Divorce More Likely When Wife Diagnosed With Serious Illness

“Life or death experiences may cause people to re-evaluate what’s important in their lives.”

According to a new study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, a marriage is 6% more likely to end in a divorce when a wife is diagnosed with a serious illness than when the wife remained healthy. This finding definitely gives new meaning to the part of the wedding ceremony in which couples vow “in sickness and in health.”

Marriage and Divorce Study

The study evaluated data from 2,701 marriages with at least one partner over the age of 50 and in which either spouse was diagnosed with a serious illness. The data also covered a 20-year timeframe. The 50 and older spouse had to be 50 at the beginning of that time period.

Nearly a third of those marriages ended in divorce. A quarter ended with the death of one spouse. It seems an illness in the husband did not affect the chances of divorce.

Stress Of Illness May Be To Blame

While the study did not investigate how illness led to divorce, the lead author Amelia Karraker posited that illness can lead to stress in a marriage. Karraker is an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State. Though the data does not explain the “why,” there are reasons an illness can add stress to any marriage, regardless of it is a strong marriage or not. Karraker provided this example: the healthy spouse often takes on the role of primary caregiver and also make have to take on the role as sole manager of the household.

Amelia Karraker, lead author of the study.

“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,” Karraker said. “If your spouse is too sick to work, we know that financial strain is a major predictor of divorce in and of itself.”

And quality of that care can play a role. “Wives are generally less satisfied with the care from their husbands,” Karraker said. This is usually due to the fact that men, especially older men, have not been socialized to take on the role of “caregiver” in the same way women have. As a result, they are less comfortable in that role.

“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.’”

Karraker goes on to say that, “Life or death experiences may cause people to re-evaluate what’s important in their lives.” It can, essentially, cause a person to take a look at where they are going in life and what else they want to do with their time.

Karraker and her colleague, Kenzie Latham, an assistant professor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, used data recorded during a Health and Retirement Study that did not indicate whether the husband or wife had initiated the divorce. Karraker feels it would make sense that women ended the marriages because of the care they were receiving, or not receiving.

Marital Stressors

Partners in marriage always face hardships that affect their relationship. These hardships are often referred to as “marital stressors” by psychologists. These can be any kind of external influence, circumstance, or event that challenges or threatens a marriage, such as: financial troubles, unemployment, intimacy problems, infidelity, differing views on parenting, the death of a child, clashes with in-laws, and as proven by this study, chronic illness of a spouse. Effects can be subtle, causing husbands and wives to drift apart even if there is little to no conflict between them.

Working Through Marriage Stressors

Stress can affect a marriage in many ways. Whether it be financial problems or infidelity there are different avenues of help you can explore. You should not give up on a marriage because of an outside problem without first seeking help. But there are some ways to help if you’re marriage has come under stress due to chronic illness. Here are some suggestions:

Accept offers of help. Friends and family can provide great support during stressful times brought on by illness. This can mean cooking dinners or just offering moral support.

Find a support group. There are lots of resources online and through your doctor’s office to find support-group referrals. There should be local groups in your area. If you cannot find one, you might want to create a group. Chances are others are looking for ways to get through their own tough times.

Find a good counselor. A psychiatrist and/or therapist can help you work through the stress being placed on your marriage. They are experts in helping individuals and couples get through emotionally tough times.

Realize it’s OK to be angry. If you or your spouse have just been diagnosed with a chronic illness, it’s okay to be mad and upset. It can feel unfair and overwhelming. It’s not uncommon to feel anger and hopelessness. Working with a psychiatrist or therapist can help you both deal with this traumatic time.

Did Type of Illness Matter?

Researchers also focused on four chronic illnesses to determine whether or not type or severity impacted the divorce rates. These illnesses were: cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and stroke. Though there were some slight variations, the results for each individual illness were not statistically significant.


Karraker’s study was inspired and sparked by the criticism politicians like John Edwards and Newt Gingrich received for divorcing their sick wives. Through her work as an assistant professor of human development and family studies, and during the course of her study, Karraker has heard from women that have experienced similar situations, in addition to hearing from friends who have been divorced after illness.

Grey Divorce

Other studies have shown that more divorcing couples do so later on in life, a trend called “grey divorce.” This grey divorce might be the result of people living longer. While this trend has been happening since the early 1980’s, it didn’t formally receive its label until 2004.

In May 2004, AARP conducted a study titled the The Divorce Experience: A Study of Divorce at Midlife and Beyond which compiled data regarding grey divorce. Here are some of the study’s findings:

Who initiates grey divorce

  • 66% of female participants initiated divorce
  • 41% of male participants initiated divorce

Participants age when divorced:

  • Age 40-49, 73% of participants divorced in their 40’s
  • Age 50-59, 22% of participants divorced in their 50’s
  • Age 60-Older, 4% of participants divorced in their 60’s or later

Widowhood Instead of Divorce

In Karraker’s study, it’s important to note that in the past, prior to the popularity of grey divorce, and also due to increase in lifespans, many people would have been widowed, rather than divorced. “In the past, some marriages would have ended because of widowhood instead of divorce,” Karraker said. To complete their study, Karraker and Latham compared their results to marriages in their sample that ended because the sick spouse died.

Of the marriages in the study, 32 percent ended in divorce. This compared to 24 percent that ended because of widowhood. Divorce was the more common reason for the end of the marriage for the respondents that were younger. Death was more commonly the reason for older respondents to end their marriages. The researchers concluded that the probability of widowhood increased 5 percent when husbands got sick and 4 percent when wives got sick.

Previous studies have found that overall, couples that are married have better physical and mental health. It’s interesting to note that Karraker’s research shows illness puts women at risk of losing the health benefits of marriage.

“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.”

Working with a Divorce Lawyer

If you have done all you could to work through your own marital stressors, and feel as if divorce is the next step, you should work with a skilled divorce laywer. Divorce can be a very difficult time. A divorce attorney can walk you through all the steps of dissolving a marriage, including deciding on child custody and visitation, dividing marital property, and arranging spousal support.


Iowa State University, Marriage more likely to end in divorce when wives get sick, according to ISU study, March 4, 2015

The Good News, How Can You Manage Marriage Stress in Troubling Times?, 2015

Focus on the Family, Chronic Illness in Marriage, 2015

Wikipedia, Grey Divorce, 2015