Neurological conditions associated with elevated risk of divorce in the Nordic countries

The risk of divorce is the highest among couples where both spouses have a neurological condition. Regardless of both spouses’ educational level, husband’s illness increases divorce risk at least as much wife’s, showed a recently completed study led by University of Helsinki.

Using Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish register-based data, the study followed more than 2.8 million opposite-sex married couples between 30 and 64 years of age. During the 10-year follow-up period, 12% of the couples separated and more than one-fifth experienced neurological conditions, which were measured with the help of information on visits to specialised healthcare. 

Pooling the results for all four countries, the risk of divorce was 1.21 times higher following wife’s and 1.27 times higher following husband’s illness compared to couples where both remained healthy. When both spouses were diagnosed with a neurological condition, the risk of divorce was 1.38-fold. The differences observed can be considered significant.

“The findings suggest that more support is needed for couples afflicted by neurological illness, even in comprehensive Nordic welfare states,” says Dr. Niina Metsä-SimolaUniversity Lecturer in Demography from the University of Helsinki.

Association between illness and divorce risk explained by income in Sweden only

Illness has been assumed to affect divorce risk through psychological distress, changes in the division of family responsibilities as well as reduced participation in paid work and financial strain. In the study, however, income explained the association between illness and divorce risk only in Sweden.

“In Sweden, access to specialised healthcare is easier, but incomes drop more during short periods of illness than in the other countries investigated,” Metsä-Simola says.

Husbands’ illness has been thought to increase the risk of divorce more than that of wives’ due to their traditional bread-winner role. In line with this assumption, the study showed that husband’s illness increased divorce risk at least as much as the wife’s. However, in Sweden there was no gender difference in excess divorce risk. 

“In Sweden, the wage gap between men and women is the lowest among the countries studied, and parental leave is more evenly distributed. As a result, the consequences of illness may also be similar regardless of the gender of the ill spouse,” Metsä-Simola muses.

Spouses’ educational resources matter in Finland

In Finland, husband’s illness increased the risk of divorce more than women’s  when his educational level was lower than hers, whereas no gender difference in excess divorce risk could be observed when husband’s education was higher than wife’s. Similar moderating effect was not observed in the other countries.

“In Finland, the wage gap between men and women is the largest in the Nordic countries, parental leave use is highly gendered, and a relatively large proportion of mothers with young children stay at home, emphasising the role of fathers as family providers.”

The gender of the ill spouse was particularly significant in Denmark, where the risk of divorce was 1.6-fold following husband’s and only 1.2-fold following wife’s illness. However, the finding may be influenced by the fact that the number of couples diagnosed with a neurological condition was lower in Denmark than in the other countries.

“The most common diagnosis among men was organic sleep disorder, and it was clearly more prevalent in Finland and Norway than in Denmark,” says Metsä-Simola.

Multiple sclerosis increases divorce risk more following husband’s diagnosis

The association between sleep disorders and divorce risk seemed independent of the gender of the ill spouse, while multiple sclerosis (MS), a disorder which often causes significant functional impairment, appeared to increase the risk more following husband’s than wife’s illness.

“In the case of MS, the gender of the ill spouse was particularly relevant for divorce risk specifically in Denmark.”

Information on detailed diagnoses was not available in Sweden, nor was it possible to measure functional disability or the severity of disease using register-based data.

“Investigating functional impairment could produce further information on the mechanisms through which illness is associated with divorce risk,” Metsä-Simola notes. 

The study was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health and is available online at

Further information:
Niina Metsä-Simola
Phone: +358 50 317 7636