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'In sickness and in health' has different odds for women than for men

November 10, 2009 |  1:16 pm

Ring Many people have assumed that men are less likely than women to stick by a seriously ill spouse. That assumption might not say much for men. Yet it appears to be true.

In a study of 515 people diagnosed with cancer or multiple sclerosis, researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle and elsewhere found an overall divorce or separation rate of 11.6%, about what one would expect in the general population. But women were six times more likely than men to face what the researchers called "partner abandonment." 

Among marriages in which women were the diagnosed partner, 20.8% ended in divorce or separation.

Among marriages in which men were the diagnosed partner, 2.9% ended in divorce or separation.

Each marriage, each patient and each spouse is different, so without further data, it's unsafe to make over-generalizations. But as the researchers point out: "Some studies have in fact suggested that men are less able to undertake a caregiving role and assume the burdens of home and family maintenance compared with women. Thus, a woman becomes willing sooner in the marriage to commit to the burdens of having a sick spouse."

Such a commitment matters. The researchers note that cancer patients who stayed married were less likely to use antidepressants and to be hospitalized -- and more likely to participate in clinical trials and to die at home.

In perhaps the most daunting element of their report, they say in their conclusion: "We believe that these findings apply generally to patients with life-altering medical illness."

The report was published in the Nov. 15 issue of the journal Cancer. Here's the abstract. And the news release.

And for a more personal look at the topic, here's a My Turn essay from author Marc Silver (it refers to an earlier study by one of the same researchers): Will a wife's breast cancer lead to husband's infidelity?

And a perhaps much-needed lighter look, also from Silver: Husbands: How to help a wife through cancer treatment

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: Longer marriages are more likely to weather the diagnosis and illness, researchers found. Credit: Los Angeles Times