Men Are Far More Likely to Abandon a Seriously Ill Spouse

By Eliza Strickland | November 12, 2009 2:01 pm

elderly-coupleIt started as an observation in a Seattle cancer ward, where oncologist Marc Chamberlain noticed that his male patients were often receiving steadfast support from their wives, while his female patients often didn’t have husbands hovering at their bedsides. Based on this anecdotal evidence, Chamberlain decided to investigate divorce rates among couples where one person had recently been diagnosed with a serious illness. His findings raise troubling questions about the loyalty of the male sex.

The study included diagnoses of both cancer and multiple sclerosis and found an overall divorce rate of nearly 12 percent, which is similar to that found in the normal population. But when the researchers looked at gender differences, they found the rate was nearly 21 percent when women were the patients compared with about 3 percent when men got the life-threatening diagnosis. The researchers suggest men are less able to commit, on the spot, to being caregivers to a sick partner, while women are better at assuming such home and family responsibilities [LiveScience]. However, the study did find that the divorce rate was lower in longer marriages.

Chamberlain notes that the study, which will be published in the journal Cancer, didn’t have any information about how happy the marriages were to begin with. “All these patients were couples when we met them, but we don’t know about pre-diagnosis marital conflicts that had been festering,” Dr. Chamberlain said. “But the striking part is with life threatening illness, how often women are abandoned compared to men. That does not speak very well of my gender” [The New York Times].

The researchers say that doctors may want to advise couples to seek family therapy after the woman receives a serious diagnoses, and note that the medical benefits of having a committed spouse are real and measurable. Researchers also looked at the quality of life among the patients who separated or divorced. They found these patients used more anti-depressants, took part less in clinical trials, had more frequent hospitalizations, were less likely to complete radiation therapy and more likely not to die at home [Reuters].

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Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Human Origins
  • Gil

    If we accept the stereotype that women are attracted to resources and that men are attracted to health and fertility, doesn’t this make a lot of sense?

    That may be a big ‘if’ for some people, but it is at least as useful as the presumption that men just aren’t good caretakers…

  • barbara

    After years in the medical field I have come to the absolute conclusion, there exists only two categories of male caregivers. 1) The husband whom goes to each and every appointment with his ill wife, or, 2)the husband that never shows up!

  • ErnestPayne

    Edwards, Gingrich, Guiliani, and McCain are proof of this attitude.

  • r00b

    Aren’t male, in general, less likely to take care of medical issues in general ?

  • mike

    — Edwards, Gingrich, Guiliani, and McCain are proof of this attitude.

    Well, Gingrich not so much. While he did discuss a divorce with his wife while she was still in recovery in the hospital, as I recall he had started seeking the divorce before his wife was diagnosed (his affair with his second-wife-to-be had definitely started before then). Instead of abandoning her while ill, he abandoned her while well and didn’t call it off just because she turned out to have cancer. So, he’s certainly proof of some other less-than-honorable attitudes, but not necessarily this one.

  • James

    What if, women typically the care givers now in a position of needing care pushes the man away. Granted this happens with men as well, but maybe men can’t see through the charade like women can.

  • Albert Bakker

    Alas, the selection criteria of healthy women for mating candidates aren’t necessarily always very progressive. And males remain eager to oblige until a certain point.

    As a fervent believer in male vs female stereotypical truths hiding unscathed behind mountains of political correct bovine excrement I find myself in the comfortable position to watch Gil #1’s big ‘if’ shrink to a vanishingly tiny iffy while the reciprocal measure of certainty grows accordingly.

  • Tom Sikes

    I witnessed this phenomenon myself during the time that my wife was undergoing treatment for cancer at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. It seemed to me that there were husbands who could not handle the role of emotional supporter while the doctors, nurses, and other staff took the traditional male role of problem solver. I will admit that as she neared death, I wondered whether or not I would ever marry again and what kind of woman I would marry. I found these thoughts to be disturbing and strange. Since then I have come to realize that was my way of separating from the reality before me.

  • Jon

    I think there is a lot going for this study, but I wonder how long the study followed couples after the patient went into remission. I have a suspicion that after seeing a husband though his disease and after he is healthy (but. quite changed and different, likely impotent) again, then, they would seek to make their exit. Being sick of playing mommy, nurse, and wife while likely realizing that they are now hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
    Also, without a spouse or very close family member(s) advocating for the patient it is little wonder that they would get into less clinical trials, and be less likely to complete treatment. Also if you live by yourself you really can’t be bed-ridden at home, that takes someone to bring you meals, take care of the wash, go to the pharmacy, ect, naturally leading to more time hospitalized.

  • Margaret


  • Lily

    I was completely bed-ridden with the chronic pain of fibromyalgia – I had to retire from my 25 year career – then after 1.5 years after diagnosis my husband left because, as he said, “being with a sick wife is just not how I want to spend my life” and he left me and we were divorced 1 year later. It seemed to not even bother him that I could not take care of myself or have anyone else who could help me. He went thru many quick relationships with women and is now with a woman who is much younger than me. However, when she gets chronically ill, will he leave her also. Of course he will leave her – men over 50 years old are unable to change those things about them that are deeply rooted – such as total lack of compassion.

  • Response

    I take a martial arts class with a group of mostly middle aged and mostly married men and I have no problems for the most part. I’m a woman in my late twenties and all the men have their awkward moments with me, but the only two who ever make me feel uncomfortable with their advances are the two men whose wives have cancer.

  • Matthew

    I pose a scenario: In a young marriage (<5 years), the woman becomes sick with MS. Within a year, it progresses to the point that sex is no longer an option. Worse, the MS gets into the brain (as often happens), and the woman's personality changes to something near "not the person I married". Worse yet, the emotional explosions that come from the brain damage result in emotional abuse on a weekly basis. I submit that no male enters into marriage with the expectation of being a monk, and enduring abuse. This is not a straw man. I live it, though with an older marriage. I happen to still be married (24 years now), but I have endured MS in my spouse for more than half of it…10 years of it being *really* bad. I will NOT judge a man (or woman) for deciding to leave, because I have only an inkling of what they go through.


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