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For some, 'in sickness and in health' vow may not hold

Chances are you're familiar with the traditional wedding vow. It includes such lines as, I take you from this day forward, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.

Those words express the ideal that the commitment being made by one spouse to the other is one that won't be eroded by the challenges that life might present. The reality, as many Chicago-area readers are likely to acknowledge, is that the ideal is hard to live up to.

And now, a new social science study indicates that serious illness can, in fact, be a significant spur to divorce in older married couples. Further, the researchers say that the risk is highest for couples in which the wife is the spouse who falls ill.

According to the authors from the University of Michigan, it's not news that illnesses often arise after divorce. But the implications of divorce as a result of ill health are less known, so they decided to focus their attention on that.

They looked at 20 years worth of data for more than 2,700 marriages. The parameters were set in such a way as to make sure that at least one of the partners in each couple was over the age of 50 at the start of the study. They also looked for the onset of cancer, lung disease, heart disease or stroke in each couple.

What the researchers found was that husbands were more likely than wives to get sick and that 31 percent of all the marriages ended in divorce. But they also found that divorces were more common when the wife was the spouse that became ill.

The authors note they did not examine who initiated the divorces. Other studies have shown that women most often do. The researchers say they also didn't explore why divorce was more likely when the wife became ill. They speculate that either baby boomer husbands may not feel they can provide the care their sick wives need, or the wives feel the husbands aren't up to the task. Either way the result is divorce.

What seems certain is that scenarios such as those in the study present challenges as to how an ill ex-spouse's health care needs will be met. It might suggest that a divorce through an alternative dispute resolution model such as collaborative divorce might be in order. An attorney can help make such a call.

Source: LiveScience, "When Wives Get Sick, Risk of Divorce Rises, Study Says," Martta Kelly, May 1, 2014

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