I remember attending a funeral years ago with my dad that really impacted me. The deceased wasn’t anyone I knew personally but there was a picture of her on the program that to this day is ingrained in my mind. It was from her wedding day and she was absolutely glowing in her beautiful white gown and veil, her groom beaming as he carried her in his arms. The picture had been taken only a few years prior.
My dad told me that the man in the picture married her knowing she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As the months passed, cancer made her weak and the chemo made her sick. But he loved her and stayed by her side until the very end. This man showed a kind of devotion that I will never forget.
When Illness Ends A Marriage
As beautiful as this memory is, unfortunately, not all marriages last when serious illness strikes. Some spouses can’t take the pressure, stress, or pain and decide to separate themselves from the situation with divorce. Research reveals the difficult truth that when serious illness is thrown into the equation, men are more likely to leave their wives than wives are to leave their husbands.
For example, one study observed almost 3,000 straight married couples where either the husband or wife had a serious illness such as cancer, heart problems, lung disease, or stroke. The wife’s illness was linked to a higher risk for divorce while the husband’s illness more commonly resulted in widowhood, meaning women were more likely to uphold their vows of ‘through sickness and health’. (1)
Another study, which focused more specifically on young cancer survivors, found a similar result. While only 13% of male survivors became divorced or separated following their diagnosis, 21% of female survivors found themselves divorced or separated following diagnosis. (2)
What Does Gender Have To Do With It?
I’m not suggesting that when serious illness strikes all men will leave their spouse, and all women will stay with their spouse. The research actually proves that most couples stayed together. But research also shows that if a couple will separate due to illness, it is typically when the wife becomes ill. So let’s take a look at some potential causes of separation to narrow the gender gap.
The Stress of Caregiving
Studies show that husbands find caring for an ill spouse more stressful than wives. Whether it be due to societal norms, tradition, or some other cause, it seems the women are more comfortable bringing home chicken soup and slapping on band-aids. Men may feel a bit at a loss in this area of expertise, leading them to seek a divorce rather than rise to a new challenge. (1)
So what can you do? Even if you’ve never taken care of a single sick person in your life, there are lots of simple things you can do to help out your loved one. Ask a health professional what foods are best suited for your their condition and prepare a meal (or purchase to avoid cooking!), or pick up some balloons and flowers on your way to the hospital to brighten the room. If you’re really not sure where to begin, ask your spouse. Chances are they have an idea or two about what they need. Even something as simple as spending time with an ill person can contribute to their recovery.
The Option of Second Marriage
While many women will also remarry following a divorce, research shows that men are more likely to pursue this option and seek a younger, prettier wife. When an illness seems to take away a woman’s outward beauty, husbands may find themselves looking to another source to satisfy their desire for a physically beautiful companion. (1)
So what can you do? It’s hard to watch someone you love become ill and suffer in a way you’ve never seen before. But remember the reason you got married in the first place. Physical attraction is often part of it, but maybe it was also their sense of humor, kindness, or compassion. There is something specific to them that you just won’t find in anyone else. Make a list of these things, and share it with your significant other.
Seeking Outside Support
Women have a knack for connecting emotionally with others. Because of this, women are more likely to have a support system already in place when illness hits, allowing them to find strength in outside sources during such a difficult time. Men may struggle to find the kind of support they need and search instead for the exit.
So what can you do? Know that it’s more than okay to seek help. Call a friend, visit a family member, or find someone who went through a similar situation and seek guidance. You are not alone. There are people all around you who want to support and strengthen you during this difficult time.
It can be scary, stressful, and painful to hear that your loved one’s life is in danger. But the truth of the matter is, sticking together may help more than you know. One study showed that cancer patients felt their pain level was significantly lowered when they had a strong marriage to fall back on. Your spouse needs you now more than ever, and together, you can make it through. (3)