Gender, long-term illness and risk of divorce

There is seemingly no end to the stereotypes related to the differences between men and women. There is even an entire catalogue of relationship self-help books based on the premise that men and women are fundamentally different.

These stereotypes and generalizations usually contain at least a kernel of truth but cannot be considered universally accurate. That being said, the results of a recent study suggest that there is some truth to certain gender stereotypes about caregiving.

The study examined how one spouse’s long-term illness affected the divorce risk of couples ages 51 and older. The four illnesses studied were heart disease, stroke, cancer and lung disease.

After examining nearly two decades of data on 2,701 marriages, researchers concluded that when men suffered a long-term illness, they were no more likely to get divorced than if they had remained completely healthy. When women got sick, however, their divorce risk increased by about 6 percent.

Here is where the gender stereotypes about caregiving might come into play. In most cases of long-term illness, a person’s spouse is likely to take on the role of caregiver; which is no easy task. Women are more frequently socialized to be caregivers, which means they might transition into that role more naturally than men would.

Moreover, the study did not track which spouse initiated divorce in each case or what the reason for the divorce was. If it was related to the long-term illness, there may have been times when wives initiated the divorce because they were unhappy with the quality of care being offered by their husbands.

It is worth noting that sociological studies are a lot like the gender-based stereotypes mentioned above. They reveal interesting observations and trends, but they do not prove true for every couple.

Source: The Washington Post, “In sickness and health: Wife’s serious illness increases chance of divorce later in life; husband’s doesn’t,” Lenny Bernstein, March 6, 2015

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