Can Having an Illness Lead To a Divorce?

Most people, when they recite their wedding vows, are so focused on their beloved’s smile right in front of them and daydreams of a wonderful life ahead of them, that they tend to breeze right through some of those heftier commitments. Things like, “in sickness and in health”, which sounds like a kind and loving thing to say at the time, but doesn’t sound all that ominous….


Until cancer. Or lupus. Or diabetes, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, the list goes on and on. Illnesses that can devastate a marriage and destroy a relationship that was supposed to ride off into the sunset and last forever. Caring for someone when they are sick is hard, especially when the sickness in question interferes with a family’s ability to live a normal life, and racks up a mountain of debt in the form of medical bills.


According to a recent study conducted at Iowa State University, the breakdown of marriages in the face of illness is not uniform across the board. Apparently gender plays a role in how likely a marriage is to survive a chronic illness, with women allegedly hanging in there more often than men in the face of divorce.


Amelia Karraker is an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State, where she authored the study on whether or not gender plays a role in marriage surviving illness. Karraker and her team of researchers analysed two full decades of data, reviewing a total of 2,700 marriages where at least one person in each marriage was over the age of 51 at the start of the study.


Gender plays a significant role in determining if a marriage will survive an illness.


What was fascinating about the results was this: in instances where the male marital partner got sick, there was no visible increase in the number of divorces. But when when it was the female spouse that became ill, there was a 6 % increase in divorces. So if this study is accurate, then there is a higher instance of divorce among couples when it is the woman who is severely ill.


The researchers noted that in instances of severe illness, the well spouse must take on the role of both caregiver to their sick partner, and manager of the household, in addition to whatever job they may already have. What the study did not address, however, is why. Why is this the case, and what factors lead to more marriages ending in divorce when the woman gets sick as opposed to the man.


Some people have speculated that it is because women are usually more nurturing, and therefore slip more easily into the role of caregiver than men do. Other proposed ideas for why this may be, include the fact that women are possibly more reluctant to give up their role as primary caregiver in the family. But one widely accepted theory is that illness is stressful, and that many couples simply cannot survive the added financial burden, emotional strain, and physical hardship than a chronic illness extolls on a marriage.


Ultimately, we have no idea what the reasons were, as they were not included in the area of study. But it is an interesting piece of information to consider, when addressing the issue of debilitating illness in a family, and the effects it may have on a marriage.



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