Illness in a Relationship

More than 10 percent of couples will end in divorce, following the diagnosis of a serious illness. The scientific term for this phenomenon is “partner abandonment,” and no two words could describe a more horrifying and painful experience for the partner on the leaving end.

When Illness Comes Between Love
One of the biggest trials a couple will ever face is when a serious illness befalls one of them. Many doctors who deal with this on a daily basis believe that such illnesses may be a significant factor in divorce, especially when the woman is sick. To offer some statistics to this claim, Marc Chamberlain, M.D. at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and Michael Glanz, M.D. at the Huntsman Cancer Institute (University of Utah School of Medicine), followed the lives of 515 patients from 2001 through 2006.

The research group was split evenly, with close to half of all ill patients representing the male partner in the relationship, and the other half the female. They were diagnosed with either a primary malignant brain tumor, tumor of the central nervous system or multiple sclerosis. At the end of the study, it was found that 11.6 percent of the couples had separated, which is actually not all that different from the national average. It is important to note that the longer a couple had been together, the better they were able to cope with the situation and stay together.

Men Fail as Nurturers
The rates of the study were then averaged by gender, showing that nearly 21 percent of the separations were initiated by the man during his partner’s illness, as opposed to only 2.9 percent of the women. This is in contrast to statistics of ‘healthy’ unhappy marriages, where the woman is typically the one to initiate contact with a divorce lawyer. According to the authors of this study, they believe that some men lack the biological (some may say social) ability to take on the role of a caregiver during these health-related crises.

The situation is then further compounded by the additional burden on the man to maintain the household and family. Most men perceive women to be the primary nurturer, so when the duty falls on them, they feel overwhelmed and ill-prepared to meet the task. Not all men are this way, however, and many roll up their sleeves and jump right into the task at hand. In truth, many of us don’t know how we will react, until we are put into the situation.

Survival Rates Among Separated Couples
While the stress of a separation is damaging enough to any individual, researchers have found that it can be particularly damaging to a loved one fighting for their life. Gwen Sprehn, Ph.D., of the Indiana School of Medicine, looked at cancer-survival rates over a 30-year span, organizing them as to whether the patient was married, single, widowed or separated.

What she discovered was that married patients today have as much as a 57.5 percent survival rate, as compared to newly separated patients, who had only a 36.8 percent chance of survival over a 10-year period. The author surmised that the difference in survival rates was proportional to the compromise in the immune system due to the additional stress of dealing with the loss of a loved one. A very similar situation is often found in illness-related, sexless marriages.

The Big Question: Should I Stay in the Relationship?
If you read through the thousands of letters of heartbroken couples dealing with similar situations, you can easily understand their dilemma. Should they stay together with their partner unhappily, in order to take care of and/or support them, or move on with their life? Take for instance, the husband with post-operative prostate cancer who’s lost the ability to have sex. Some women might choose to unhappily stand by him in a sexless marriage, craving a normal sexual relationship, yet not want to abandon him. Are they doing their partner a favor by such devotion, or are they doing themselves an injustice?

The answer to this question — if you are asking it now — you may have already waited too long to get help. The key to salvaging a marriage when a partner is ill is to get relationship advice from a trained counselor from the very beginning. While it may seem like the least of your problems, psychological intervention can catch early signs of relationship fatigue before it leads to external affairs or resentment.

Another consideration is to hire a part-time caregiver, especially in cases where the woman is ill. Keep in mind, this does not mean the partner doesn’t care. They may feel incapable and overwhelmed, and need time to get over with the shock of the situation before taking on a more nurturing roll. If money is a factor, perhaps family can offer assistance, minimizing the stress on the relationship. That way, each partner can concentrate on what matters most, which is helping each other cope with the illness.

Action Speaks Louder Than Words
Any illness will take its toll on a relationship. By taking as active a roll in keeping the relationship healthy, as you would a loved one, you are in effect giving them a 20 percent greater chance of survival, and there is no medicine in the world that can offer that much hope!

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