Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sad fact, but true...

 Very sad fact. They say women are the "weaker" sex, yet if a woman is seriously ill, in a study of 500 patients, 105 men ended the marriage because they couldn't handle it. And only 15 women left their ill husbands. If you are wondering what happened to your marriage, read on..
October 15, 2009

Until her sickness do us part: why men leave ill partners

Men are seven times more likely than women to leave a seriously ill partner, a study has found. So why are males less able to cope?

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.

In a book published this year, Elizabeth Edwards, whose husband John was an American presidential candidate in 2004 and 2008, relives the pain and sense of betrayal she felt when he was forced by a tabloid newspaper to admit that, while she was being treated for breast cancer, he had been unfaithful. Last summer, he confessed that he had lied repeatedly during his 2008 presidential campaign about his relationship with videographer Rielle Hunter. Edwards’ betrayal of his wife at her most vulnerable moment, compounded by rumours that he is the father of Hunter’s child, left him condemned by many to the moral (and political) scrapheap.

What causes this apparent chasm in emotional coping mechanisms between the sexes is intriguing experts, and the theories are plentiful. There is, of course, the straightforward, if unappealing, interpretation that husbands are programmed to bail out on sick wives while women are socially or genetically predisposed to stand by their man. But the reasons for this kind of behaviour are complex. Sometimes, the well partner feels more distress and despair than the sick one, says Paula Hall, a counsellor for Relate, who has worked with many couples affected by cancer.

Indeed, a study in the Journal of Oncology last year reported that spouses were lonelier than their ill partners and had lower levels of wellbeing and marital satisfaction. “There is an immediate shift in a relationship when an illness is diagnosed,” she says. “You stop being partners as you knew it and move to being patient and carer. That can lead to feelings of fear, not just about the disease, but about the relationship and the well partner’s ability to cope. Feelings of anger and resentment about life and the situation can quickly arise.”

A few researchers have suggested that men are more likely to walk out on a wife whose condition is newly diagnosed because the illness is more than they bargained for when they married. Depression, anxiety and medication can take their toll on the person who is being treated to the extent that socialising and keeping up friendships become difficult. “That can be a terrific strain on any relationship,” says Tara Beaumont, a clinical nurse specialist for the charity Breast Cancer Care. “The person who is well may find themselves asking why their life has changed so drastically and yearning for what they had before.”

Sickness can also interfere with or eliminate sex and intimacy from a relationship. “That is something many men struggle to accept when their partners are ill,” says Hall. “But there is so much that can be done to help the physical side of a relationship to stay strong. Sex may not be on the cards for a while, but affection shouldn’t be neglected. You need to find new ways to be a couple in every sense of the word.”

Some men blame a fear of being alone for their infidelity. Alison O’Flagan, 48, from Birmingham, discovered her partner was being unfaithful six months after she was told she had breast cancer. “He had withdrawn all affection and I felt increasingly isolated,” she says.

“His behaviour was more difficult to cope with than my illness. In the end I became suspicious and checked his phone and e-mails and found he was seeing two other women. I confronted him and he said he wasn’t going to break off either of the relationships because if something happened to me he didn’t want to be alone. We split up and the irony is that he is the one who is on his own, not me. I have a huge circle of family and friends who have helped me through everything.”

There are suggestions, too, that traditional roles shift more significantly when a woman becomes ill. Mark Litwin, a professor of urology at the University of California’s Jonsson Cancer Centre, found that for men with prostate cancer, having a partner, regardless of whether the relationship was good beforehand, improved their survival and quality of life. But Professor Laurel Northouse, of the University of Michigan Cancer Centre, who studies the needs of families with cancer, has found that when women get cancer the strength of a relationship probably matters more because of challenges to conventional caretaking and gender roles. Both partners may have to adapt when a woman gets cancer, Northouse says. Men may still be working full time, but may have to cope with additional tasks such as ferrying their wife to appointments, arranging childcare, cleaning and doing household duties. “It can mean even the most devoted husbands become exhausted,” Northouse says.

What a women wants most of all when she is ill is not so much for her husband to take charge, but for him to listen to her feelings and to express his own more often. Marc Silver, who wrote a survival guide for men, Breast Cancer Husband, after his wife’s condition was diagnosed, says many men are uncomfortable listeners. “Men have an urge to ‘fix’ things. They want to get in there and make it better when what they really need to do is shut up and listen,” Silver says. “Even if you have heard it one hundred times before, your wife needs you to respond by saying that whatever happens, you are there for her.”

Of course, not all relationships fail to weather the storm of something like cancer. Professor Jill Taylor Brown, a researcher at the University of Manitoba in Canada, examined data on marital dissatisfaction among a group of women who had breast cancer and another who did not. Illness appeared to have little influence as 10 per cent of women in each of the groups claimed to be unhappy in their marriages. For some people, illness proves a positive factor in bringing a couple closer together. One recent study at the University of Quebec found that 42 per cent of couples thought that the experience of breast cancer had strengthened their partnership. “Accepting the changes that take place is a process that takes time and effort,” says Paula Hall. “But many people do find their love grows stronger as a result.”

Even if divorce does follow a woman’s diagnosis of serious illness, it is not always because her partner has walked out. In studies of women with breast cancer, Northouse found that only 3 to 4 per cent of marriages ended in divorce within the first 12 months and that, in some cases, it was the wife who decided she no longer wanted to invest emotionally in a man she did not love. “To outsiders it might look as if the husband is leaving her,” Northouse says. “But she may be saying ‘That’s it. I’ve had enough’.” Cancer brings a new perspective to life that jolts some women into realising their partner is not the man they thought he was.

Karen Tyler, 42, says her diagnosis of bowel cancer helped to sharpen her focus about her eight-year marriage, which recently ended in divorce. During her debilitating treatment, she went to relationship therapy with her husband. “We didn’t communicate well before I was ill and that didn’t improve during or after my treatment,” she says. “I was prepared to try to improve matters until I just woke up one day and realised I was fighting for my life alone, and that being part of this couple wasn’t helping me at all. I could devote more effort to the battle without him. Divorce was easy once I accepted that.”

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