All sorts of men did it, rich ones, poor ones, charming ones, awkward ones, hip and cool ones, regular guys. Even those I think of as professionally virtuous, like ministers and doctors. It happened so often the nurse said she never felt surprised.
I still find this hard to believe, but pastors have told me the same thing, and I’ve heard sad stories from people I know. A couple nurses, both Christians not prone to a dark view of human nature, told me the same thing. The man who once said he would love his wife in sickness and in health, till death do them part, suddenly finds her sickness too much to deal with.
Why? Sex and culture has a lot to do with it, but modern Christianity has too.
It’s called “partner abandonment.” A study in the journal Cancer found that the divorce rate for couples when one of them has cancer or MS is a little over 11 percent, about the same as everyone else’s. But the percentage for women is over 20 percent and for men under 3 percent. Almost 90 percent of the abandoned spouses are wives.
The study did find one encouraging thing. The longer a couple had been married, the less likely they were to break up. This was as true for husbands as for wives.
The abandoned partner suffered from being left, as you might guess. And not just from the pain of being left. The researchers found that these patients “used more antidepressants, participated less in clinical trials, had more frequent hospitalizations, were less likely to complete radiation therapy and more likely not to die at home.” The abandoned spouse doesn’t survive as long as the one whose spouse stays.
Patients themselves explained this effect as the result of “logistic and financial difficulties in accessing health care, trouble managing disease-related and treatment-related symptoms at home, and increased stress.” The researchers thought they might also make “less insightful” medical decisions. Having someone on your side and as committed to your healing as you are helps a lot when you’re very sick. That person gives what the study calls “logistical” support, like getting you to your treatment, takes care of you at home and takes care of the home itself, and looks at your care more objectively than you will, and may well be more aggressive than you will be in getting you the best care.
He makes your hard life a little easier. You’ll miss him if he walks out the door.
Why would men do this, besides the fact they’re sinners? Why do women do it less, despite the fact they’re sinners? The culture affects how we express our sinfulness and so it is here.
In individual cases, we don’t know. Some men just can’t face the pain, because life has hurt them too much. Others can’t be bothered to face it. Some have taken their wife for granted and now see they don’t care about her as much as they thought. Others want out anyway. It’s complicated.
The ease of divorce today makes leaving a sick wife easier, legally and otherwise. It doesn’t stigmatize the ex-husband as much as it would have done in the past. But that only means the separation is now more public. In the time before easier divorce, many husbands separated in other ways while staying married. Moving away emotionally. Not being there to get things done. This seems to be something men do and they (we) probably haven’t gotten much worse in the last few decades.
The study itself suggests that men can’t switch to care-giving as fast as women, though without explaining why. Women do this in a way men don’t and thus they “become willing sooner in the marriage to commit to the burdens of having a sick spouse.” Men take longer to get to that point. That reflects a cultural expectation that works to the wife’s disadvantage.
As one writer put it, “women are socialized as caretakers … and men generally see it as women’s duty. Women are assumed to be responsible for caring for children, their aging parents, and definitely their husband at all times.” Men aren’t held to the same standard. The husband can get away with divorce, but “any woman would be seen as a horrible person abandoning family in their hour of need if they did such a thing.”
And Christianity Too
The fault is partly with us as well. Modern Christianity in its cheerier forms, combined with our own naïveté, doesn’t prepare couples well for the possibility — the probability — that one spouse will get seriously ill when the other’s still healthy. Modern Christianity is almost always cheery. Good marriage counseling tries to prepare the hopeful young couple for loss, but I think that message tends to get lost in all the talk of how wonderful marriage is and all the lovely visions of the future the couple is encouraged to dream.
I write after almost forty years of marriage. When we got married, we didn’t really understand that life has a trajectory. We didn’t really understand that life has a downslope, and that while there are blessings on the downslope unavailable to those on the upslope, that life comes with losses that are just losses. Almost everyone we knew was just as naive, even the older and more realistic. In theory, we understood it. It’s one of those truths one can accept without understanding it, like knowing the formula for the theory of relativity without having a clue what it means. In practice, not really.
When the priest says “For better or worse?” we said “Yeah!” without knowing how worse, worse can get. It’s all part of the romance of getting married, the wild throw of the dice, the great gamble, the defiance of caution and calculation, the commitment to go down with the ship whenever it goes down. And rightly so. But.
It’s easy to pledge to do that when it’s forty or fifty or sixty years in the future. But when men find they have to do what they pledged to do, especially if they have to do it sooner than they ever expected, that’s hard. I think men may be more romantic at first, and then less able to handle the loss of romance later. It’s one thing to picture oneself going down with the ship when the ship sails on so serenely. It’s another years later to be on the sinking ship with a lifeboat to hand.
Some men bail. But still, most stay. And almost every husband stays when they’ve been married for twenty-five or thirty years or more. We learn to be faithful — and to break with our culture’s expectations — by being faithful. That’s something important to remember, especially when you’re a romantic young man. If you want to be there for your wife when she most needs you, prepare yourself by being there for her from the first day of your marriage.
David Mills is the Senior Editor (US) of The Catholic Herald. His previous article for Chapter House was A (Needed) Guide to Reading G. K. Chesterton. He is also the “Last Things” columnist for the New Oxford Review.
Photo credit: Bride kissing crucifix (pxhere).
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