For older married heterosexual couples, the risk of divorce increases when the wife becomes seriously ill but such is not the case when the husband does.

According to social scientists from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and University of Michigan, wives who experience health crises such as heart problems, cancer, stroke and lung disease increase the risk of divorce. Curiously, husbands who experience these life-threatening illnesses do not pose the same effect.

The researchers analyzed 2,717 marriages in the Health and Retirement Study from 1992 to 2010. These couples started out healthy in their marriages and how the onset of a serious illness affected the quality of their marriages were measured in the study.

An extensive analysis shows that gender played a major role in whether a marriage survived a serious illness or not. The study shows that the risk of divorce increased when the wife was ill and not vice versa. The researchers found that 31 percent of the married couples ended in divorce during the study period and 15 percent of the cases had a sick wife. At the end of the research, 47 percent of the couples experienced a new disease and 41 percent of the participants were widowed.

"When the wives became ill, about 50 percent of the marriages ended in divorce," research author Amelia Karraker said. "We have strong prior [evidence] that there would be a gendered component to this, that it would be more likely that a wife's illness would be more strongly associated with divorce than a husband's. But it's encouraging to see it borne out in data." Karraker is a postdoctoral researcher at the Social Research Institute in University of Michigan.

The social scientists still have to further investigate to find out why married couples are more at risk for divorce when the wives become sick as opposed to the husbands but it is speculated that this could be due to gender norms especially among older people. Because of social expectations and gender norms about caregiving, it may be difficult for the husbands to take care of their sick wives.

Health care is becoming more costly by the day and Karraker suggests that policymakers should be aware of the link between divorce and disease and broaden support for couples experiencing the illness of a spouse.

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