Excerpts from an article in the 10/15/09 Times Online
Men are seven times more likely than women to leave a seriously ill partner, a study has found. So why are males less able to cope?According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 144,220 divorces in the UK in 2006-07 (the latest figures available) and, of those, about 18 per cent (25,959) were due to “family strain”, a term that includes serious illness. In the US, a survey by the National Centre for Health Statistics found that 75 per cent of first marriages end in divorce if one of the partners develops a terminal or chronic illness.
Although it is not stated in these divorces which partner was ill, a study published last month in the journal Cancer found that a man is seven times more likely to leave than his wife if the other becomes seriously ill.What causes this apparent chasm in emotional coping mechanisms between the sexes is intriguing experts, and the theories are plentiful.
Indeed, a study in the Journal of Oncology last year reported that spouses were lonelier than their ill partners and had lower levels of wellbeing and marital satisfaction. There is an immediate shift in a relationship when an illness is diagnosed. You stop being partners as you knew it and move to being patient and carer. That can lead to feelings of fear, not just about the disease, but about the relationship and the well partner’s ability to cope. Feelings of anger and resentment about life and the situation can quickly arise.
A few researchers have suggested that men are more likely to walk out on a wife whose condition is newly diagnosed because the illness is more than they bargained for when they married.
There are suggestions, too, that traditional roles shift more significantly when a woman becomes ill. Men may still be working full time, but may have to cope with additional tasks such as ferrying their wife to appointments, arranging childcare, cleaning and doing household duties.
What a women wants most of all when she is ill is not so much for her husband to take charge, but for him to listen to her feelings and to express his own more often. Men have an urge to ‘fix’ things. They want to get in there and make it better when what they really need to do is shut up and listen. Even if you have heard it one hundred times before, your wife needs you to respond by saying that whatever happens, you are there for her.
For some people, illness proves a positive factor in bringing a couple closer together. One recent study at the University of Quebec found that 42 per cent of couples thought that the experience of breast cancer had strengthened their partnership. Accepting the changes that take place is a process that takes time and effort. But many people do find their love grows stronger as a result.