When a couple gets married, the commitment they make is “‘till death do us part” – or, at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be. A study published in 2015, however, shows that “in sickness and in health” may not apply to everyone. They found that men are six times more likely to leave their wives after a terminal diagnosis than women are. (1)
Men More Likely To Leave Their Wives During Severe Illness
If you were to receive a devastating diagnosis – for example, cancer – who would you want around you supporting you? Likely your closest friends and family, and if you’re married, your spouse, right? After all, you made a commitment to love and support each other during all the peaks and valleys of life.
A study released by the American Sociological Association in 2015, however, found that not all spouses want to stick around through the journey that is a severe illness. They found that husbands, in particular, are six times more likely to leave their wives in these cases than women are to leave their husbands.
The researchers sampled 2,107 marriages from the Health and Retirement Study for their research. They examined the role of serious physical illness onset in the breakdown of marriages. They found that only wives coming down with severe or terminal illnesses are associated with an increased risk for divorce.
Not The Only Study
This is not the first study to find the same result. A 2009 study with the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah School of Medicine and Stanford University School of Medicine found that when a wife receives a cancer diagnosis the couple is six times more likely to get a divorce than if the husband does. The study notes that despite the strain that often a cancer diagnosis can put on a relationship, it seems to have a bigger impact when the female half is the affected person rather than the male. (2)
The results also showed that longer relationships seemed to be more solid, however, the older the woman was in this situation, the more likely her partner would leave her after diagnosis. The study wasn’t done randomly, either. The researchers looked into it because the doctors were noticing a trend in their clinics. Divorce was occurring almost exclusively when it was the wife with the diagnosis.
Quality of Life For Divorced Patients
Patients who were separated or divorced (3):
- Used more antidepressants
- Took part in less clinical trials
- Had more frequent hospitalizations
- Were less likely to complete radiation therapy
- More likely not to die at home
Why Do Men Leave Their Wives Over Illness?
A sociologist from the University of Alabama Mieke Thomeer says the general reason is that men and women interpret care differently. In men’s cases, they see their partner’s sickness as a problem to be solved. They can see the obvious tasks, but other “secondary” ones such as housework or emotional support go forgotten. In these cases, despite everything the wife is going through physically and emotionally, things like housework and even emotional support still land on her. She may try, but will often fall short. (4)
Thomeer says that men tend to downplay a woman’s symptoms and expect that she is still more or less independent. Whereas women will jump into caring for their partner’s needs, men expect that they will ask for help. If she hasn’t out-right asked, they think she doesn’t need it.
“Particularly with more mild conditions, the expectation is that the status quo will go on unless it gets so extreme that the wife really can’t do that work,” Thomeer explained.
Traditional Gender Roles Are To Blame
The researchers found that this isn’t necessarily to say that men are jerks. Rather, it points out the flaws in traditional gender roles. In many households, from the time they are little boys, men aren’t expected to do housework or be the emotional backbone of the family. This is seen as a mother or wife’s job, and typically, she obliges. When she becomes too ill to provide that, the man is left floundering. It is the same reason why widowed men typically have a lower quality of life than widowed women.
Often, people say “oh, women are just better at this stuff”. The reality is women are not better, they’re just used to doing it. A man can cook and clean just as well as a woman. He can provide emotional support, too. Now, it is important to note that hundreds of relationships aren’t breaking up because of terminal illnesses. The research simply shows that when they do, it is far more likely to be when the woman is sick than the man. To address this problem we need to address the issues with traditional gender roles and start working towards more equality in the home. The researchers also said men also need to be prepped and educated when their partner is ill at all what their role as primary caregiver needs to entail.
“Early identification and psychosocial intervention might reduce the frequency of divorce and separation, and in turn improve quality of life and quality of care.” (4)
- “In Sickness and in Health? Physical Illness as a Risk Factor for Marital Dissolution in Later Life.” PubMed. Amelia Karraker , Kenzie Latham. September 2015.
- “Gender disparity in the rate of partner abandonment in patients with serious medical illness.” PubMed. Michael J Glantz, et al. November 2009.
- “Men more likely than women to leave partner with cancer.” Reuters. November 11, 2009.
- “The men who leave their spouses when they have a life-threatening illness.” The Guardian. Poppy Noor. march 30, 2020.