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Why do men divorce their sick wives?

Posted By Aimee Galick, Thursday, April 4, 2013

I just finished a MedFT clinical internship at the Loma Linda University Transplantation Institute where I worked with couples in which one member was severely chronically ill and needed a kidney or liver transplant. Using SERT as my organizing theory, I have a heightened awareness of how emotional and tangible support, caregiving, and impact of the illness on the family typically differs depending on whether the patient is a man or woman. A recent study by Glantz et al. (2009) affirmed these ideas as it documented divorce rates in patients diagnosed with a brain tumor, cancer, or MS and found that 11.9% of marriages ended after the introduction of these serious illnesses and in 88% of these separations the ill person was the woman, compared to only 12% of men.

"Partner abandonment,” the researcher’s label for the phenomenon, resulted in poorer health outcomes in patients, more hospitalizations, higher use of anti-depressants, and less compliance with treatment regimens. This study supports the notion that relationships are important to both physical and mental health and it also confirms what I have seen in my practice with severely ill patients - women are more dedicated to the care of their sick partners. Why does this happen?

I have been involved in a clinical research group led by Dr. Carmen Knudson-Martin and Dr. Douglas Huenergardt at Loma Linda University. The group developed a model of couple’s therapy, Socio-Emotional Relational Therapy (SERT), which centralizes power in the conceptualization of influence, responsibility, and support in intimate relationships (Knudson-Martin & Huenergardt, 2010).

Gender is one of the more obvious sources of power, or lack thereof, but we also look at how culture, SES,
religious beliefs, and the intersection of these social categories influence power within relationships and of partners in relation to society. We believe that power differentials between partners prevent them from being able to actualize mutually supportive relationships and
that dominant ideas about what it means to be male and female contribute to this imbalance. Looking at the
gender difference in partner abandonment with a
SERT lens I have an idea about why this occurs.
I think for most people in our Western society there is an entitlement to personal happiness over the needs and happiness of others.

So why should anyone suffer to care for a sick person?

I think for most people in our Western society there is an entitlement to personal happiness over the needs and happiness of others. So why should anyone suffer to care for a sick person? I have heard things like, "this isn’t what I signed up for, she/he is not your responsibility, and you need to do what is best for you.” No one in this culture wants to be a burden, but I think there is a gender difference. I frequently hear women who are sick, say they feel bad for being a burden to their loved ones and this is one of their greatest sources of stress.

Men, on the other hand, don’t report this as often and seem to have a sense of entitlement to receive care when they are ill. There do not appear to be the same societal pressures on men to stay with an ill partner, but a woman who leaves a sick man? What is wrong with her! What a terrible person!! These strong messages about male and female responsibilities often place a heavier burden and more pressure on women. I think men may abandon their sick partners out of a sense of entitlement to not being bogged down. I also think that fear about inadequacy around caregiving and their ability to cope with the level of stress that comes with a loved one’s serious illness plays a major role.

This fear of inadequacy may play a larger part than the sense of entitlement, but I think it may be easier for men to go to the place of "this isn’t what I signed up for” rather than "I am really scared, I don’t know how to be a caregiver, and I don’t want to get closer to someone I will likely end up losing.” Another contributing factor is that when a female partner becomes sick, she does not have as much time and energy to devote to caring for the relationship and her partner – so things fall apart.

The couples I see are often in the beginning stages of adjusting to having a serious illness intrude into their partnerships, which allows me to intervene often before the illness has done serious damage. At this crucial point in the illness trajectory, couples have not yet considered what motivates their behavior in relationships. I often use my personal and clinical experiences around gender differences which facilitates the joining and that is crucial for the next step.

For men, I give voice to what I think they can’t because it is too vulnerable. I voice the presence of fear, not-knowing, feeling inadequate, and doubting their abilities to handle this. I also voice how I think they wish they could be in relationship. This allows us to go to a place where we can discuss ideas in society which have likely influenced their behaviors, thoughts, and feelings within relationships. This can take away the shame and guilt they have about being relationally inadequate. Having a strong therapeutic relationship is key to setting the tone in which this vulnerable conversation can take place and new possibilities can be explored.

Some people might be asking themselves, what about the women? How can we help them in this process? Good question. It would be incongruent with my beliefs about power to follow this post with suggestions about how to work with women because I don’t believe they have the same power as men to influence others. I would be happy to write another post on the issue if there is a demand for it.

Despite the many difficulties couples can encounter, I often find the introduction of illness can be positive in that it can bring partners closer than they ever imagined. This happens when instead of one partner turning toward the illness, both partners turn toward one another. I feel so privileged to be a part of this amazing process!

If you wish to learn more about SERT and mutually supportive relationships you can visit our website at or contact me at


Knudson-Martin, C., & Huenergardt, D. (2010). A socio-emotional approach to couple therapy: Linking social context and couple interaction. Family Process, 49(3), 369-384. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2010.01328.x


Aimee Galick
Aimee Galick, is a doctoral candidate at Loma Linda University.She identifies as a Feminist Medical Family Therapist. Her main interest is in how the larger social context affects the intersection of health and families. Most of her research has centered on how contextual influences such as gender and culture affect intimate relationships, the process of therapy, and experiences with illness.She is passionate about relationships characterized by mutual attunement, mutual influence, shared relational responsibility, and shared vulnerability. She administrates a blog ( on the topic of mutuality in intimate relationships.

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Sabrina A. Esbitt says...
Posted Thursday, April 4, 2013
Thanks so much Aimee for this thought-provoking post!

This seems like a great topic for a qualitative investigation; male and female expectations, beliefs, self-efficacies, and competencies regarding caring for a medically ill partner. I for one would be very interested in such a study.

I have not had the experience that men are significantly unburdened by societal pressure to care from their female partners when ill, compared to women. I've actually seen that it is crucial to my heterosexual male pts masculine identity to care for their family, but when it comes to the emotional and the more complex interpersonal management aspects of caregiving, they simply often do not have as much perceived or actual competency as women, which leads to problems.

The most marked exceptions I have seen have been with men who have already been caregivers, such as for younger siblings or aging parents, or for men who have witnessed or closely been involved in caregiving. This is an area that deserves more empirical investigation—I am always interested in folks that defy expectations and what may underlie superior/optimal coping/functioning.

Certainly my experience has illuminated the opportunity we have to not only facilitate adjustment to illness, disability, or death with a couple, but also within a family, and the remarkable, often lasting legacy that adaptive coping can bequeath to other family and close friends that bear witness to healthy adaptive family processing of illness.
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joanne leuteman says...
Posted Saturday, May 3, 2014
I am one of those wives getting divorced. It started in 2010 when my husband was a drill sgt. I was diagnosed with COPD at the age of 45, after that it was one thing after another in 4 short years. Osteo arthritist in my spine and hips, a syrinx in my spinal cord, histoplasmosis, MS, a bulging disc, thyroid cancer and to top it off fibromyalgia. The hits just kept coming, 7 months in he walked out leaving me with the 3 children. 4 months later he came back and silly me let him back in. 4 months after my radiation treatment for thyroid cancer he informed me once again he wants a divorce. The papers are filed and I'm heading back home to my family so that I can finally heal.
It was hard finding out that the man I had been married to did not believe I was ill. It was hard not getting the emotional support needed after years of supporting him in his military career, I gave him a home and a family to come home to and he just, I don't even have the words anymore for the emotional turmoil my children and I have been through. I feel the worst for our children, they have now not learned how to deal with someone getting sick. All they got to see are the negative aspects of it, to ignore it. There was no joining of forces, no helping to fight back.
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