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Researchers retract study claiming marriages fail more often when wife falls ill

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A study that suggested marriages are more likely to fail when the wife falls ill — than if she is healthy — has been retracted this week due to a coding error in the research.

The article got a lot of media attention — including from The Washington Post — when it was published in March in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. The research looked at 2,701 heterosexual marriages of people 51 and older, and found that when the wife falls seriously ill, there's a 6 percent greater chance the couple will divorce than if she remains healthy. A husband's illness, in contrast, has no impact on the odds that the couple will divorce.

The study seemed to suggest that in later-life marriages, men are more likely to bail on a sick spouse, although the data didn't go into detail about why the divorce happened or who initiated it.

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However, when researchers at Bowling Green State tried to replicate the study results, they discovered the results were skewed by a mistake in the data, which counted people who left the study as divorces.

"They pointed out to us, to our horror, that we had miscoded the dependent variable," Amelia Karraker, the study's author and a professor at Iowa State University, told Retraction Watch. "As soon as we realized we made the mistake, we contacted the editor and told him what was happening, and said we made a mistake, we accept responsibility for it."

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Using the corrected code, Karraker found that the results stand only when wives develop heart problems, not other illnesses.

"While you would never want to discover that you made a mistake, what’s ultimately important is to do good research, and sometimes that requires you to make a correction," Karraker said.

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