This is something I avoid thinking about

As a single lady with a disability, I have lots of complicated and tangled thoughts about romantic relationships. While there’s a lot to say there (my therapist can attest to that), it all boils down to my belief about myself (which I want to make very clear is how I think about me, not something I think applies to any other person with a disability in the entire world ever) that my disability makes me too much of a handful, too much work, too much effort, too much pain in the ass, to be worth loving.

This is of course demonstrably untrue – I have friends and family who love me dearly and demonstrate that daily. I have been in romantic relationships in the past as a person with a disability, relationships that ended for reasons not at all related to my disability.  And so most of the time, this fear is a tiny tiny voice in the far back of my head that only comes out when things get especially dark.

But then there are actual studies like this: Men Leave: Separation And Divorce Far More Common When The Wife Is The Patient. Some findings:

A woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced soon after a diagnosis of cancer or multiple sclerosis than if a man in the relationship is the patient. Researchers were surprised by the difference in separation and divorce rates by gender. The rate when the woman was the patient was 20.8 percent compared to 2.9 percent when the man was the patient. “Female gender was the strongest predictor of separation or divorce in each of the patient groups we studied,” said Marc Chamberlain, M.D., a co-corresponding author and director of the neuro-oncology program at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA).

The study was relatively limited – it examined only patients diagnosed with either multiple sclerosis or significant brain tumors. And it did find that longer marriages were much less likely to result in separation or divorce. But overall, I found this pretty disheartening.

19 thoughts on “This is something I avoid thinking about

  1. Holy crap! That’s a big difference! Not at all heartening, especially considering how many women’s health insurance policies are tied to their spouses’ employment. Normally, I’m a fan of the boy-camp, but WTF?

    I refer to myself as “a handful.’ Even not considering my health, I’m a train wreck. I’m flighty, fickle, stubborn, and quick-tempered. There are days I think my husband may be a saint.

  2. I really, really hate being reminded of that fact.

    (Women! Be perfect! If you’re not perfect, no one will ever love you!)

  3. Some of my single girlfriends are afraid to enter into relationships because of this. We don’t all meet society’s definitions of what makes a good girlfriend in a heterosexual relationship, even though we’re pretty cool, interesting people.

    Are you in a relationship right now? I’m in one & I still have some insecurity about measuring up and what might happen long-term, down the road. But I have a very good partner who always assures me that yes, he loves me even though I’m a little different. I find that I just, have to trust him. I have to believe him when he tells me that he loves me & that my limitations are not a deal-breaker.
    It’s easier said than done. I’m only just now starting to learn how to trust him that much.

  4. I used to be signed up on and other dating sites before I met my boyfriend. I became so fed up with no one giving me the time of day because *gasp* I was disabled. So, I signed up on and met my boyfriend there – he is also disabled. My disability is such a huge part of my life that I am really happy to be with someone who understands that without having to explain it.

    Sadly, most able-bodied/neurotypical/ENabled people don’t view us as sexual or desirable beings, so it’s really hard to find someone even willing to give us a chance.

  5. This is what I’m generally afraid of. To the point where I often try to convince my partner(s) to find someone else because I view myself as such a hassle. Not something I recommend, by the way. They frequently try to assure me that I’m not, but the terror is still there. Studies like that hammer the point home especially well.

  6. [ABBY JEAN]

    It doesn’t surprise me at all that when faced with being put in the position of caregiver women say, “Ok”, and some men say, “This isn’t what I signed up for, I’m out of here.” The Patriarchy trains us that women do the caring and men are cared for. There are men who like this status quo and would freak out if asked to step up in any way. I don’t think those dudes are the ones you’re likely to hook up with.

    That study was about people confronted with a sudden change in their caregiving dynamic, and the men who left couldn’t deal with the change. My guess is the longer marriages tended to last because they had already gone through ups and downs and give and take, as happens in most long-term relationships, and the prospect of caregiving wouldn’t seem as daunting to men committed to that reality. Men likely to bail when stuff doesn’t go according to plan had already been weeded out.

    C’mon, Abby Jean. I don’t picture you choosing men who embrace some version of the patriarchal fantasy of men-do-the-earnin’-and-women-do-the-carin’. Sure, it’s more complicated than that, but when you do find someone you want to partner with, they’ll know what you’re about and whatever care you may or may not need. They won’t be signing onto a fantasy.

  7. I wish I could say I was surprised by these results. Mind you, the last time I tried to trust a guy to stick around despite my mental health, he dumped me because of it. So I might be a bit biased on this one.

  8. …my disability makes me too much of a handful, too much work, too much effort, too much pain in the ass, to be worth loving.

    Yeah, this pretty much sums up my fears regarding relationships too. And how depressing is it that these fears are, apparently, not completely unfounded? :/

  9. “Why men leave a sick spouse can be partly explained by their lack of ability, compared to women, to make more rapid commitments to being caregivers to a sick partner and women’s better ability to assume the burdens of maintaining a home and family, the study authors said.”


    Why men leave a sick spouse has everything to do with cultural norms and expectations: A man’s virility is measured in part by the hotness of his wife. Sick and dying (or even merely limping) wives are not hot. And nursing is not seen as masculine–just look at gender disparities in the profession. It also has to do with the cultural expectation that the good wife provides nookie, housekeeping services, and cooks, too. Once we become disabled, we are not fulfilling our wifely roles any more, and most people would sympathize with the poor guy’s need to look elsewhere. I think those of us who have steadfast male partners can attest that they are exceptional in every way, but most especially in their security in their manhood.

    Similarly, why the women in this study stayed is more likely attributable to the cultural expectation that we be “servant to the species” than to our specific abilities to do so (what, we’ve evolved with a wheel-chair pushing, spoon-feeding gene? That guys don’t have? Gimme a break). How many women do you know who stick it out, despite being terrible at caretaking? Because they made that “rapid commitment” back when they got married, when they vowed “in sickness and in health.” Whereas the woman who leaves is flying in the face of social expectations and will pay the price for not being feminine enough.

    I dated several able-bodied guys before I married, abby jean, and developed a theory that it is only these exceptional ones who will date us in the first place, and by the very fact that they will, we now already know what their likely response will be when the going gets tough. The ones who are still all hung up in their sexism/ableism (which in this context are nearly synonymous) won’t give us a second look, which, in my humble opinion, is a Good Thing. Being single and visibly disabled is actually an advantage in that you are not, as it were, buying a pig in a poke. Our men are “pre-disasterized”, whereas able-bodied women who marry won’t know until the hooey hits the fan how their guy will perform.

  10. I actually don’t think that any abled guy who agrees to a relationship with a woman with a disability is pre-disasterized. They are still prone to saying and doing awful things out of sheer privilege. They will still mess up out of sheer humanity.

    When I see a hetero monogamous relationship “success story” in which the woman is disabled, 99% of the time the success happened by accident: the guy committed to this specific woman before he began to open up and learn about disability. He opens up and commits to learning and growing and fixing his mistakes BECAUSE he is committed to this specific woman — out of love for her.

    That tends to be how it happens (in my experience) — not because they are already good on that measure, and get in a relationship after they become good on that measure. But because they get in a relationship, and for the sake OF the relationship, they work on becoming good on that measure.

    My brain is foggy, so I apologize if this is a bit hard to understand. But I want to make clear that just because a guy doesn’t immediately pass over or abandon a woman who is revealed to have a disability doesn’t mean he will therefore never do problematic things in that relationship, or leave that relationship, because of that disability. Because they can, and will.

  11. what amandaw said.

    also, i find that i have to actively prevent myself from displaying cloying gratitude to my husband for sticking with me and putting up with all of the difficulties. i know he didn’t sign up for being the sole breadwinner. i know he didn’t plan on having a sick wife who can’t do all the things she used to. but i also know that i am doing our relationship no good if i am constantly “giving him cookies” for doing what i would do, and what most women in his situation do.

    i want to be appreciative, and i am, but i don’t want to be overly grateful…does that make sense to anyone else?

  12. sophiefair – yes, because if you go overboard in gratitude, it can be annoying. I don’t know why, but that just seems to be the way of things.

    “Thank you thank you thank you!”

    “Don’t mention it.”

    “Thank you thank you thank you!”

    “SHUT UP!”

    Also, if you’re excessively grateful, it could be seen as “Wow, this is a once-in-a-blue-moon event. He needs positive reinforcement, he must be trained like a puppy.”

  13. @krismcn – i agree that the patriarchy has a role here, but i disagree with a couple of your assumptions. first, the idea that partner necessarily equals primary caregiver is one that we’ve discussed elsewhere on FWD as problematic. second, i disagree that a man (or any person) who is a feminist ally and who understands and resists the patriarchy will automatically be an ally to people with disabilities and understand and resist ableist forces. in my mind, there’s a lot more to think about being the partner with a disability than just the need for care, there’s also the feelings of being less than, or ‘broken’ that have nothing to do with caregiving, and while the patriarchy may influence a partner’s thoughts on providing care, i don’t think it’s as implicated in all the areas of potential friction. thirdly, i dislike the assumption that this only happens to non-feminist women and that women have the power to prevent this happening by just picking the right man in the first place.

    but finally, i don’t think you know me or my dating habits well enough to “c’mon, abby jean” me. that was patronizing and rude.

  14. @ abby jean – I obviously didn’t express myself very well (by way of excuse, it was late and I was fatigued). I wasn’t assuming that partner = primary caregiver, but some men might. Even if it doesn’t explicitly, a diagnosis of cancer or MS means that, in some men’s minds, the caregiving dynamic has changed. They might fear, and it might actually become true, that their wives can’t perform the same caregiving roles for their husbands that they have in the past, and that their husband might have to take on some of their wife’s role, even if it’s things like, for example, cooking. Perhaps I’m using the term “caregiver” too loosely.

    I absolutely agree with you that feminist ally =/= ally to people with disabilities. I do think that relationships in which gender roles and patriarchal norms are examined are more likely to weather times when those roles are called into question. This study is specifically looking at relationships where the couple’s dynamic is suddenly challenged. I’m not assuming that it only happens to non-feminist women, but I suppose I am assuming that it’s less likely to happen in relationships where gender roles are examined.

    This study resonated with me not the least because I have MS. When I got my diagnosis my (then boyfriend, now) husband didn’t leave, I think in part, because (as amandaw so elegantly put it), well, he loves me, but also because there was never an expectation in our relationship that I would, say, be the primary caregiver for our children. I had previously been in relationships with men I got the sense would leave when I was no longer Beauty2k compliant (I wasn’t thinking of disability at the time, more like ageing, or gaining weight) so I left. With my husband, I will cop to feeling like I chose wisely, though I acknowledge there’s luck involved too. Luck and privilege. So I don’t think that a women has the power to prevent it just by choosing wisely. We don’t really choose who we fall in love with anyway, though we do choose who we marry. I will say, if a woman marries a sexist, she can’t be too surprised if he’s unwilling to take on a non-traditional role.

    Finally, I was attempting to assume a sisterly tone, but I see that it was just condescending, and rude and patronizing, and I’m sorry.

  15. Something I personally rail against is the portrayal of many disabilities as “gross”. Because I had cancer when I was in my early teens, among other lasting effects, I have to use a colostomy bag. WHich is, apparently, synonymous for “never worth loving.”

    It kills me that nothing else matters.

  16. Some time ago I read this post ‘Smart Bitches, Trashy Books’ and even as an able-bodied person myself, as a feminist I can see that there is something wrong – don’t you think? – about calling a man a hero for NOT BEING A DICK and leaving his partner because she gets sick.

    That’s not a hero. That’s a decent person. Is this really more than a person can ask of a partner?

    Not to be discarded?

  17. Hyel-

    WORD. SO MUCH WORD. It’s like when people go out of their way to say what a great guy someone is for staying with his partner during an unplanned pregnancy and helping to raise the kid. NO ONE THANKS MOM, THEY JUST ASSUME SHE’S UP FOR THE TASK.

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