Health and Romantic Union Dissolution

Poor health is associated with an increased likelihood of romantic union dissolution. But it is still questionable whether this association is gendered and whether married and cohabiting couples are influenced in the same way. In a recent issue of Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Christine Percheski and Jess M. Meyer study these questions among married and cohabiting couples with young children. They divide the question into three parts. First, how are self-rated health, depression, and health-related work limitations associated with union dissolution risk? Second, how do the associations vary according to the marital status of the couple and the gender of the partner with compromised health? Third, does the onset of poor health predict later union dissolution?

Using parental couples from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Studies, Percheski and Meyer find that poor self-rated health is associated with higher chance of union dissolution only for married mothers and the association between health-related work limitations and union dissolution only holds for married fathers. Developing depression symptoms, over time, predicts a higher chance of dissolution for both mothers and fathers, regardless of their marital status.

Compared with marriage, the stability of cohabitation is less impacted by poor health. One possible explanation is that cohabitation has weaker institutionalized norms, making the union dynamics less disruptive in the face of poor health. Besides, cohabiting couples may not see dissolution as a necessary way to avoid liability for their partners’ high medical bills. It is also possible that the average duration of cohabiting relationship is too short for poor health to influence dissolution. Gender differences are harder to explain, but the strong influence of work limitation and depression among fathers may owe to gender role norms, gender differences in family responsibilities, and coping behaviors. Policymakers should consider supporting measures that improve population health, especially mental health, as a potential way to bolster family stability.