When you commit to a marriage and say, “I do,” one of the vows you take is that you take each other “in sickness and health.” At least, that’s what I believed.
But my tryst with that dreaded C-word, cancer, brought home some bitter truths. It made me realize that my marriage was based on a shallow foundation. Perhaps, I had always viewed life through rose-tinted glasses — a virtue, I am told — and so, I had tenaciously clung on to what I felt were the happy moments in my marriage.
But let me start from the beginning.
My husband Alex and I were settled in the US for the last 10 years and blessed with two children. With what seemed like a steady life, good careers, a house in downtown Seattle, and loads of friends, you could say the American dream was almost achieved.
In the blink of an eye, this changed and my husband abandoned me.
When Husband Abandoned Her During Illness
It was during an intimate moment with my husband that I felt a stabbing pain in my right breast for a few seconds; this was midway in 2008. I told him this and he joked that I needn’t be so attuned to every sensation in my body: “must be the usual hormonal thing you women have!”
A couple of days later, I had another instance of that stabbing pain and on a more serious examination, I found a tiny lump. I felt completely dizzy upon considering what this could mean. A consultation with the oncologist and a biopsy later, my worst fear was confirmed. I had Stage II-A cancer of the right breast, with a 3 cm tumor, which had not (thankfully) spread to the lymph nodes.
In all of this, Alex was proving to be extremely helpful and supportive, telling me how I would do just fine. Perhaps, he was determined to prove to himself that it was okay and that we would make it through the sickness and pain together.
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It was when the treatment was outlined for me – chemotherapy, lumpectomy, and radiation therapy — that I started seeing a peculiar change in him. The chemo was scheduled from much ahead, but two days before it, Alex told me he had to go out of town on a business meeting and asked if I could have a friend be with me through the process. I was astounded and, in fact, tried to re-schedule the appointment, but was told firmly not to delay treatment. Even then I didn’t think that my husband abandoned me.
On the day of the lumpectomy, things got even more alarming. Already feeling terribly anxious, weepy, and uncertain, I had Alex informing me that he could drop me at the medical center, but found it excruciating to sit through it. This time, I complained aloud, and then came the first outburst: “You know, I would rather focus on work to support the family, to support this drain on the family resources.” When I reminded him that I earned for the family too and we split the finances, he mentioned the fact that now that I was ‘diseased’ and would need rest, there was no saying how this would tell on the work front.
Things then started heading to a point of no return. I would be lying in bed, all lonely, sore, drained out, exhausted, and heartbroken, and he would go out to party decked to the hilt and playing the role of the unsupportive husband during illness to a T. Any comment on my side about ‘sensitivity’ was turned around into how, due to my illness, he had had to sacrifice so much, playing Florence Nightingale all the time!
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It went to a stage where, while I was trying to be as upbeat as possible, Alex kept mentioning the ‘disease’ and it got to a stage where the children asked me if I was really going to die soon. This only made me more emotionally overwrought and I was left wondering if it was a ploy to project me in a certain manner, so as to assuage his guilt. I really started feeling abandoned by husband.
Things just disintegrated after that. On the cancer front, things seemed to going better, but the lumpectomy had changed the shape of my right breast. A friend suggested breast reconstruction if it made things difficult between me and Alex. I was not ready to tell her yet that there was no physical relationship between us anymore.
My husband abandoned me on all fronts. To guard against his insensitivity, I had to harden myself too, in order to cope. This entailed killing any emotional surge that I might’ve felt towards Alex. I didn’t go for the reconstruction then as I’d had enough of hospitals.
Abandoned by husband, I did consult a psychologist for my trauma, and he explained how ‘chronic illness unsupportive husband’ is not an unknown phenomenon. Perhaps, the spouse fears mortality and starts withdrawing, or maybe he thinks, this is not exactly what he’d signed up for when he got married!
In fact, I also read that cancer and divorce statistics say that men are six times more likely to abandon their wives during an illness, than vice versa. And I had become a victim to this phenomenon of partner abandonment during illness.
On the upside, I learned how many people out there, friends, colleagues, and relatives, really, really cared and helped. My sister, who I had confided in, spoke to me about getting back to my country. She talked me into coming back and starting a media consultancy firm in association with her. And today, I am doing just that.
My husband didn’t fuss at all about my coming back, and today, we still are in the midst of legal proceedings. I have finally come to terms with the fact that my husband abandoned me and I am getting a divorce after breast cancer. It was hard to say goodbye to someone I loved but I will survive.
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This is what Dr. Rajan Bhonsle, relationship counselor, and Director, Heart to Heart Foundation had to say about the situation Anjali is in:
“It’s difficult to typecast all men or spouses into a particular category without going through an analysis of the psychological background of the person in question. There have been instances of spouses who have sacrificed everything for their wives just as much, as there have been examples of husbands abandoning their wives in their moment of dire need. However, I do believe, there is an urgent need for counseling of spouses whose partners have been afflicted with an ailment. Serious illness brings to the fore various unresolved relationship issues the couple might have had from the beginning, while also addressing new ones in this moment of crisis.”
Seeing your loved one in pain can be very hard to deal with. The trauma can be too hard to deal with for some people and they may withdraw from their partners in order to protect their emotions. If the wife has a terminal illness, it can be even harder to come to terms with the helplessness. Some people may also leave their sick wives because they feel that that’s not what they signed up for when they got married.
Studies claim that a lot of husbands tend to abandon their wives if she gets seriously ill. While not all men are the same, stats do claim that Wife Abandonment Syndrome is pretty prevalent, with men being 6 times more likely to abandon their sick partners than women.
Not if you don’t let it. Cancer is traumatizing for not just the patient, but their loved ones. Seeing one’s partner in pain can make you want to shut yourself off. In such cases, communication can do a world of good. Talk about your fears and anxieties with each other. Cry if you want to. If it gets bad, get professional help. Spend time with each other, doing fun things. Just do whatever you need to do to get through the situation together and your marriage will be stronger and healthier for it.