A new study finds that when a husband is seriously ill, there's zero increased risk for divorce. Lovely. But when wifey is the sick one, the marriage is more likely to end. If it's 1956, this absolutely makes sense! After all, who will care for her dear husband? Who will feed him? Bathe him? Clothe him, comfort him, make him feel like a king?
The study, conducted by Iowa State University and published in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, analyzed divorce rates specific to couples in which either spouse was seriously ill (PDF here). For couples in which the wives were diagnosed with a life-threatening illness—specifically cancer, heart disease, lung disease, or stroke—the rate of divorce was six percent higher than the rate of divorce for marriages in which the wife stayed healthy. But if the husband were the one to fall ill, it had no effect on the likelihood of divorce.
The oversimplified conclusion: Wives are ride or die. Husbands…less so.
The researchers, in an effort to soften the blow, throw all sorts of reasons at us as to why this may be. Illness is obviously a strain on any marriage. (And yet couples seem to weather that storm if the wife remains healthy, but okay.) Serious health complications often create financial issues and money is a well-known cause of marital discontent. Couples are getting married later in life and living longer; some marriages would've run their course when a spouse died, but now the relationship is lasting longer than it might have before, and there is an increased risk for dissatisfaction. Men aren't traditionally conditioned to be primary caregivers as women historically have been.
It's this last point that Amelia Karraker, the study's lead author, latches on to a bit more. While the study is drawn from data that doesn't specify whether it was the husband or wife who initiated the divorce in these cases, Karraker suggests that divorces coinciding with a wife's illness could actually be a matter of the wife wanting to cut the cord due to dissatisfaction with her husband's ability (or lack thereof) to care for her.
Wives are generally less satisfied with the care from their husbands, Karraker said. That's because men, especially older men, have not been socialized to be caregivers in the same way women have, and are less comfortable in that role.
"Life or death experiences may cause people to re-evaluate what's important in their lives," Karraker said. "It could be that women are saying, 'You're doing a bad job of caring for me. I'm not happy with this, or I wasn't happy with the relationship to begin with, and I'd rather be alone than be in a bad marriage.'"
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That's an interesting take and far less heartbreaking than the conclusion we might instinctively draw from data like this, which goes something like: men are garbage monsters who don't really buy into the whole "in sickness and in health" business. But the idea that the sick wife is initiating a divorce is just a theory, and it's hard to imagine any seriously ill spouse, husband or wife, having the energy to call a lawyer and end their marriage in between chemo treatments.
So what are we supposed to do with this information? Get divorced now while we're still healthy enough to handle it? What a lovely thought.
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