One would think wedding vows are unambiguous. Straightforward. No subtext, no exceptions. Love is love.
“Not so,” say some men. “If you get really sick or disabled, I’m outta here.”
A study published in the journal Cancer reported that, of the 515 married patients with serious cancer or multiple sclerosis followed over 5 years, the divorce rate was about the same as among the general population, 11.6%. The difference was that women were 6 times more likely to be the ones being left. Women tend to stay when there’s a chronic condition; men tend to leave. There are lots of theories about why this happens; one that’s floated is that it isn’t in a man to be a caregiver — it isn’t natural. There are some assumptions here I don’t know if I buy:
1. Men leave because they don’t know how to be caregivers.
So ask. Educate yourself. Get outside yourself. We’re as helpless as we choose to be. There are lots of things we get challenged to figure out. I just talked with a client who expressed deep pride in her ability to move her computer and printer to another place in the house without waiting for her spouse (who worked 100 miles away) to reattach all the wires. She didn’t know how, but she figured it out. I think about the things I don’t even attempt because David’s The Man and those things are “his job”. Shame on me if those are things I could do but give away instead.
2. Men and women have different roles.
In a traditional society, that’s fine. But in today’s crazy world, the password is “get ‘er done.” It doesn’t matter who cooks, who makes the most money, who puts the laundry away, who picks up the kids from daycare, and who bathes them at night. The way to survive craziness is to be adaptable. The reality isn’t the same reality as it was 50 years ago: some women are breadwinners while their men are househusbands; more women are in the workforce now as two income families are the norm and not the exception.
3. Men are uncomfortable with caregiving.
Yeah, so. It’s true that men aren’t as socially-connected as women. They don’t turn to others where they can get emotional relief from the rigors of caring for a sick spouse. They don’t seek help from friends and family with all that overwhelms them: the kids, the cooking, the cleaning, the family finances, the doctor visits, assisting their partner, the worry and uncertainty besides earning the money to make it all happen. I empathize, I really do. Uh, so because a man’s uncomfortable asking for help (or directions) it’s okay not to? When did that become a rule? Being on the other end, watching your partner be overwhelmed and being unable to help…that’s a bummer, too. When David’s doing much more than his part, my heart breaks (‘course when he doesn’t meet my expectations about that, my heart breaks for a different reason.) Sticking with the before-illness-life-plan fits about as well as my size 8’s do now.
4. Men can’t learn.
The biggest implication is that men are men and that’s that. Not in them to be caregivers, so don’t expect help ’cause it’s like asking a possum to herd sheep. Won’t happen. I think that the men who leave women who become sick need some serious counseling to unwrap their reasons for running. And that goes for the women, too, if for no other reason than to avoid making more poor life choices. That some men leave can be a reflection of the relationship’s health in the first place; there are grocery bags that fall apart the more stuff you put in them.
Most of the men who leave weren’t partner material in the first place — Right On! The saddest part is that women who are left behind suffer greater depression and experience more profound effects on their illness. They spend more time in the hospital and less time practicing self-care in general.
Most men do stay. If you want a demonstration of what commitment in a relationship looks like, here it is. Those of us whose relationships succeed consider visible or invisible disabilities/chronic illness as another part of their lives together.
It’s all work. It’s not easy. It’s being in love.