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Media Watch Exclusive: When Women Get Sick, Men Often Leave

Young woman lying in bed under covers

Many seriously ill women are abandoned by men.

New York Times health blogger Tara Parker-Pope put a spotlight on a troubling trend in a recent article. When women get long-term illnesses, their mates are more likely to abandon them.

There is scientific data to support this. Women who were told they had a serious illness were seven times more likely to become separated or divorced than men, according to a report published in the journal Cancer.

Social workers are not surprised. Many have been helping families address this issue for years. Social Workers Speak! gathered some experts in our field to talk about this issue, how they handle it in their practices, and what women can do to overcome the pain of abandonment.

The experts are Melanie Barton, LCSW, Ed.D, who was in the process of a divorce before being treated for colon cancer; and Maribel Quiala, MSW, LCSW, an expert on Latino and immigrant families who often appears on local and national television to discuss mental health, alcohol abuse and other issues.

Q: The New York Times article cited a study that said husbands are seven times more likely to separate or divorce from wives who are seriously ill. What is it about our culture that makes men less likely to take the caretaker role than women?

Barton: Many men do not deal well with women being emotionally, financially, or physically dependent on them even though they may have unconsciously fostered it. They want it, encourage it, but then resent it. The husband may fear the wife will outgrow her need to depend on him.  He may then get angry when the wife tries to assert her independence believing it means the husband is no longer needed and that she will find someone else to replace him. I often see men starting affairs when their wives get cancer.  Men divert all that painful emotion into something to distract them that feels good.

Quiala: Men become fearful and are at times unable to handle the unknown. Women are better caregivers because many times they have to be more nurturing, loving and caring. Few people have a plan for dealing with diseases and men are less organized for such occurrences. Many times cancer patients withdraw from those around them, even those that love them. If the relationship is shaky the (healthy) partner will also create greater resistance and find this is their exit out of a “dysfunctional relationship.”

What can we do to reverse this troubling trend?

Quiala: We live in an emotionally bankrupt society and everyone is disposable. We should try to humanize our society more, increasing our compassion for others and placing true value in what is really vital (which is each other) and not material things. If we can achieve these first steps we might begin to shift the paradigm of our emotionally bankrupt society.

Barton: In our culture we do not normally allow males to express their emotions unless it is lust, anger, or some other negative feature.  To combat this programming we need to instruct both our male and female children that it is healthy to discuss feelings without needing to violently display them.  We need to give children an opportunity to see illness not as a weakness, but a fact of life.  We need to teach boys and girls how to be self-sufficient learning to do things like cooking, cleaning, ironing, sewing on a button, and balancing a checkbook. As married people we need to talk about how we will handle situations when one of the couple gets ill.

Q: Are you dealing with this issue in your personal life or practice? How are you helping clients deal with this issue?

Barton: Yes, seven weeks after I separated from my spouse of 39 years I was diagnosed with colon cancer.  Prior to going on medical disability, I was helping clients deal with the issue in relation to my treating them while going through a divorce.  I let them know I have the tools to make a marriage work and the tools are valid, but you have to have people who are willing to use them.  Sometimes the tools let you know that ending something that is unhealthy for both parties is the most humane thing you can do.

Quiala: In therapy I empower clients, helping them gain control or regain control and assisting them in finding the internal courage to move forward and fight. Everyone is courageous. However, they lose sight of that when they are diagnosed with disease. I assist them with relaxation techniques, controlling what they can in their lives such as health care, increasing their ability to allow others to help them, and removing the guilt of feeling like they are a burden. Placing oneself first is foremost in order to heal. I also help them in finding their higher power, whether through religion or spiritual practice.

Q: Is it difficult for women to deal with serious illnesses such as cancer and lupus and build a new life after separation and divorce? What advice can you give them?

Quiala: Yes, after a traumatic disease and journey to heal having to rebuild a life is difficult but not impossible. Patients need to talk about and (resolve issues) with the healthy spouse in a mutually respectful and understanding manner. Thoughout the journey many times women come to realize that they are able to make remarkable transitions and transformation for the better. One patient told me “I realized that although I would love to heal the cancer permanently from my body, also wanted to heal the many insecurities I had in my marriage that had caused me to live such a sheltered, dysfunctional relationship.”


Q: Is this issue a matter of life and death? In other words, is there evidence that seriously ill patients do better physically when they are in a loving environment?

Quiala: Many of the techniques not widely evaluated are at times not recognized as potentially powerful therapeutic interventions. Simply keeping company with a patient who is in distress can many times be a very powerful intervention. Gently touching, massaging the patient’s hands and feet and anointing their skin with oils can be a very soothing intervention.

Barton: According to Steven Muse in a Yale University School of Medicine study of people undergoing coronary angiography, atherosclerosis (a waxy buildup in blood vessels) significantly decreased  for persons who felt solved and supported when compared to those who did not, even after other risk factors had been controlled, including age and sex. Most interestingly of all, researchers discovered that sharing feelings by way of writing in a journal even when no other person was actually present had important physical benefits.

For more information on how social workers guide families that need mental and health care, visit the National Association of Social Workers Web site on Health and “Help Starts Here” Web site on Health and Wellness.

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  1. Am a Social Worker in Kenya. While working at the Kariobangi slums I found that majority of women irrespective of their ethnic communities were abandoned by their husbands when they fell ill. These were mainly women infected by HIV/AIDs. Men are socialised to do masculine chores usually outdoor related and so cannot handle caregiving responsibilities. Paul Gol BA (SW),HDip Couns.

  2. No doubt about it. women are the stronger sex. Pretty sad commentary that men LEAVE when women get sick. Pretty sad commentary!

  3. This is a sad commentary of the times we live in. There seems to be a dehumanization going on, a greater focus on commodities than fellow human beings and increasing submergence into a virtual world. These are frightening trends.
    Men leaving their wives when they become sick seems grotesque. At the point of greatest need, letting down a partner betrays her trust, and is a violation of words of commitment that a man makes to a woman on their wedding day; their marriage vows.

    E. A. Wahrburg, MSW, LCSW (NC, NY)

  4. I have lived with chronic pain since the late 90’s in addition with Hypothyroidism and Diabetes two. I have always (and still do) have a great sense of joy in life. I have been married for 30 yrs and a 21 yr old son, Garrett who is the greatest well rounded person anyone would ever want to know. He has been a shift manager at Starbucks since his senior yr in High School (his 1st job), and continuing his education at a good local Jr. College with plans to transfer to a U.C. My Husband, Gary is manager at Intel. We moved up to Shingle Springs in 1999, shortly after my second surgery due to Gary ‘z job. I was born and lived in the Bay area were we had moved my entire life. Since my fusion in my back just prior to moving I was left with pain that I can not even put into words. The pain is constant and the severity constantly changing. Currently I have gone back to my original surgeon that is 4 to 5 hrs away, round trip. My son has driven me and we take our little Yorkie Poo, Monte (dog) and make a full day trip out of it. I just wanted to give you some back ground. Before I became ill, I worked in San Francisco as an Account Executive managing very large commercial insurance accounts. The company I worked for was the third largest in the world. I loved my job and could never imagine not working. I always thought my husband, Gary, was very faithful, but I know now that is what I wanted to believe because it made life a little easier with my painful condition. The last time we actually made love was in June 1999 just before moving in July 1999. Since then he sleeps every night in the quest room with no loving talking or touching what so ever! I just wanted to start throwing this out there to anybody that I can speak with. Living so far away from all our relatives and friends, I have no one to talk too. If there is someone that I can speak with or lead me to a direction that may help, please contact me.

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