In health and in sickness

I’m not really a fan of country music but I’ve been rather taken with Martina McBride’s new hit single, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It.”

The lyrics describe a relationship that endures through a cancer diagnosis with the promise that “when you’re weak, I’ll be strong; when you let go, I’ll hold on.”

Would that every couple could weather a health crisis with this much strength. For Diane Mapes, being diagnosed with breast cancer was bad enough. “But getting dumped by the guy you’re seeing right afterwards is sort of like finding a piece of spoiled lettuce on your crap sandwich,” Mapes wrote this week at

His parting shot to her: “It’s not cancer, it’s you.”

And nope, she’s not the only one to experience the cancer kiss-off. Mapes shares the story of Cindy Wine, a former radio show host, who came home from her first radiation therapy session to find the house empty of her husband and all his belongings. He sent her an email that night, telling her he just couldn’t deal with the stress of her illness.

Is sickness too much for some relationships to handle? Surprisingly, only a handful of studies have ever examined the likelihood of couples breaking up after one of them is diagnosed with a major illness. Most of them suggest that divorce is no more frequent among cancer patients than among the general population.

But one of the more intriguing studies, published in the Cancer journal in 2009, found that women with cancer or multiple sclerosis were more than six times as likely to be abandoned by their partner than when the man was the patient. Only 3 percent of the male patients in the study experienced divorce or separation, but 23 percent of the women did. Overall, 88 percent of the separations and divorces analyzed in the study took place when it was the woman who was the patient.

The argument that men bail out in the face of illness recently gained another jolt of ammunition from TV evangelist Pat Robertson, who last month suggested to a man whose wife was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease that he “divorce her and start all over again.”

What’s the deal, guys?

Mapes spoke to Dr. Marc Chamberlain of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, who was one of the authors of the study, and received this answer from him: “Men may be very well equipped to be primary providers but not so well equipped to be primary caregivers. I think men are challenged in caring for someone who has disease and treatment-related symptoms – managing the stress, managing the logistics.”

Another finding from the study: The length of the relationship also seemed to matter. Couples who had been together longer were more likely to stay together through a serious illness.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that the couples in the study who split up already had a rocky relationship, and the diagnosis of cancer or MS simply hastened the inevitable. It’s not clear whether this is the case because the study wasn’t designed to answer this question. Nor did the researchers attempt to determine which of the partners initiated the breakup.

But for some perspective on the whole issue, consider this: The vast majority of the couples in the study – 455 out of 515 – did manage to stay together. Many of them might actually have emerged with an even stronger relationship than before.

For better or worse, serious illness is a game-changer. This is difficult stuff, after all. Whether out of fear, guilt, confused priorities or lack of commitment, some people in a relationship simply are not up to the challenge. Does that necessarily make them bad, or does it just make them human?

3 thoughts on “In health and in sickness

  1. That’s certainly one way to look at it. But I think part of it is the fact that many men aren’t really socialized to be caregivers. They don’t have the skills or the comfort level, and maybe they don’t commit to the caregiver role as readily as many women do. Nature or nurture – could be both.

    I’ve seen similar findings in studies involving alcoholism, with men being more likely to leave a wife who has alcoholism than vice versa. Maybe men are just more quick to cut their losses, so to speak, and move on when something in the relationship isn’t working for them.

    Since most couples do stay together after a dx of cancer, it would be interesting to know what sets apart the ones who don’t. Given that a certain percentage of marriages will inevitably end in separation or divorce regardless of health status, maybe we’re just seeing the law of averages come into play.

  2. Wow Katherine, I didn’t get that generalization at all. To me the point of story was about wiring differences. And I think the point about long marriages makes sense. After all, as you get older the man in your world is also getting older and perhaps the notion of immortality fades a bit. And remember, MOST marriages will make it through. What is it the kids say? Take a chill pill….

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