When Older Women — But Not Men — Get Sick, Their Marriages Are More Likely to End in Divorce

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Marriage generally enhances people’s well-being. And losing a spouse, no surprise, has been linked to significant declines in mental and physical health. What the science is less clear on, Amelia Karraker and Kenzie Latham point out in a new study in Journal of Health and Social Behavior, is what happens when you flip the question around: When a partner’s health declines, how does it affect their marriage?

To find out, Karraker and Latham examined a big, nationally representative data set that tracked heterosexual marriages in which one partner was at least 50 years old from 1992 to 2010. They plucked out a sample of 2,701 marriages that met their criteria, examining who got sick with what illness and what happened to the marriages in the long run.

The key finding? “Husband’s illness onset is not associated with subsequent divorce compared with remaining married. In contrast, wife’s illness onset is positively associated with 6% higher probability of subsequent divorce compared with remaining married.”

Now, the study lacks the data to determine who initiated a divorce in a given instance, but the researchers offer a couple reasons for why this pattern might exhibit itself:

The gendered nature of marriage markets at older ages that privilege men suggests that men would be more likely to initiate divorce following wife’s illness because men have more options for new partnerships than do women. On the other hand, however, sick wives who are not receiving adequate care from their husbands might rather divorce than remain married to a poor caregiver.

The “marriage markets” thing seems key here, and Karraker elaborated on it a bit more in an email. Basically, since women tend to live longer than men, “As a result, in the older population there are more women than men, which means that if you ARE a man, you have a lot more potential opposite-sex partners to choose from than women,” she said. So while the study can’t conclusively prove that older men, looking around and seeing the potential to find another mate, are spurning their sick partners, it’s not a stretch to think this might be the case.

Now, this is a study of just one segment of the population, and an older one at that — most divorces occur among young people — but it could eventually help researchers better understand the (potentially ugly) gender dynamics at work here.