Friday, September 18, 2009

I Guess Men Really Are Imbeciles...

DivorceImage by jcoterhals via Flickr

You see it portrayed in movies and on TV sitcoms all the time. Most men are jerks, insensitive clods who care only about themselves. It's always been my experience that women can be just as vile as men, but the results of a recent study seems to disprove that observation, at least in terms of how the two genders react when their life partners are struck with chronic illness.

Researchers from Washington University, in Seattle, found that "A man is seven times as likely to leave his wife when she becomes seriously ill as a woman is to abandon her husband". Sheesh, let's hear it for the boys...

The study looked at a number of different serious illnesses, including MS. In the 23 divorces studied that occurred when one member of the couple was diagnosed with MS, 22 involved the wife getting sick. Now, I know that MS strikes women in greater numbers than men, but certainly not in a 22:1 ratio. Similar numbers were found in couples dealing with the other serious illnesses looked at in the study as well.

Without a doubt, chronic illness puts tremendous stress on relationships. The stricken partner is suddenly faced with being put into a position of dependence, a position which many people are completely unaccustomed to, and emotionally ill-equipped to handle. On top of having to deal with a loss of independence, the sick person also has to deal with the shock and trauma of being sick. It's a double whammy.

The other member of the couple is suddenly burdened with the responsibilities of being the "caregiver", and sometimes I think that they have it harder than those of us who are ill. The caregiver may not have to deal with being physically ill themselves, but their lives have equally been thrown into turmoil. For both parties, the future once imagined, once dreamed of, has abruptly been snatched away. It's a raw deal, all around.

While women, I think, naturally tend to be more nurturing, most men have a well developed flight or fight response, something that's stuck with us since the days when people lived in caves. I've witnessed this phenomenon in action, when a close friend's longtime girlfriend developed a chronic illness. He fought hard along side her for quite some time , but gradually, over the course of a few years, the struggle simply became too much, he sunk into a deep depression, and finally ended the relationship. Given the circumstances, I couldn't condone his actions, but neither could I condemn him. I've wondered though, if the situation had been reversed, would his girlfriend have left him?

In my own marriage, my wife has served as a constant source of strength, hope, and inspiration, and has never let the gravity of the situation deflate her relentless optimism. I was diagnosed with progressive MS almost exactly one year after we were married, and I don't think anybody would have blamed her if she'd decided that this just wasn't what she signed up for. It's testament to the strength of her of character and the quality of her soul that she's stuck by me as the disease has relentlessly taken its toll.

The 6 1/2 years since my diagnosis have been a never-ending and often grueling series of doctor’s appointments, medical testing, and failed treatments, none of which has been pleasant or easy. Yet there is Karen, always by my side, somehow managing to keep me laughing at myself, at the world, and at the absurdity of the whole situation. Really, what could be more absurd than me, half crippled and zipping around in a wheelchair? Of course, there have been moments of despair, but together we have fought through them. Alone, I can't honestly say that I would have had the strength to persevere...

I'm sure many other women would've flown the coop, and certainly there are men who are slavishly committed to their sick wives. It just goes to show how important it is to choose the right person with whom to share your love.

In my years of belonging to various Internet MS communities, I've encountered countless people of both sexes who were abandoned by their spouses or lovers. Oftentimes, it seems the heartbreak of the lost relationship has caused more suffering than the disease itself. And yes, it does seem that most of those who have lost their partners are women.

So, I tip my hat to all the ladies out there who show us on a daily basis the real meaning of strength, through the power of example. And guys, I think we might learn a thing or two about loyalty and fortitude from those who in less enlightened times were called the "weaker sex"...

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  1. Gee. I hope I end up in the "big ol' girl" category on this one.

  2. When others say "Don't be such a girl" I ask "What's wrong with that?" You might get it some Steve!!!

    I think (from experience) Women are emotionally stronger and more nurturing then men. Men seem frustrated when they can't take care of and fix things. Nobody can fix this.DD, a teen" seems more aware and thinkibg than DH who tries so hard but gets frustrated by the never ending situation.

  3. I can see it in my husbands eyes at times, that desire to fix me that anonymous speaks of. Women may want you fixed, but we don't presume to know how to do it. We are happy to just be able to make your life more comfortable. My dh wants to fix me......and if he can't, well the frustration of it can become overwhelming.

    I wonder sometimes if that overwhelming frustration just gets to be too much. The inability to fix a situation? They feel like they've let you down? Not letting the men off the hook totally here, lol

    My daughters just want to help. Like she says, the teens get it better than the hubby sometimes.

    As you say, its a raw deal for everyone. Men, women, children.....heck, even the dog.

  4. When waiting for an ultrasound after a doctor didn't like the look of my mammogram, while waiting cold with fear, a song went thru my head about woman "I know you got a little life in you yet. I know you got a lot of strength left". Yeah.

    Kicker (1st anonymous)

  5. I don't know about other people, but when we made our vows "in sickness & in health" I was kind of thinking of colds & flu. That is, if I were thinking at all.

    Now we're in it big time. I'm the one with PPMS & my DH is an amazing caregiver, supporter, champion, etc. which is weird since he was pretty unhelpful when I had a cold or something little like that. I guess you just never know until it actually happens.

    I think, though, that it is lucky that I'm the one with the problem because I'm pretty sure he'd be a miserable & grouchy patient & I would be a miserable,grouchy & overwhelmed caregiver.

    I enjoy reading your blog - it always gives me something to think about.

  6. Hi Marc,
    I am fortunate to have the support, love, care and friendship of my soul mate and darling Richie.
    His blog is

  7. I have only been diagnosed very recently. I don't hide what's going on with me, especially at work. I don't want anyone to think the wobbles is drunkenness. When told, I see it in their eyes. They look sad, and unsure of what to say next.

    I live alone except for my two dogs. They don't care one bit if I wobble and if I fall down, they sit on me and lick my face.

    At some later date, I might feel different about being single, but right now? I prefer it this way. As long as I have my two mutts, I'm good.

    Great post againt his week. Thanks.

  8. In many years helping families where one partner has a debilitating illness, I find there are wonderful male and female partner-caregivers of all socioeconomic levels. There are also people who are incapable of caring for another person's personal and emotional issues. Both sexes can be incapable of empathy, understanding, communication or just don't have the stomach for it.Women can be colder, Men can be more nurturing and faithful or vice versa.I believe the study may be flawed.Men tend to underestimate what they do for others. Some women do as well.My husband helped care for his Mom and I knew he had deep compassion.We would do anything for each other.I would not always expect that from a man or a woman.My words of advice-you are a caregiver or not.If you are not, make arrangement to hire competent caring help and accept you cannot do personal care, man or woman.Wonderful writing, Marc.

  9. As far as which gender is more likely to stay when a spouse gets seriously ill, I think it just depends on how compassionate the individual is wired to be. Some people regardless of gender are by nature, more nurturing, caring and optimistic than others, your wife being such a good example.

    With respect to my own situation, we're married in name only, really. He seems to be of the mindset that if he starts showing sympathy or would offer me his help in some way, I would be less inclined to do for myself, or feel sorry for myself. If I make an attempt at letting him or others know what's going on with me, he makes sure to let me know that he has challenges just as urgent as mine. Mind you, he is a fully functioning, able-bodied person. Even before my diagnosis I noticed coldness about him. And as a result, I've grown cold toward him.

    If the situation were reversed, I would stay because I would want my son to continue to have his father in his life. I would also be setting a good example for my son by staying and caring. Even if I don't really feel like staying and caregiving, I would do it anyway, keep my feelings to myself and make the best of it. That's just me.

    I didn't mean to unload here but I started typing and couldn't stop. Oh, and Marc... I don't blame Karen for staying. If I were she, I'd stay with you too. I can imagine how gratifying it must be for her to be there for you, keeping you comfortable and happy. She strikes me as being a very honorable woman and wife. Lucky you. :)

  10. Again you nailed it Marc. I just met a young gal recently diagnosed with MS whose hubby left her 6 weeks later. Now that was fast!

    Your words, again, gave me something to think about...I will most certainly be more grateful for a husband who has stuck by my side all of these years...not always supportive or understanding and not much for a laugh, but he's still here!

  11. I've been fortunate to be married to my high school sweet heart for 18 years. I was diagnosed 16 yrs ago and neither of us could have imagined how much our lives would change.

    After 3 children and far too many ups and downs to count, my wife is still here. I know it has to be equally as difficult for her as it is for me. We have had many unfulfilled dreams because of MS. I often wish I would have have had for empathy for her as a caregiver years ago.

    Another great topic, thanks.

  12. I'm not in a relationship -- it's just me and my cat. However, between dealing with a brain tumor and now MS, I can say there have been times where I had to comfort my male friends. They were quite distraught about not being able to "do" anything about my situation. It was very annoying at the time. On the other hand, my most reliable "support" friend is a male. He loves to "do" stuff to help and is my main chauffeur to appointments in the city. I think there's a "doing" theme here. But as others have noted, supportive nurturing folks most certainly come in all genders.

    Centennial, your comment made me sad. I think flying solo is possibly easier than flying partnered but unsupported.

  13. Wow, so many mindful and personal responses to this post, thank you all for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    Steve-it takes a big man to admit that we might not have it all over the fairer gender. Though, as others here have pointed out, it's better to judge on a person-to-person basis, rather than make gross generalities.

    Kicker-from what I know about you, I'd say you're an exceptionally strong person. Heck, I think dealing with this disease forces us to be strong, or else we'd just curl up into a ball and suck our thumbs, while we still can...

    anonymous-you make a great point, many men always try to find a way to "fix" a situation, to make it more to their liking. After all, if something is broken, there must be a way to fix it, right? Unfortunately, when dealing with disease, there is no quick fix, and this can be a source of tremendous frustration. And you're right, dogs get a raw deal out of MS, too...

    anonymous-glad you enjoy the blog. I think sometimes the universe gives us just what we need, or will need, without our being aware of it at the time. When I met my wife, I knew she was "different" from other women I've been involved with, and that this "different" somehow felt right. At the time, I had no way of knowing how "different" would have such a great impact on what the future held...

    Herrad-Richie's blog is fantastic. I knew I'd like it the minute I saw his Allen Ginsberg post. I'm now a follower...

    two dogs-I've often observed that dogs can be better company than people. Let's put it this way, I've met very few dogs I didn't like. Can't say the same thing about human beings, unfortunately...

    travelogue-thanks for your response. You're very right, compassion and caregiving ability is not the province of any one gender. I'm not sure the study was flawed, though. I do tend to believe that men would be quicker to abandon a difficult situation that had no ready resolution than women would. After all, there is a sizable percentage of men who leave their wives simply because their spouse has dared get older...

    Centennial-I'm sorry that you've found yourself in such a difficult situation. Sounds like you're taking a very pragmatic approach to things, though, and I'm sure that must serve you well. Seems to me that you're quite deserving of a truly compassionate partner, though. And thanks for the kind words about Karen. Despite what I might put on display here on this blog, believe me, there are times that I can be quite trying...

    Trish-"still here" is a good thing. It astounds me when I hear stories of how cold some people can be to those they supposedly love(d)...

    Rob-MS is quite a wrecking ball, isn't it? Sounds like you've got one hell of a wife, and there's no time like the present to tell her how much she is meant to you...

    Karen-I think you're right, men always like to be "doing" something. I know one of the most difficult lessons I've had to learn is to just "let it be". Sometimes more can be accomplished through inaction and by action. At least that's what my Taoist friends tell me...

  14. Marc, I shamefully admit that I secretly wondered how MS would affect my marriage when it got ugly. Ugly MS is not easy for the PWMS or their caregiver, but my husband is a stand-by-me kind of guy. The best there is. He's not just sticking around either. He's constantly finding ways that we can make the most of our lives together. I know that you are that lucky to have Karen and you understand. I don't feel guilty about having MS (ok, not usually) because I would be there for him 100% too.

    The Chinese symbol for crisis and opportunity are the same. This medical crisis has given us the opportunity to see our marriage for the wonderful thing it is. I'm so grateful to have him in my life. MS can leave now... the sooner the better.

  15. I have to speak up for the guys, and frankly for those of us with chronic illnesses.

    First of all, my husband has stood by me (if you'll forgive the expression), even though things are rough, being married to a person you thought was strong and self-sufficient who suddenly isn't anymore.

    But I also wonder about these divorces. The picture you paint is of men "abandoning" their spouses. Divorces are complex. Is it always like that? Or did the woman get fed up one way or the other and file for divorce herself?

    We aren't totally helpless, and I could see how a sudden change in social and physical status might make the disabled person wish for a divorce, as well.

  16. I have read that data, too, about men bailing and felt bad on so many levels. My husband has been gone a long time now, he died 17 years ago, and I honestly don't know how he would have dealt with me being so sick. He was 40 when he died, who knows what he would have been like at 57. More compassionate? Less? Whatever, it is moot.

    My kids are in utter denial and totally ignore my illness. Even the daughter who lives with me will watch me struggle to walk across the kitchen to make a cup of tea and never offer to help. It is very disheartening.

    I do have to say, I know a lot of very caring helpmates, but your Karen is one in a million. :)