When caregiving gives out

News from the journal Cancer is that serious illness is much more likely to lead to separation or divorce when the wife is the one who’s sick. In a study of more than 500 patients with a malignant primary brain tumor, a solid tumor with no nervous system involvement, or multiple sclerosis, researchers found that 21% of the couples with sick wives separated or divorced, compared with 3% of those with sick husbands. In fact, they report, “female sex was found to be the strongest predictor of divorce or separation in each of the 3 patient populations.”

Oddly, perhaps, the authors attribute the disparity to levels of caring ability, rather than willingness or emotional commitment. The Science Daily release summarizes:

Why men leave a sick spouse can be partly explained by their lack of ability, compared to women, to make more rapid commitments to being caregivers to a sick partner and women’s better ability to assume the burdens of maintaining a home and family, the study authors said.

In the study they provide references for this theory, but none of them appear to measure ability to provide care. These are slippery things to capture. I am reminded of a study I co-authored in which we found:

Children with disabilities are more likely to live with single parents, and especially their mothers, than are other children. Further, those who do not live with either biological parent are more likely to live in households headed by women than are other children. The results suggest that gendered living arrangements among children with disabilities are a neglected aspect of inequality in caring labor, which is an underpinning of gender inequality in general.

We also know from previous research that parents of children with disabilities are more likely to divorce than other parents, though whether that results from fathers’ or mothers’ initiation is not clear. It all suggests to me that the allocation of responsibility for unpaid care work is partly negotiated implicitly with the structure of families and living arrangements – who lives with whom and in what sort of relationship – not just in the division of tasks within the home.

Note: Tara Parker-Pope at NYT later posted on this, and you can see the 200-comment discussion here.

4 thoughts on “When caregiving gives out

  1. it’s interesting the bit about caring ability and emotional commitment. it hits on the crux of it “oh yeah, girls are better at that than boys”. Which I is the question “Why is that? Why do we think that? Why is it perpetuated? and Why doesn’t it pay more to be good at it?”

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    1. “Ability” as a concept combines skills learned earlier with suspected innate traits having to do with gender. In another study we found that single men are more likely to pay for female-typed services (meals out, cleaning, etc.) than single women. That was supposed to be sort of a when-no-one’s looking test – rather than the performance of gender that happens within marriage. But it doesn’t answer if it’s learned preferences, skills, or what. On pay, don’t get me started, but one reason it doesn’t pay to be good at it, for sure, is that so much of it is done for free (unpaid), which drives down the cash value (perceived value). [Thanks for commenting!]

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  2. Please be warned: this is a very long, thinking-out-loud type comment.

    This is just fantastic! I was 25 when I was misdiagnosed with a primary brain tumor (nearly 3 years into my first/current marriage), and as it turned out it wasn’t cancer – “just” a weird kind of MS. At the time, we were DINKS (dual-income, no kids), and due to a great disability insurance plan, we retained a lot of my income even after I had to leave work. I wonder if this is a finding unique to brain-related maladies, since they have potential to change your personality completely. Another factor that I didn’t see specifically addressed is the financial situation of the couple.

    I know that my spouse was daunted by the prospect of caregiving (and who wouldn’t be?), and I will easily admit that my illness has been a strain on our relationship, but I came out of it minimally-scathed, and can confidently say I’m at least 90% of my previous self. I’m going to have various medical issues for the rest of my life, but who doesn’t?

    Unfortunately, the explanation for these findings you give makes perfect sense to me

    (Though of course I’m convinced I’m *special* so my marriage will be ok).

    Spouse says that he often gets praised by people for staying with me, and is a little insulted by the implication that he’d drop me like a brain-damaged rock.

    One thing I will say is that when one member of a couple can’t be counted on to be in her right mind, it seriously messes with the partnership’s power dynamic. Since what I had was so rare, we had to figure out coping mechanisms on our own, and I think we’ve done a good job. The road back to 90% has been long and difficult (I’m now 27), but all indicators say that I’m nearly out of the woods, unless something even more bizarre happens.

    As for some evidence supporting my optimism, I’ve heard that couples who do make it through an experience like this end up more closely-bonded than couples who haven’t lived through this type of trauma.
    I remember when I was finishing high school, I got the feeling that my parents would split up – and got that vibe from a lot of my friends’ parents too. My parents are going to have their 30th wedding anniversary next month, and seem to really be enjoying their roomy nest. Other demographic predictors, like the fact that both my parents and my parents-in-law are still married, are in my favor as well.

    I could be the exception to the rule, but I’ve learned that being the exception isn’t as simple as it would seem. I didn’t have cancer, but I still was very sick and had to experiment a lot to find my footing again. I can’t count the number of times I’ve prematurely patted myself on the back for being “done with this brain surgery thing.”

    There definitely is a skillset needed for navigating a serious illness; it feels like a whole profession.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for that story. You know, even among the sick wives only one-in-five got divorced or separated. You don’t want to draw conclusions about an individual marriage or person based on this (if it found 90% divorce, maybe). Glad you’re OK now.

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