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Healthy Living

Does Being Sick Have to Mean Abandonment?

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 11/12/2009
Last Updated: 11/23/2009

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If you're a regular reader, you may know that my husband recently had hip replacement surgery.

I am now his caregiver. I am suddenly on the other end of things.

It's a role I'm not used to, save for when my children were little and needed me to care for them. And it's a role I'm not all that comfortable with, for whatever reason. Am I doing it right? Am I doing enough?

Someone recently told me that it's a good sign I'm working, since that must mean my husband is doing well. My answer? "Maybe it is a sign I'm ignoring him."

I guess I'm feeling a bit guilty and/or inadequate. I'm trying, I really am. But between my sick and aging dog who needs her twice-a-day meds and pretty constant supervision, working, preparing meals, food shopping, fielding loads of phone calls from well-wishers, doing the laundry, helping him dress... I'm finding it a bit challenging. Maybe it's that I'm trying to measure up to how wonderful he was to me when I had my medical issues, pulling it off as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Interesting how something popped up in my inbox the other day about this topic. And it's quite upsetting.

A study that examined the role gender plays found that a woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced soon after a diagnosis of cancer or multiple sclerosis than if a man in the relationship is the patient. Yup. Abandoned by her spouse for being sick.

Now, it's important (and comforting) to note that this generally applied to "life-altering medical illness," according to the studies' authors, not things like hip replacement. But still. It makes me angry. And frightened for women. (I remember when I had breast cancer, so many people enjoyed relaying stories to me of all the men they knew who left their wives after their diagnosis. As if it was the most natural thing in the world, running away from a sick spouse. Was I supposed to feel somehow grateful that mine stayed?)

Perhaps men are just not used to being able to handle the role of caretaker. Face it; most men haven't experienced what most women have: juggling numerous demanding roles within the relationship. Or maybe illness is just too frightening.

I apologize to those men (including my DH) who have lovingly cared for their spouses and managed to keep their marriages together despite challenging medical crises. That's a good thing for sure. The study found that longer marriages remained more stable, which is nice to know. But then again, this study also found that the older the woman was, the more likely her partnership would end in the face of illness. (I'll admit, that's kind of confusing to me - wouldn't it be more likely that people who have been married longest are also older?)

At any rate, I'm wondering about this caregiving thing. Why do you suppose men run? Why do women stay and care for their spouse? What types of experiences with caregiving and illness have you had?

P.S. If you have any tips for me on how to be a (better) caretaker, I'd love to hear them, too!

To read what boutron has to say about caregving, click .


I can't believe there's a study on this! I had heard of a few cases here and there, but didn't realize it was, like a trend. Sad.

Don't know why they run or how they have the nerve...it makes me think that today most of the women I know (including myself) are more of a man than most men we know!

That is an interesting study. I would say I'll bet that the men were uncomfortable being the caretaker and it changed how they felt about their spouses, and how they felt in the marriage. It's a shame.

I think the biggest thing about caretaking of a spouse is not making the other feel guilty. I also think it's important to find downtime for yourself. Wishing a speedy recovery to your DH!

Allow the aforementioned DH to report to all who are interested that Sheryl is the perfect caregiver - there when I need her, off doing her own things when I'm doing the same.

Having been Sheryl's caregiver on a number of occasions, my experience is that you want to do everything for your loved one, even if that translates into them not doing enough for themselves, to achieve maximum speed of recuperation. It's a delicate balance that is not easy to detect, and once detected, maintain.

Finally, Sheryl - quit using me as your excuse to not be writing that big article you owe to your editor by the end of the month!


Alan, I'm glad you weighed in here. I think it is so hard to balance the needs of so many people (your dog, yourself, your husband) and feel that you are doing it right... That study saddens me and I have no idea how to explain it except to say that women (and men) should choose their spouses CAREFULLY and talk about stuff like this before they get married. I could never abandon my husband (though I am not the most patient nurse) and I hope he would never abandon me (hmm, good idea for late night conversation...)

What an incredible and thoughtful post -- and I loved Alan's comment.

I had heard this already and find it terribly sad. What could be worse than to be sick and abandoned as well?

I hope you are carving out time to relax - get a massage perhaps? - and generally go easy on yourself during this period. That was what I learned during the seven months I home-cared my bedridden elderly mom.

Did Alan have rehabilitation? I just spoke to a doctor-cousin who is recovering from the same operation, and she told me how painful it still is but that she forces herself to walk anyway.

Thanks, everyone, for weighing in.

Alexandra, a massage sounds wonderfully indulgent. I feel like I do need one, really...maybe I will do it! And Alan is re-habbing at home, doing the exercises prescribed by a physical therapist who comes twice a week. He's already walking without his cane at times, and went down a flight of stairs today for the first time. Pretty good, I think.

Looks like we all agree on what a sad commentary this is. When you're sick is precisely when you need attention and love. How sad that some men just run...

When I was young and dating I once found myself not feeling well. My mother looked nervous and said, "you didn't tell *him* did you?" I looked at her confused and asked why she said that. She cautioned, "Never tell a man you're sick--he'll think you're not healthy. He'll leave." I thought she was nuts. Turns out she was a step ahead of the researchers above.

Oy. If my husband left me because I was sick I'd chase him as far as I could with a bat.. ;)

I read about this study and was both very surprised and not all that surprised. Perhaps some men get very stressed by such a sudden shift in the couple dynamic? I also notice that many women have a lot of experience with multitasking, and as you detail so well above, being in the caretaking/caregiving role requires multitasking! Kudos to your husband for taking good care of you when you had your medical issues and I hope he recovers completely soon.

A surgical oncologist (male) once remarked about this very thing to me. He was disgusted with how many husbands up and left their wives during treatment. Some of them did it because they didn't have it in them to be caregivers, but some of them did it just because of the lost breast tissue--which is SO PHENOMENALLY SAD. I'd like to think that the marriages that break up over a health issue were that that strong to begin with, but who knows for sure. I can say that caregiving is hard--especially for those of us (most of us) who are not naturally good at it. When my husband was laid up with a broken leg, I remember, at first, thinking that it would be cake. It just took a few weeks before I wanted to murder him--and every single person who asked me how he was doing. It's important to go easy on yourself and to take good care of yourself during this time. You need some time off from it. Don't feel guilty about that.

I'm glad the DH/patient is chiming in here. Like Nancy, I didn't realize that spouses leaving ill wives was actually a "trend." So sad. So Sheryl, make sure to take care of yourself as you're taking care of your spouse. I found just getting out, feeling some sunshine helps when attending an at-home patient. (That and old movies from the library.)

You raise really important issues here that I'm certain many relate to. It's so good you're talking about them. That said, I'm glad your husband is feeling well. Take care, both of you!

I remember hearing about this when I was a pre-teen and my mother was (wrongly, it turns out- they still don't know WHAT is wrong with her) diagnosed with MS. Dad is still around and my man has certainly been my caregiver through my stroke recovery (I'm 36, so it was a shocker) this year, but not all men are willing to sacrifice to the extent that women are.

Wow, what ever happened to 'for better or worse'? What a scary study.
But as we have reassurance from the patient himself that you are indeed an excellent care giver, just make sure you look after yourself. You won't be any good to him if you fall ill or get too discontented yourself.

That is a terribly sad study, but I'm glad you and you husband have such a strong bond that you both are giving each other what you need and also trying to take a little time for yourselves. So important!

When my father was sick last year, my mother and I both had very very hard times adjusting to caring for the man who had taken care of us for so many years. And now, my husband is caring for me and my daughter while I recuperate from my shoulder dislocation. I feel for those women who not only have to deal with a terrible and scary diagnosis, but with the realization that their partner isn't that at all.

so glad you're husband's feeling better!!!


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