In sickness and... Illness can strain marriage vows

Laura Linney is an amazing actress. I adore her in The Big C. In the first season, a malignant melanoma has riddled her body– but she doesn’t tell anyone! She figures she might as well enjoy life and not have anyone worry about her, including her estranged husband. She eventually does tell her spouse, who wholeheartedly commits to taking care of her when she decides to get treatment.

My question is, “Is he going to dump her like some men do when their wives become seriously ill?”

If your response is “What? You’re crazy,” then you don’t watch the news. John Edwards had an affair and fathered a child while his wife had breast cancer. Though Mr. Poor-Boo-Hoo said that he cheated on her during remission of her cancer, do we really believe him? I also heard Lance Armstrong didn’t know Sheryl Crow had breast cancer just before they broke up, but as Joan Rivers would quip, “Oh, grow up!”

In a 2009 study reported in the journal Cancer, married women with a serious illness are six times more likely to be divorced or separated than a man with a similar illness: 21 percent for women vs. 3 percent for men. The divorce/separation rate was 12 percent  in the control group of healthy couples. Could it be that more women stand by their (sick) man, while men would rather D-I-V-O-R-C-E an ailing spouse?

I have known many women who are miserable in their marriage but stick it out because they don’t want to abandon an infirm husband. On the other hand, I have known several men who want to leave or do leave an ill wife because they “didn’t sign up for this.” (What happened to “in sickness and in health”?)

According to an article on, most folks think (or at least hope) the sickness part will occur when they are elderly, not when they are 30 or 40. So a devastating disease can throw a huge monkey wrench into a marriage.

Some men have extramarital affairs because their sick wife isn’t sexually active anymore. Because an illness can cause a woman to look different (e.g. gain weight, lose hair, have damaged skin), the va-va-voom isn’t the same. John McCain returned from Vietnam and left his wife who became disabled, heavier, and shorter after a serious car accident while he was at war.

Men aren’t traditionally caregivers, which might explain the higher divorce/separation rates of ill women. Since hospital stays are shorter now, sick people are coming home with many nursing needs— a situation some men might not feel comfortable with. With an ailing wife unable to help around the house, the husband might become resentful. I know plenty of couples who have fallen into traditional roles, and some men don’t adjust to changes, such as making dinner, cleaning up, and doing laundry.

Some men may emotionally detach for fear of being abandoned should their sick wives not survive. Many men do not confide in anyone other than their wives, so when the wife is sick, it can be hard to tell her how he feels about her illness, about the stress of change, etc.

On a brighter note, in my experience, most couples become closer during a serious illness. The Chinese character for “crisis” is composed of two elements: danger and opportunity. An illness can bring a couple together with more love and trust.
Dr. Hook cracks a joke or two, but he's a respected physician with an interesting website, Email him with your questions.