fightIt’s a classic part of the wedding vows: in sickness and in health. But a new study from the Iowa State University and published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior has discovered a link between sickness and divorce.

Relationships in which the wife faces chronic illness are six percent more likely to divorce.  

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The study found that husbands facing chronic illness were not more likely to divorce. It focused on four major illnesses – cancer, heart disease, lung disease and stroke – and found no statistical differences between the illnesses. The marriage data covered twenty years and at least one of the spouses had to be at least 51 years of age at the beginning of that period.


Chronic illness adds stress to a marriage.

The healthy spouse is often the primary caregiver and must take over responsibility for the household. Leader researcher Dr Amelia Karraker says: “There is a difference between feeling too sick to make dinner and needing someone to actually feed you. That’s something that can really change the dynamics within a marriage. If your spouse is too sick to work, we know that financial strain is a major predictor of divorce in and of itself.”

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Another reason could be quality of care. Overall, wives seemed less satisfied with the care given by their husbands especially in older couples. Karraker says that older men were often uncomfortable in a care giving role.

And of course, it could be that some of the divorces were initiated by the sick women themselves. Karraker suggests: “Life or death experiences may cause people to re-evaluate what’s important in their lives. 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.’”

From a public health point of view, Karraker says the results are problematic.

“I think the research shows the potential vulnerabilities for people in society who are sick. There is an elevated risk for depression with illness and now you’re also at risk for divorce,” Karraker said.

“People in poor health may have less access to beneficial social relationships, which in turn can compromise their health further.”

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