When you live with a serious illness – and a bad marriage

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

I can’t quite get over a University of Rochester study that predicted 83% of happily married women will still be alive 15 years after cardiac bypass surgery, versus only 28% of women in unhappy marriages.(1)  Researchers suggest that supportive spouses may help by encouraging healthy behaviour, like increasing exercise, healthy eating or quitting smoking – critical to longterm survival from heart disease, as well as providing a powerful reason for women to “stick around so they can stay in the relationship that they like.”  Researchers also cited earlier studies showing that people with lower hostility in their marriages have less of the kind of chronic inflammation that is linked to heart disease.

What about unhappily married women? Just being married is not in itself a guarantee that women will be supported by their spouses during recuperation from chronic illness. The prognosis, for women particularly, seems directly linked to marriage quality. What, for example, do you think the future holds for the cardiac health of the women who shared the following stories of their marriages?*

1.  “There are times that I think my husband feels resentment toward me because since I’ve become ill, everything will fall on him – like helping the kids with homework, giving baths, cleaning, and cooking. When laundry stacks up or dishes are filling the sink, he will get frustrated and make comments. I’ve given him the big “F— off” and told him that he can either be supportive and I’ll get to things when I can, or he can continue doing it all on his own.”

2.  “My marriage was really not that great when I got sick. I had been unhappy for a long time and my husband had sent some pretty heavy hints that he could care less if I live or die. I woke him up at 3 a.m. one morning and told him I was having a lot of chest pain and needed to be taken to the E.R. He got up, took a shower, ate breakfast – then said he was ready to take me. The entire time I was waiting on him, writhing in pain and wondering what the hell he was doing. I was thinking maybe he wanted me to code so he could just go back to sleep. If I get through this alive, I don’t think my marriage will survive. You tell me how much this man loves me or even likes me. I have a 9-year old daughter and a very, very unhappy marriage.”

 3.   “I feel very alone in my illness. I understand that what my husband says is emotionally damaging to me. I am jealous when my friends have a little cold, and talk about how well their husbands take care of them during it. This is my second marriage. Divorce is hard, but it’s not impossible. That being said, you have to decide what you can and cannot live with. Certainly if there is psychological abuse, it could move to physical abuse. My last husband was very abusive psychologically, and I knew if I stayed it would end violently for one of us.”  

4.  “I am married to the meanest man on earth. It was not always this way, we have been married 10 years, my second marriage.  It was love at first sight, we were so good for so long. He does not even resemble the man I loved so much. We are working on a divorce, but it is next to impossible as we have some acreage and animals I invested in. We were ready to start settling when I got sick. So, I am alone with a shell of the person who was the man of my dreams. I have no other option but to stay here – I won’t live in my car.”

5.  “I have a spouse who doesn’t understand the extent of my medical situations because they cannot be seen. He is less than supportive on my filing for disability benefits, and says I am lazy and simply do not want to work or contribute financially. He uses abusive language with me and is overall intimidating. These are all forms of psychological abuse and I know this. The other night, he threatened to leave me and cut off my medical insurance and threatened I ought not even try for alimony. I have entered into therapy for myself and am hoping to learn some coping mechanisms. He first agreed he would go to marriage counseling with me, then he changed his mind because he “refuses to be dictated to.” I’m not sure I can emotionally deal with this any longer.  We are still together, but I am a lot smarter now, and I don’t think of him as a husband but as a roommate. I no longer question him about his comings and goings. I guess I still don’t want to be in a house alone. I want to go, but afraid of that also.

6.  “My husband has been unable to be a supportive spouse for me since the very beginning of this journey. He did not stay with me the night of my diagnosis, and he has rarely accompanied me to doctor’s appointments or treatments. He stays away from me most of the time, sleeps in another bed, and spends most of his non-working hours sleeping. My supportive friends are extremely angry with my husband and are encouraging me to leave him. This is a second marriage for us – we’ve been married eight years. I am very torn.”

A study on “partner abandonment” among married couples conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle found that men are six times more likely to leave a relationship because of their partner’s serious illness than wives are. If you feel the urge to remind me that your Dad/husband/brother/neighbour were all loving caregivers, please note that these findings do not mean that ALL men do this, but only that in the world of partner abandonment, the person being abandoned in the relationship is significantly more likely to be female.

Wouldn’t the prospect of being on her own after a divorce be even worse for a woman living with a serious illness than staying in an unhappy marriage? 

Not according to a U.K. study of 10,000 people over a 20-year period, published in the journal Economica.(2) It suggests that in general, women are much more content than men after divorce – even more so than their baseline level of happiness throughout their lives. Study author Dr. Yannis Georgellis of the Centre for Research in Employment, Skills and Society at Kingston Business School explained:

“    In the study, we took into account the fact that divorce can sometimes have a negative financial impact on women, but despite that it still makes them much happier than men.”

As I’ve written previously here, my own non-professional advice to these women and any others struggling with both a chronic diagnosis and a toxic intimate relationship:

“Bottom line: this guy is killing you on the installment plan.

“Save yourself.

“Get out now while you still have the strength to leave.”

PLEASE NOTE:  Comments for this article have been closed due to unacceptable hostility that won’t be tolerated on this site.

1. King, Kathleen B.; Reis, Harry T. “Marriage and long-term survival after coronary artery bypass grafting”. Health Psychology, Vol 31(1), Jan 2012, 55-62.

2. Andrew E. Clark, Yannis Georgellis. “Back to Baseline in Britain: Adaptation in the British Household Panel Survey.” Economica, 2013; 80 (319): 496

* Source:  Some identifying details about these heart patients have been edited to protect their privacy.

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote more about heart patients and their families in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”.  You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).


See also:

Who Will Take Care of You at Home if You’re Seriously Ill?

A wife’s heart disease teaches her husband a big lesson

Poor Marriage = Poor Heart Health For Women

Women Heart Attack Survivors Know Their Place

Marriage Triples Our Bypass Surgery Survival Rates – But Only If It’s Happy

When Being Married Makes Being Sick Worse

Four Ingredients in the Heart Patient’s Recipe for Stress

Is Family Stress Hurting your Heart?

Women’s Heart Disease and Chronic Stress



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