Why Men Leave Women Who Become Ill

By Arlene Kahn Therapy • November 10th, 2011

“Men leave women seven times more often when their wife becomes ill, than women leave men who become ill.”  (Journal Cancer, Sept. 2010).   In 2001, a study on the effects of brain cancer on 193 couples showed that 13 husbands walked out on their wives after diagnosis but only one woman left her husband.”   Those are startling statistics. In one study of 500 marriages 105 ended because the wife was ill, but only 15 couples divorced when the husband was sick.  (2001, The Times UK. The study was done in Seattle, Washington).   Besides actual divorce, too  frequently, some husbands seek a lover or have an affair when their wives have a life-threatening illness or are even dying.

Elizabeth Edwards who had breast cancer wrote a book describing the pain and sense of betrayal she felt when her husband, John Edwards, the South Carolina senator and presidential candidate, was unfaithful while she was being treated for breast cancer. At the same time that he was having an affair, he publicly posed as the perfect, loving and caring husband.

Common explanations say “Women are more disposed to be caregivers while men have a harder time assuming that role.” Or, “Men get lonelier when their wife is incapacitated”. ” Women cope with illness better than men,”  or a question often asked is “Are men just more self-centered than women?”  Without an answer to that question and despite these trends, I think there’s a deeper story.

Over my 30 years as a psychotherapist I have noticed that men who leave women who are ill or otherwise become incapacitated, (such as alcoholic or drug addicted)  are often men who have been traumatized by the loss of a loved feminine figure when they were young. This loss was a highly stressful, traumatic event to which they have adapted in many ways as they grew.  However, for some men so traumatized, when their wife becomes ill or needy they are thrown back into a state of post traumatic stress disorder, often propelled into self-destructive behaviors (such as affairs, addiction, etc.) as attempts at self-regulation, unable to respond appropriately.  They unconsciously avoid re-experiencing the trauma and instead, look to a new woman, often quickly, like John Edwards, to ward off guilt, or fear of the future.

For example, one man who lived with three different women, left each of them when they got sick.  As a child, he had lost a beloved older sister when she was taken away due to a complicated family divorce.  At the time of discussion he said sadly, “I don’t know if she’s alive or dead,” but his longing for her was still present and palpable.  Another man’s mother had leukemia, diagnosed when he was 10.  She increasingly withdrew to her room, and he said “I lost the connection with her, her smile when she saw me, her excitement at what I drew, the way we shared our interest in art.”  In  her withdrawal he lost a vital connection with her energy, her support and the way she had inspired him.  When he grew up, his own wife had a seizure after their son was born.   Three months later, he left them for another woman, and seemed never able to maintain a lasting relationship.

Carl Jung

A man's anima

Man and His Anima

C. G. Jung, the Swiss Psychologist applied the term “anima” (Latin:  aliveness, soul)   to the way an outer woman or feminine figure  can stimulate, energize and inspire the inner feminine qualities in a man. These qualities include his sensitivity, heightened awareness of his feelings, his very sense of aliveness.  In other words, a man feels his very soul come alive. Likewise, a man who is special to a woman can also inspire her to do things she didn’t think she could, such as take on a career or develop ideas she has, bringing them into the world, stimulating what he called her “animus,” or her male side of having healthy aggression in the world.

Many men have a “strong anima” within, nurtured by a loving mother, sisters, perhaps aunts or a special grandmother who supported them and encouraged them. They may have had a father who respected and cared for women and especially their mother when they were boys.  So when their wife becomes ill these men can be steadfast and in touch with their feelings and with hers when she needs him.

Of the men who leave, if there was an early trauma due to a withdrawn, depressed or mentally ill mother, or the loss of a special relationship with a sister, or other cared for feminine object it is likely that the husband will depend on their partner’s energy to feel whole.  When that relationship supports him, he can be attentive in return. However, when the woman turns inward due to illness his sense of loss may be re-ignited, and the traumatic stress reaction can re-emerge.  If or when that happens, paradoxically it is when she needs him the most that he is least able to give.

It is vital for men who have experienced the loss of a loved feminine object in childhood to understand the abandonment-trauma they have suffered that stirs beneath their consciousness when their wife becomes ill or unable to function in her usual way. Engaging in an affair, getting divorced or becoming preoccupied with work or other addictive-like behaviors keeps these men from growing and maturing and it perpetuates the trauma by inflicting the same abandonment and betrayal on their wives.

However, when one or both partners can recognize the husband’s distancing as fear embedded in a post traumatic stress reaction and confront it, then sharing the adversity together brings closeness and intimacy.  Such efforts to reach out to each other at this time of difficulty can offer an unparalleled bonding and self-esteem for each person and within the relationship. Both partners’ willingness to maintain an emotional connection through heart-felt communication and a gentle physical affection can be healing for the woman who is ill and it can also create a pathway to heal a man’s early abandonment-trauma and re-enliven the relationship.

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