decades, nearly a third of the marriages ended in divorce. And while more husbands fell ill during this time, in about half the divorce cases it was the wife who had gotten sick.

The findings carry a double whammy for women, said Amelia Karraker, a researcher at the Institute for Social Research. "They are more likely to be widowed, and if they are the ones who become ill, they are more likely to get divorced."

Why does a wife's illness raise the risk for divorce more than a husband's? Unfortunately, the study doesn't provide any specific answers, but Karraker has a few ideas: Women are usually the caregiver and men may find the role more stressful and difficult. Also, older women may be more leery of divorce, knowing that they outnumber men in this age group and that finding a new partner would be more difficult.

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Still, she admitted that the data showing that men were more likely to leave a sick wife were a surprise to researchers.

"I didn't expect it to be so strong and so clear about wives being sick," Karraker told NBC's Today show . "The fact that there was no relation with the men [being sick] was striking. The work suggests that men are jerks, but we don't know who initiates the divorce."

She suggests that policy makers be aware of the risk of divorce among older couples during serious illness and make sure families are offered more support services.

Karraker presented her findings May 1 at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America.

Photo: Images_Bazaar/iStock


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