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Serious Illness and Divorce

Posted 3/23/2015

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  This is an introduction to a really fascinating study from Iowa State University about the divorce rate, in couples over 50, when the wife has had a serious illness. Let me begin my comments by noting that my clinical experience has not been that a cancer diagnosis often results in divorce.

  Yes, of course, I have known couples who divorced after cancer, but not too many, and the reasons were variable. We know that in general two thirds of divorces are initiated by wives; we can speculate why that is the case, but it is the fact. We don't know whether, in this study, that statistic holds up. If it does, there could be a range of reasons. In general, women are more socialized to be caretakers and likely have had more experience in that role than men. Men who are ill are generally pretty happy with their wives' care during their illness; we can't be sure that most women feel the same way. Indeed, for whatever it is worth, I hear lots of negative comments about husbands' caretaking during cancer. Usually these comments are framed in a not totally negative way; that is, often the woman is aware that her husband is continuing to go to work to support the family or is doing the best that he can, and that acknowledgment softens the criticism. However, I hear about husbands who "just don't do hospitals" so they rarely if ever accompany a woman to appointments. And I hear about plenty of husbands who seem incapable of picking up more tasks at home.

  Here are a couple of egregious examples: One husband was a vegetarian although his wife and children also ate meat. During her months of chemotherapy, he not only refused to cook for her/them, but would not even plate the meals that friends delivered. This always sounded to me as though there had to be much more to the story, but this was the tale repeated in my office. I have heard of several husbands who couldn't come into the hospital even on the day of surgery, just dropped their wives at the door and relied on others to visit and support them. (as a side comment: I seriously doubt it has ever occurred to a woman to just say "I don't do hospitals" and refuse to accompany an ill child or spouse).

  Certainly cancer motivates all of us to consider our lives and perhaps make some changes. I have known women who decided to get married, to make that commitment, and others who decided to leave an unhappy marriage. Cancer reminds us that our time is not limitless, and we need to attend to our happiness.

  These suggestions are to remind us all that the easiest interpretation of the study, that men bailed after cancer, may or may not be accurate. I know that does happen sometimes, too; I remember the woman whose husband brought her home after a mastectomy (note: at least he picked her up!), carried in her suitcase, and then announced that he was leaving. I have known a few more husbands who stayed through treatment and then departed shortly after chemotherapy was done. However, in the vast majority of couples whom I have known, cancer made them closer--or at least did not negatively impact their relationship over the long term. Note, too, that this study says nothing about younger couples. It would be interesting to know if the same statistics apply to them.

  Here is a Huffington Post review of the study. I give you the start and a link to read more:

Couples Over 50 Are More Likely To Divorce When The Wife Gets Sick, Study Suggests

Couples vow on their wedding days to love one another in sickness and in health, but apparently, that's
not a promise they always keep. A new study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior has
found that when a wife gets sick, marriages are more likely to end in divorce than "till death do us part."
Researchers at Iowa State University looked at 2,701 couples over the age of 50 from the Health and
Retirement Study, conducted between 1992 and 2010. They wanted to see if a diagnosis of cancer, heart
problems, lung disease and/or stroke could potentially affect marital outcomes. And it did, but only for
women: A wife's major illness was associated with a 6 percent higher probability of subsequent divorce,
while a husband's illness had no effect on divorce rates whatsoever.


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