A Relationship in Numbers
As some of you who have read previous posts may know, I have been thinking a lot about numbers and statistics lately—what they mean, how they define us, and, more importantly, how they fail to capture what cannot be so easily quantified.
In digging through research for my book proposal, I unwittingly came across the following statistic: The divorce rate in marriages where chronic illness is present is over 75 percent.
Now, I am not here to debate the accuracy of these statistics or discuss the methodology behind them, but they did make me stop and think. I was told recently I had a 75 percent chance of not having children on my own, so I approached this statistic with the same question: How do you know if you’ll be in that lucky 25 percent?
Seventy-five percent of marriages where chronic illness is present do not last. That is an overwhelming number to me, and it might be misleading. People divorce for all sorts of reasons, and it doesn't necessarily mean there is a cause and effect relationship between chronic illness and divorce. It could be one of many mitigating factors, but looking at the statistic, it's not possible to weed that out. But certainly between lost income due to sickness, high medical bills, loss of identity, pain, frustration, etc, there are a lot of ways to look at how chronic illness could be implicated in these findings.
Just as with my fertility issue, I don’t think there’s any way to know how to be part of that 25 percent except to try. The odds obviously don’t speak in our favor, but that’s why yet again I am glad that I don’t put too much stock in statistics.
One would think that the stress and tension in marriages would increase with the number of illnesses a person has or the number of people in the marriage who have illnesses—so perhaps a marriage where both spouses have multiple illnesses would really be on the losing side of the odds, right?
But maybe not. Maybe we can look at this from the complete opposite direction. Consider the case of my parents. They married in their early twenties, both believing they were fairly healthy. At 26, my father was misdiagnosed as having muscular dystrophy, a misdiagnosis that lasted seven years and whose toxic steroid treatment left him a diabetic. When he was 32, he had a cancer-ridden kidney removed, the tumor spurred on by the rare neuromuscular disease he’d actually had the entire time (polymyositis). When he was 39, he had a heart attack and an angioplasty. When he was 43, his polymyositis relapsed and he’s been on chemotherapy ever since to try and control it (14 years). Last month, he had a cardiac stent implanted because he had several blockages.
He’s a regular Lazarus in the flesh, no? So how did my mother stand it all these years? Let’s add in the fact the she’s been sick for over two decades herself. She has severe arthritis and degenerative joint disease. She’s had several major reconstructive joint surgeries, has gotten to the point where she’s needed a wheelchair, and is in constant searing nerve pain from her fused spine and crushed discs.
And yet with all the serious illness, the near-death experiences, the years of pain and setbacks and stress and frustration, they have one of the best marriages I have witnessed. They are loyal, supportive and loving towards each other, and understand and anticipate each other’s needs perfectly. I think this is because they have both suffered a lot and therefore can empathize with each other so well. There is no room for anger or resentment because they are too focused on each other’s best interest.
Maybe the more illnesses you have the more you learn to adapt and cope. Maybe when someone you love suffers, you understand your own suffering better and can put it in perspective. Maybe when you’ve been asked to face difficult truths and grim statistics so many times and have always beaten them, you begin to really believe that no matter how bad things are, there is seriously nothing the two of you can’t handle. Maybe you learn that yes, you will suffer losses and frustrations that most people will never begin to imagine, but you also learn that hope will never abandon you altogether, either.
But maybe if we’re playing the numbers game, my parents are just plain lucky they landed in that elusive 25 percent?
Not a chance. They are there because they earned it.
So I have two choices—I can look at the numbers and feel overwhelmed, or I can look at my parents and know what is possible even under extraordinary circumstances.