Study: Men Leave Sick Wives
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Cancer was, says Lesley Forrester, far easier to deal with than her husband’s reaction to her diagnosis. “We had been together for ten years and I thought he was quite sensitive and caring, but he stunned me by becoming totally repelled by my body once I told him,” says the 41-year-old from Bedfordshire.
“It was as if he thought he’d catch something if he came near me. He couldn’t understand why I was so upset at either the illness or at his behaviour. He cooled so much towards me that our relationship became silent and lonely. Six months after I first found the lump he ran back into the arms of an ex-girlfriend and I have barely seen him since. He broke my heart.”
Abandonment would have been difficult at any time, Forrester says, but in her time of greatest need it dealt the harshest of blows. Yet was her husband’s behaviour as uncommon as might be supposed?
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.
In the research, Dr Marc Chamberlain, a neuro-oncologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, looked at 500 marriages where one of the partners had an illness such as multiple sclerosis or cancer. Of those, 105 ended because the wife was ill, but only 15 couples divorced when the husband was sick. Of the 23 divorces among multiple sclerosis patients, 22 occurred when it was the woman who had fallen ill, and only one where the man was the patient. And out of 23 divorces involving brain tumour sufferers, 18 of the patients were women. In 13 of the 14 failed marriages where other cancers had been diagnosed, women, too, were the patients.
What’s more, Chamberlain says, the findings “were not altogether unexpected”. For years, researchers probing the emotional impact of diseases such as cancer looked only at the effect it had on the patient. More recently, a growing realisation that a couple is affected emotionally by serious illness has led to a spate of investigations into each partner’s behaviour.
In 2001, Dr Michael Glantz, a neurooncologist at the University of Utah School of Medicine and a colleague of Chamberlain’s on the recent study, looked at the effects of brain cancer on 193 couples. He found that 13 husbands walked out on their wives after diagnosis but only one woman left her husband. “At that time I was disappointed. Stunned, really,” Glantz says. “Since then other studies have suggested that men are less able to commit to the burdens of having a sick spouse than women.” In another study, he found that 17 out of 183 married female brain cancer patients endured a divorce or separation within a year of their diagnosis.
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