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A close-up of a bride and groom's hands wearing wedding rings

Life happens, as does illness. Thankfully, one of the comforts many people are afforded is the support of a loving family, particularly a husband or wife who has vowed to have your back in the best and worst of times.

Or…is this no longer the case?

According to a study presented at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in Boston, social scientists have found that the risk of divorce among older married heterosexual couples rises when the wife, but not the husband, experiences a health crisis such as cancer, heart problems, lung disease or stroke.

“When the wives became ill, about 50 percent of the marriages ended in divorce,” said study author Amelia Karraker, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. “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.”

Why?

Karraker noted that the new study “speaks to a different season of life,” but her data didn’t indicate which spouse initiated divorce. Prior research suggests that women initiate about two-thirds of divorce proceedings.

If the wife decides to exit the marriage after she becomes ill, it may be because she’s dissatisfied with how well her husband is caring for her, Karraker said. If the husband decides to leave, he may do so to pursue a relationship with a healthy partner.

The new study couldn’t explain exactly why the divorce risk is elevated when wives become ill, but Karraker said she hopes to glean insight into these aspects through further research.

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