When caregiving gives out

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.

Who needs marriage?

When it comes to suicide, at least, the answer is: “men.”

Jessie Bernard famously argued that every marriage is really two marriages, his and hers – and his was more beneficial than hers. We know, for example, that both men and women have more family income when they’re married, but that’s mostly because men earn more than women, and married men earn more than single men. We know that women often depend on marriage for their health insurance, because men’s jobs are much more likely to provide coverage. The recent debate about women’s reportedly-declining happiness highlights the slipperiness of subjective indicators of wellbeing.

Sociologists have always considered suicide to be the gold standard measure of psychological wellbeing. And marriage has historically been a key indicator of social integration, the source of belongingness that makes suicide less likely. Although Bernard believed that, with regard to suicide, marriage is more protective of men than of women, recent research has been more equivocal. Now, however, we have a good long-term study with a large U.S. sample that tests this, and finds that, as suspected, marriage protects men more than women from themselves.

Suicide Risk by Marital Status

Source: My figure from Table 2 in Richard Rogers, Patrick Krueger and Tim Wadsworth, “Adult Suicide Mortality in the United States: Marital Status, Family Size, Socioeconomic Status, and Differences by Sex,” Social Science Quarterly, 2009 (90[5]:1167-85).

Controlling for race, age and the number of people in the family, those in marriage relationships have the lowest risk of suicide from 1986 through 2002 (these are called hazard ratios). But the pattern is only statistically significant for men, and it’s much more pronounced. The authors offer reasonable explanations for this:

Marital status—particularly widowhood—is significantly associated with the risk of suicide among males but not among females. These findings are compatible with prior research that suggests that marriage confers greater health benefits for men than for women, potentially because women invest more time and energy than other household members caring for the health and well-being of children, husbands, and older family members. In turn, men are especially vulnerable to the risk of suicide when they lose that social support due to widowhood.