This week the media seized on a new study (reported by the Associated Press via the Seattle Post Intelligencer) which suggested that divorced women are more likely to get sick than their married counterparts. At last count Google News was showing that the story had been picked up by no fewer than 189 publications. When I first saw the headlines I began gnashing my teeth in anticipation of the onslaught of nauseating pro-marriage punditry to come.
For all of you women -- pen poised over your divorce papers, wondering if you're inadvertently hastening your death -- take heart. According to reports of the study, it's not the divorce that will plague you, it's everything that comes later: less income, less support, losing health insurance, raising kids without a second parent on the premises, etc.
In short, being a single, middle-aged female (and especially mother) in our society.
Yes, yes, sounds bleak -- but the real reach of this bit of heartbreak science is difficult to calculate. Based on a 10-year study conducted by researchers at Iowa State University, the pool of subjects consisted of 416 rural women from eight counties in Iowa. All the women began the study with adolescent children and 102 of them were recently divorced. When interviewed a decade later, the divorced women reported 37 percent more sickness than the married ones. The researchers controlled for age, remarriage, education, income and prior health.
Thankfully, the researchers didn't try to spin their data to recommend that women stand by their men. Researchers cited associated conditions -- like social isolation and relatively poor job opportunities -- as explanations for why divorced women report more illnesses. "According to the data, it looks like they (divorced women) are trapped in this vicious circle of financial problems and other stressful life events -- such as having their safety net destroyed in the form of housing, insurance, transportation, social support, sharing in the kids, etc.," said coauthor K.A.S. Wickrama in a statement.
But are these the problems of divorce per se or the burdens of being alone and female in rural Iowa? Sure, we all know that divorce can be the emotional equivalent of having your fingernails removed with pliers while you try to coordinate car pool schedules with your torturer, but let's not paint all divorces with the same brush. A comparative study with urban women might shed light on what you can blame on a broken marriage. Or what about when the man is removed altogether -- do divorced women fare better or worse than "single mothers by choice"?
There's an obvious problem with pointing to divorce as a source of sickness. Women who get divorces often do so because they have more troubles in the first place. In this sense, the divorce might not be a precipitating factor of ill health, but just another falling domino in the downhill collapse of a life. Finally, with women more likely to be killed by a husband or boyfriend than by a stranger, it's important to note that at least sometimes, divorces actually save lives.