The research, detailed in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, found that divorce was six percent more likely if the wife fell ill, than if she remained in good health.
In contrast, when husbands fell gravely ill, the likelihood of divorce was unchanged, the researchers found.
The study, led by Iowa State University’s Amelia Karraker monitored 2,701 marriages over almost two decades; at the start of the study one of the partners had to be at least 51 years old.
In the end, 32 percent ended in divorce while 24 percent led to one of the partners becoming a widow or widower, the research found.
Illness often can take a serious toll on couples, largely for financial reasons, and can hasten divorce, Karraker explained.
And the quality of care-giving is a major factor.
Wives are largely less satisfied with the care from their husbands, Karraker said. She said that men, particularly older ones, often have not been socialized to be caregivers in the same way women often are.
“Life or death experiences may cause people to reevaluate what’s important in their lives,” Karraker said.
“It could be that women are saying, ‘You’re doing a bad job of caring for me. I’m not happy with this, or I wasn’t happy with the relationship to begin with, and I’d rather be alone than be in a bad marriage.'”