May 1, 2014 at 12:28 AM ET
Serious illness raises the risk of divorce for older married couples – but only if the wife gets sick, a new study suggests.
Researchers from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis looked at more than 2700 older married couples from 1992 until 2010. Nearly a third of the marriages ended in divorce, and in almost half of those cases the wife fell ill. Those surveyed were affected by cancer, heart problems, lung disease or stroke.
“One person’s illness is a stress on the couple and has also been identified as a reason for decreased marital quality,” said Dr. Amelia Karraker, one of the authors of the study released Thursday and presented at the Population Association of America’s annual meeting.
The study did not examine why a woman’s illness was more likely than a man’s to lead to divorce, but Karraker suggested that because women tend to be caregivers, it can cause extra strain when a man has to assume the role. By contrast, a study found a couple was no more likely to divorce if a husband got sick.
In fact, caregiving can be such a strain that it can lead to illness or even death for the caregiver, Karraker said.
Dr. Jacob Ham, a clinical psychologist and Director of Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s HEARTS (Healing Emotions and Achieving Resilience to Traumatic Stress) Program, calls illness a “huge threat” to a person’s sense of attachment.
“Any time we feel threatened with trauma or loss, the desire to seek comfort and security from someone we love gets triggered. If the threat means you’re going to lose the person you turn to for that, it’s devastating,” Ham said.
Still, the finding that a man would be more likely to leave a sick wife was surprising even to the researchers.
“I didn’t expect it to be so strong and so clear about wives being sick,” says Karraker. “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.”
Dr. Ham, who was not involved in the research, said men often have trouble connecting to their emotions, and that could make them blind to what’s happening in the marriage.
“Women are more willing and able to battle for love. When a stressor like illness comes into play, the man will disappear and the woman will be the one to fight,” Ham said. “This parallels the way boys and girls deal with adolescence. The girls are more likely to argue with their parents but still want to maintain the relationship, while the boys disappear until college.”
While illness makes marriage vulnerable, being aware of the implications of illness can help the marriage survive. Dr. Ham says emotional connection is the secret to marriage survival.
“The key is to grieve the potential loss together. To be worried, to do it all together,” he said. “It makes it bearable to know that an important loved one in your life is going through the process with you.”