News from the journal Cancer is that serious illness is much more likely to lead to separation or divorce when the wife is the one who’s sick. In a study of more than 500 patients with a malignant primary brain tumor, a solid tumor with no nervous system involvement, or multiple sclerosis, researchers found that 21% of the couples with sick wives separated or divorced, compared with 3% of those with sick husbands. In fact, they report, “female sex was found to be the strongest predictor of divorce or separation in each of the 3 patient populations.”
Oddly, perhaps, the authors attribute the disparity to levels of caring ability, rather than willingness or emotional commitment. The Science Daily release summarizes:
Why men leave a sick spouse can be partly explained by their lack of ability, compared to women, to make more rapid commitments to being caregivers to a sick partner and women’s better ability to assume the burdens of maintaining a home and family, the study authors said.
In the study they provide references for this theory, but none of them appear to measure ability to provide care. These are slippery things to capture. I am reminded of a study I co-authored in which we found:
Children with disabilities are more likely to live with single parents, and especially their mothers, than are other children. Further, those who do not live with either biological parent are more likely to live in households headed by women than are other children. The results suggest that gendered living arrangements among children with disabilities are a neglected aspect of inequality in caring labor, which is an underpinning of gender inequality in general.
We also know from previous research that parents of children with disabilities are more likely to divorce than other parents, though whether that results from fathers’ or mothers’ initiation is not clear. It all suggests to me that the allocation of responsibility for unpaid care work is partly negotiated implicitly with the structure of families and living arrangements – who lives with whom and in what sort of relationship – not just in the division of tasks within the home.
Note: Tara Parker-Pope at NYT later posted on this, and you can see the 200-comment discussion here.