Wednesday, September 27, 2006

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.


Lyrehca said...

Hi--great blog. I wonder about that 75 percent stat on divorces with chronic illness. The site you mentioned didn't give a direct reference for that stat, which seems awfully high to me (although maybe not when compared with the national divorce rate of 50 percent). I also wonder if it's a lifetime stat; the women I know with chronic illness who are still married are still in their 30s, so perhaps looking at the people I know isn't the right way to think about the stat.

Would also love to hear about your book proposal--have you blogged about it already?

SE said...

I think that it is highly unusual for both people in a marriage to have really serious, debilitating chronic illnesses. That makes a huge difference--they understand what the other person is going through.

My ex-husband didn't understand why I took so much time off work, let people help me, was good to myself and gave myself time to heal. He thought I should be pushing and working all the time, never slowing down even though my disease makes me exhausted.

It takes a lot of compassion to make it work.

klbrowser said...

From what I have seen, I unfortunately believe that a 75 percent divorce rate is probably accurate when at least one partner has a chronic illness. I don't, however, believe it is just the illness that is to blame. It is also money problems due to medical bills and disability, major changes in lifestyle and role, loss of friends for support, pressure from disbelieving employers and other family members, etc. The healthy partner often must not only earn most or all of the income, they must also do all the errands, the housework, and whatever else is necessary to care for their spouse. It is an enormous burden, and often both partners become too isolated from the outside world and take out their frustrations on one another. I can't tell you how many times I've played marriage counselor to a chronically ill friend whose spouse just couldn't deal with the situation.

I will say, though, that I am one of the 25 percent who has a healthy, strong marriage despite huge obstacles. I wonder if it makes a difference whether the healthy partner knew their spouse before they became ill? I don't have any problem with my husband not believing I am ill because he knew me when I was energetic and worked out at the gym and had a brain like an encyclopedia. So he has witnessed my decline and knows that I do as much as I possibly can. He hates my illness but doesn't resent me for being ill, if that makes sense.

I believe that the 25 percent that are able to make it work need faith that their marriage will survive anything. Both partners have to develop patience, a sense of humor, and excellent crisis management skills. Such a couple is the exception rather than the rule, but that doesn't mean it can't be done.

My husband and I will celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary in December. I have been ill since a month after we married. I have had to go on disability, he got laid off this summer and had to take a lesser paying job in another state, we are going to lose our house if it doesn't sell soon, and he is currently living in his parents' basement 600 miles away from me. That sort of thing could really mess up a weak marriage, but we are ok, apart from missing each other of course. After challenges like that, if you are part of the 25 percent, trust me, you'll know it.

Laurie said...

Thanks for all the thoughts on this topic and inspiration--it's never easy, but all you can do is try, right?

Lyrecha, as for the book proposal, I am revising one I pitched over the summer--it's actually a really fun process! I have an agent now so hopefully this process will move forward...

Shawn said...

Laurie, I just found your blog and I'd like to correspond with you. I, too, am working on a book which, while not directly related to yours (I don't think), was inspired by my own experience as the husband of a chronically ill wife. I don't know how to contact you other than by leaving a comment. Can you email me? Or let me know otherwise how to reach you?

Laurie said...

Hi Shawn,

Thanks for the note. I couldn't access your blog or respond personally to the comment, but you can contact me at

L said...

Even though in a marriage ceremony, the minister says "through sickness and through health" it is sad that most leave during the sickness part. Makes me think what is love? Is love just for convenience?

Aisling said...

what a great example your parents are! I definitely think that people in adversity learn to become better human beings. And through suffering and discomfort, we become aware of others in the same situation, and learn to take care of each other. nice post. said...

I don't doubt that stat for a minute. I work with women with chronic illness and they're mostly either divorced or if they're married, they don't have children. I agree with se that it could be easier if both have serious illness. But let's face, chronic illness, like any on-going stress, makes whatever would normally be difficult even more so. But, that doesn't mean it can't happen. My husband and I have a loving relationship after 30 years. I think it takes compassion on both sides.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laurie. Just came across your blog today. My husband has been ill with CFS and a host of autoimmune deficiency ailments for several years now. (We are in our 50's) He still works but is fast approaching the time when that may have to end. I am watching the slow progression of my role as wife change to one of caregiver. This makes me depressed, and somewhat isolated. Through all the frustration we have kept our marriage in tact even though the nature of our relationship is changing. I've always been a strong person emotionally, but this is wearing me out and there isnt really anyone to talk to. All focus is on his problems. Just once I would like a day where I didnt have to make all the decisions and we talked of something other than his health. But then I feel guilty for those thoughts. So yes I would say we are in the 25% percentile, struggling, but keeping going.

Anonymous said...

I am the source (Invisible Illness Week founder) of putting together the collection of statistics. As it states on the web site the statistic came from the National Health Interview Survey. I just spend 30 minutes trying to find the exact study because it bugs me it's not listed, but there are thousands going back to the 60s. But I truly did find it and had no problem believing that 75 percent of marriages end in divorce when illnes is present.

If "healthy" people have a 50 percent success rate, marriages that include an illness in 1 or both of the partners have many financial burdens, communication issues, etc. which can clearly impact even the best of marriages. And both people truly have to actively try to make it a good marriage.

Also, the National Health Interview Survey gets most of their information from interviewing people. So if someone said their marriage ended "because of an illness" then that would go down as the factor in the study. But as many of you mentioned, it's the side effects on the lives involved in the home that often impact the marriage, for better or for worse. Blessings to you!

Lisa C

Anonymous said...

This is no surprise. My ex-husband was anti-social to start with. When we lost my income, the abuse started -- mental, emotional, verbal. He tried to have me signed into a mental home because he could not SEE my illnesses. Oh, he was very sweet in FRONT of the doctors and other people but at home...

We stopped sleeping in the same room about 8 years ago. He would not agree to a divorce. 6 years ago I had an "old acquaintance" who turned out to be a sexual predator, look me up online. For 2 years he gave me the support I lacked at home but he had an agenda. Luckly I never physically cheated with him.

My husband found out and the abuse turned physical. After the emotional affair ended I had to go to the police about this other man as well. I already had PTSD from a variety of things including my illness and now, its permanent and fairly full-blown.

I did file for divorce and moved to a new place with my kids 5 years ago. I'm still financially dependent on him and he's still very verbally and emotionally abusive but through blogging & writing I have come out of my shell. I can be me again & speak my mind.

I was surprised and PLEASED to see that the divorce rate with disabled persons, particularly the "invisibly disabled" was being written about. Kudos!

Anonymous said...

I have a fatal degenerative brain disease as well as a chronic pain disorder. I am lucky because we are the 25 percent of stable marriages. My husband and I share a spiritual path and before taking care of me he had taken care of his elderly professor. I think that helped. We have been through so much together and have learned we don't really need much material things. He is my rock. I am blessed. Silkee

Anonymous said...

My husband and I have been married for 7 years, we have 5 children together. He recently was told that he has a chronic illness and everything is being laid on my shoulders. I asked him to please not worry about me, but he said he has too. I told him to not have family come help, because I am anti-social, I feel like the only option for me is divorce. I have already seen my father die, and my son on life support. I just don't have it in me to see this go on long term and be able to look like nothings wrong. So I will probably end up like the statistics soon.

Anonymous said...

Having a chronic illness is sad in and of itself.... but then having a husband who couldn't be "man enough" to move out, separate, and divorce me but chose instead to stay while telling me over and over that he and my young daughter "didn't want me anymore", declare me a drug addict and doctor shopper which was a total lie as well that I was manic-depressive and wouldn't seek help, and continue with this mental torture until I was forced out of my own house with the last shred of "self" I had. Now, 10 years later, I'm still alive but alone and the emotional damage he did is still apparent. What I'd like to tell others stuck in this situation is that I'm finally coming to terms with the fact that Lowell didn't have enough balls to "publicly" divorce his chronically ill wife so he "had" to take me down another way. Please, if you have a spouse and are in this situation, BE HONEST. We can't all be saints. You don't have to destroy what's left of the person you once loved when they're already down and helpless. Marcie PS If you are or know someone with CFIDS/ME, let them know that a retrovirus called XMRV has been seriously implied as the cause and antiretrovirals such as those given to people with HIV are being researched. Thanks.

Ellie Andersen said...

I am living with a chronic illness. Married almost 17 years and have four boys. One special needs and two teens now, soon to be four teens. We have always been strong in our faith and have had a better marriage than anyone we know.

But now we are hanging on by a string, barely. The state of our marriage is making me even more sick. Having an autoimmune disease that attacks my muscles, adrenal gland and other things stress makes things worse. My body doesn't produce the hormones to handle every day stress and not this for sure. He keeps holding on to a hope that i will be cured and everything will be fine. But it has been five years, i may never be cured.

He loves me and will do anything for me,but he doesn't talk to me anymore. I am lonely enough with the loss of friends. I don't know how much longer i can do this.

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