A new study has revealed that serious illness raises the risk of divorce in older married couples, but far more so if it’s the wife who falls ill, not the husband.
The research, which looked at over 2,700 older married couples during the course of almost 20 years, reflects many other similar studies in finding that roughly a third of all the marriages ended in divorce.
What it also revealed is that in almost half of those cases, the wife fell ill, MedicalDaily reports.
‘We found that women are doubly vulnerable to marital dissolution in the face of illness,’ said Dr Amelia Karraker, one of the study’s authors. ‘If they are the ones who become ill, they are more likely to get divorced.
Although the study didn’t delve into why this might be the case, Dr Karraker suggests that it could have something to do with a woman’s tendency to be instinctively better caregivers.
‘Gender norms and social expectations about caregiving may make it more difficult for men to provide care to ill spouses,’ she stated in a press release.
Indeed, when one of Hollywood’s most enduring married couples, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, temporarily split last year, it was widely reported that it was Ms Zeta Jones’ struggles with bipolar disorder which caused the relationship to crumble, even after the pair stuck together through Mr Douglas’ battle with throat cancer.
‘She turned out to be fantastic. It’s like a test to see how good your wife is, but she’s been fantastic,’ Mr Douglas said of his wife’s nursing abilities in 2009.
Rachel Sussman, a New York-based relationship expert spoke to MailOnline about the findings. ‘Women are natural care takers. It’s biologically programed into us,’ she says. ‘This is so much more difficult for men. It’s not natural for them and clearly not their biological mission.
A high testosterone type A male is simply not programed for this type of work. It will go very much against their grain.’
Dr Lawrence Balter, a Psychoanalyst and media consultant, offered a related explanation when he spoke to MailOnline.
He agreed that men can often have more trouble dealing with the trauma related to their spouse’s illness.
‘Perhaps men are less able to tolerate vulnerability in themselves and, consequently, in others,’ he theorizes. ‘Being ill can evoke feelings of weakness and insecurity. That sort of disavowal leads some men flee rather than rise to the occasion.’
But while Dr Karraker concedes that her work ‘suggests that men are jerks’, her final comments on the study offer some interesting food for thought.
She observes that while her team doesn’t have solid figures on who initiated the divorces in the marriages they looked at, ‘in most cases’, it was the women who did so.
‘So it could be that when women become ill and their husbands are not doing a very good job caring for them, they would rather that he just go,’ she says. ‘And they rely on friends and family who will take care of them.’
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