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In Sickness and in Health?

I was fairly taken aback to read recently that a US doctor has just discovered that women with terminal illnesses are seven times – that’s seven – more likely to go through a divorce than men with the same illnesses.

Says the article:

“When Dr. Marc Chamberlain, a Seattle oncologist, was treating his brain cancer patients, he noticed an alarming pattern. His male patients were typically receiving much-needed support from their wives. But a number of his female patients were going it alone, ending up separated or divorced after receiving a brain tumor diagnosis.”

In Sickness & In Health?

After confirming with industry colleagues that they too had noticed the pattern, Dr. Chamberlain undertook a research study of 515 patients that had been diagnosed with a range of terminal illnesses. All were married at the time of diagnosis. It was found that around 3% of men with terminal illness would experience divorce. In comparison, 21% of the women went through divorce when diagnosed with the same illnesses.

Furthermore, of all demographic information compiled in regard to the subjects, Female gender was by far the biggest indicator of divorce than any other socio-economic indicator.

As yet, no conclusive evidence has been drawn as to why this might be.

A further twist in the findings revealed that if couples are happy before the diagnosis, it appears that men are more likely to abandon wives who become seriously ill. However, if couples are already troubled before a partner becomes ill, the finding suggests that women in unhappy marriages are less likely to proceed with a divorce if their husbands become ill.

“All these patients were couples when we met them, but we don’t know about pre-diagnosis marital conflicts that had been festering,” Dr. Chamberlain said. “But the striking part is with life-threatening illness, how often women are abandoned compared to men. That does not speak very well of my gender.”

So what is it causing this? A reflection on the differences between men and women – women in the role of nurturers are comfortable while men just run for the hills? Meanwhile, women already thinking of divorcing their partners will do a complete 180 if they become ill and make a point of taking care of their men. Unfortunately, they are extended no such courtesy in return and in fact even if there was no talk of divorce prior to the illness, they may well find themselves alone.

A quick glance at the genetic brain makeup of both men and women may hold the answer. Of the ten major differences between the sexes’ brains cited here in Masters of Healthcare, both reactions to stress and the structure of the emotional centre of the brain stand out as prime indicators as to why abandonment may happen:

“Men tend to have a ‘fight or flight’ response to stress situations while women seem to approach these situations with a ‘tend and befriend’ strategy. Psychologist Shelley E. Taylor coined the phrase ‘tend and befriend’ after recognizing that during times of stress women take care of themselves and their children (tending) and form strong group bonds (befriending).

The reason for these different reactions to stress is rooted in hormones. The hormone oxytocin is released during stress in everyone. However, estrogen tends to enhance oxytocin resulting in calming and nurturing feelings whereas testosterone, which men produce in high levels during stress, reduces the effects of oxytocin.

In regards to emotions, women typically have a larger deep limbic system than men, which allows them to be more in touch with their feelings and better able to express them, which promotes bonding with others. Because of this ability to connect, more women serve as caregivers for children.”

So, maybe it’s all just genetics? Wired into our DNA? Women are more comfortable with the role of caregiver while men quite literally want to run away with every fibre of their being?

What do you make of all this? I think we need to be a little thoughtful about it, rather than delving straight into man-bashing. I, for one, will be very interested to see any follow-up results from studies investigating why this happens.

Weigh in here with your thoughts…

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Author |

Writer, dating columnist, wife, coffee addict, foodie, fashionista... Melburnian through and through. Muser, dancer, blogger, tweeter. Likes to get her head on telly now and again. Sleeper, dreamer, a sucker for romance. And of course... a cheap date.


One comment for “In Sickness and in Health?”

  1. Posted by biomat | May 12, 2011, 8:13 pm

    Its one of my favorite post. Its also helpful topic for newbie. Thanks a lot for informative information.

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