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Disease and divorce

When couples stand at the altar and proclaim that they will support each other in sickness and in health, most anticipate fulfilling that promise in their twilight years, after they have lived a long and happy life together. Few couples foresee their “in sickness” pledge coming due in the beginning, or even the middle, of their marriage. But the reality is that people of all ages get sick, at all stages of life, and they rely on their spouses for support during a difficult illness and, hopefully, recovery.

However, new research shows that women may be less likely to have that support than men. According to a 2009 study, married women who are diagnosed with a serious disease are six times more likely to divorce or separate from their spouse than men with a similar ailment.

Specifically, 21 percent of sick women in the study were divorced, as compared to three percent of sick men. When compared with the control group, which had a 12 percent divorce rate, it becomes clear that an ill wife makes a husband more likely to leave, while an ill husband makes a wife more likely to stay.

The researchers hypothesized several possible reasons for the disparity. First, the role of caregiver is not one that is familiar or natural for many men, as opposed to women. In addition, at-home support is now more demanding than in previous years, when patients remained at the hospital and under the care of medical professionals for several weeks.

Second, men may lack the support system that women, who are able to turn to friends or family, rely on to get through a difficult time. Men often rely on their wives for emotional support, and may not have anyone else to turn to if she is ill.

Therefore, the study suggests, men are more likely to decide that they are incapable or unwilling to deal with a spouse’s illness, and may ask for a legal separation or divorce.

Source: CNN, “When spouse gets sick – who leaves?” Meredith Bryan, 21 July 2011

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