Gender Divorce Gap After Illness Strikes
Study Shows Women With Cancer or MS More Likely Than Men to Become Separted or Divorced
Nov. 12, 2009 -- When faced with the serious illness of a spouse, men are
far more likely to walk away than women, a study shows.
Women in the study with cancer or multiple sclerosis were more than
six times as likely to become separated or divorced within an average of six
months of being diagnosed as were men with similar health issues.
The overall divorce and separation rate
among the study participants was similar to the population as a whole.
But when the wife was the patient, the divorce and separation rate was close
to 21%, compared to 3% when the husband was seriously ill.
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center neuro-oncologist Marc Chamberlain,
MD, says he and colleagues got the idea for the study after noticing that
divorces were far more common among their female brain cancer patients than their
“When we explored this, we found the same thing in patients with other
cancers and multiple sclerosis,” he tells WebMD. “In this study at least, the
men did not show the same level of commitment and emotional attachment to their
sick spouse, family, and home as women did.”
9 of 10 Breakups in Female Patients
The study included 515 patients with malignant brain tumors, other cancers, or
multiple sclerosis who were married at the time of their diagnosis. About half
the patients were women.
Within an average of six months of diagnosis (range one to 14 months) 60 of
the patients became divorced or separated.
Among the 214 patients with brain tumors, 78% of the divorces or separations
occurred among women.
Of the 108 patients with multiple sclerosis and 193 patients with other
cancers, 96% and 93% of breakups, respectively, occurred in women.
"The woman was the affected spouse in nearly 90% of separations that
occurred among our patient cohort,” the researchers write in the Nov. 15 issue
of the journal Cancer. “In fact, female sex was found to be the
strongest predictor of divorce or separation in each of the three patient
It was not clear if the marriages that ended were in trouble before the
diagnosis of illness or who initiated the breakups.
Marriage length was a strong
predictor or whether couples would stay married or separate after a diagnosis
of cancer or MS. The longer a couple had been married, the more likely that
they would stay married.
Medical Outcomes Worse in Divorced
Patients with brain tumors who separated or divorced were more likely to use
antidepressants and die in the
hospital and less likely to participate in clinical trials, complete radiation
treatments, and die at home than patients whose marriages survived.
Three-fourths of multiple sclerosis patients are women and 70% of patients
are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50.
Because MS strikes women more than men and young adults more than older
ones, psychologist Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, of the National Multiple Sclerosis
Society (NMSS), says women with the disease tend to be particularly vulnerable
when their marriages end.
“MS is often diagnosed in the mid-30s, and this is when many women have take
time off from work to raise a family,” he tells WebMD. “Plans to go back to
work are often interrupted by MS.”
With the aid of a federal grant, NMSS has initiated a group support program
to help MS patients and their spouses work through issues directly and
indirectly related to the disease.
“When you are dealing with a serious illness, relationship issues may be
ignored,” he says. “Not all marriages can or should be saved, but many that end
in divorce probably could be saved with the right kind of support.”