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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"...