The old adage "'till death do us part" comes to mind in the later years of marriage, when spouses may be faced with declining health. But according to the findings of a new study, when it's the wife -- and not the husband -- who falls ill, the marriage is more likely to end in divorce.
Researchers from the University of Michigan and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis tracked 2,717 marriages featured in the ongoing Health and Retirement Study between 1992 and 2010. They focused on marriages where both spouses started out healthy in order to measure how the onset of a life-threatening illness, such as cancer, heart problems, lung disease, and stroke, affected marriage quality.
By the end of the study, 47 percent of the participants experienced a new illness. Thirty-one percent of the couples had divorced and 24 percent saw their marriages end in widowhood. The rest remained married.
Through an extensive analysis of the data, researchers discovered that gender played a large role in whether or not a marriage survived an illness. Specifically, if the wife fell ill, the chance of divorce increased -- but not vice versa.
"We found that women are doubly vulnerable to marital dissolution in the face of illness," study researcher Amelia Karraker, who is a researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, said in a statement. "They are more likely to be widowed, and if they are the ones who become ill, they are more likely to get divorced."
Fifteen percent of marriages where the wife fell ill ended in divorce. And women with heart problems and lung disease were most likely to get divorced, compared to other illnesses.
While the researchers don't have a definitive answer as to why marriages are more at risk for divorce when women fall ill, as opposed to men, they speculate that gender norms -- especially among older generations -- play a role.
"Gender norms and social expectations about caregiving may make it more difficult for men to provide care to ill spouses," Karraker said in the statement. "And because of the imbalance in marriage markets, especially in older ages, divorced men have more choices among prospective partners than divorced women."
Karraker presented her findings at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America on May 1; because the findings have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, they should be regarded as preliminary.