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relationships: Why divorce is more common if the wife gets sick: The 'destabilizing' effect of illness

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Couples vow to stay together in sickness and in health, but in real life, things can turn out differently when one spouse gets ill — especially if the patient is a woman.

  Why divorce is more common if the wife gets sick: The 'destabilizing' effect of illness © Provided by TODAY

Baseball player Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals has been making headlines recently for announcing he would file for divorce from his wife of 22 years, Deidre. The announcement came a couple of days after she wrote on Instagram that she underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor doctors discovered in October.

Pujols seemed to reference the timing in a statement released by his agent.

“I realize this is not the most opportune time with Opening Day approaching and other family events that have recently taken place. These situations are never easy and isn’t something that just happened overnight. As a devout Christian, this is an outcome that I never wanted to see happen,” he noted.

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The couple appeared to be on good terms. In a follow-up Instagram post, his wife wrote she was excited to watch Pujols start the 2022 baseball season, and emphasized they talked and prayed together.

“I am really happy he gets one more year to play the game! Despite the most recent surge of media attention about our personal lives, I would never miss out on an opportunity to send love, and blessings to someone who I have spent a majority of my life with and will forever be connected,” she wrote.

Illness can intensify marital problems

No one knows what goes on inside a marriage except the couple in it. But in general, when one partner experiences a medical crisis, what happens next in the relationship can depend on what else is going on between the spouses, experts said.

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“Certainly, it brings some couples together. They recognize how they really feel about each other, the petty stuff drifts away. There’s a certain kind of intimacy in having to face something real serious,” Susan McDaniel, a family psychologist and psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester in New York, told TODAY.

“For couples where there’s already significant difficulties that haven’t been resolved, and if the illness hits at some of that, then it’s really hard.”

Many people who end up divorcing do so because the illness intensifies problems that were already in the marriage, she added.

Divorce risk higher when the wife is ill

But a marriage falling apart is far more common when the wife is the patient, researchers have found. 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, researchers at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance reported in the journal Cancer.

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They decided to do a study after noticing “divorce appeared to occur almost exclusively when the wife was the disease-afflicted partner.” The phenomenon was called “partner abandonment in patients with serious medical illness.”

The results were based on 515 patients at three medical centers who had a brain tumor, cancer or multiple sclerosis, and were married at the time of diagnosis. About half were women.

When the patients were followed for four to five years to see if their marital status changed, it turned out the woman was the affected spouse in almost 90% of separations, with the female gender found to be the strongest predictor of separation or divorce.

“Men may be very well equipped to be primary providers but not so well equipped to be primary caregivers,” Dr. Marc Chamberlain, the study co-author, told TODAY.

“I think men are challenged in caring for someone who has disease and treatment-related symptoms — managing the stress, managing the logistics.”

Illness impact on gender roles

Women often take on the role of the major caretaker in a marriage and when the person in that role gets seriously ill, it’s very disorienting for the couple, McDaniel said.

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“If suddenly her support is not there — in fact, she needs him to take care of her in that same way — it’s very destabilizing, and it depends on people’s flexibility,” she noted.

“These kids of crises really rock families and couples… you can work it through, but it helps to have support and guidance and somebody to say that the way they’re feeling makes sense.”

McDaniel helped develop the field of medical family therapy, which offers counseling to patients and families facing chronic and serious illness.

She advised couples who are dealing with one spouse’s serious illness to:

Pay attention to the strengths of your relationship: What are you really good at and how can you use those strengths in this crisis?

Be honest and try to improve your communication: It’s so important in this situation. Try to go together to the doctor’s appointments so that the caregiver can support the patient. The ill spouse is often so anxious that they can’t absorb all the information shared by doctors.

Allow friends, adult children and neighbors to support you and your relationship: Let people bring food, pick up groceries and help out so you don’t feel alone.

As for whether it’s wrong to divorce a sick spouse, McDaniel called each situation complicated and unique.

“I certainly would work hard to try to help it not happen,” she said. “Whatever the background is, that’s a heavy load to carry as the person who does the divorcing. You’ve got to live with that.”

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