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Natasha Burton

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Divorce, Cancer Delinked: Child's Illness Doesn't Tear Up Marriage

Posted: 04/11/2012 5:35 pm

On Monday, the results of a 20-year Danish study of 47,000 couples revealed that parents who have children battling cancer are no more likely to divorce than parents who don't.

According to Reuters, the study is based on public registry data for the parents of 2,450 children who had been diagnosed with cancer between 1980 and 1997. These children were each matched with about 18 cancer-free kids of the same sex and age to analyze the differences between the two groups' parents.

The study, one of the largest of its kind, looked at such variables as parents' employment, parents' education and even whether the child had died. And, still, the divorce rate for parents of children with cancer matched that of the general population of parents.

The results help to dispel the myth that a child's poor heath significantly undermines his or her parents' marriage. In 2010, research from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore found that having an autistic child does not harm the parents' marriage, debunking a commonly cited notion that the divorce rate for these families is 80 percent.

"It's extremely reassuring that you can conduct a very large, nationwide, population-based study in which you come up with a null finding, which in this case is a positive finding," said Dr. Christoffer Johansen of the Danish Cancer Society Research Center in Copenhagen, who worked on the study. "This is a dramatic finding because it shows how strong a marriage really is in a period where family is experiencing tough times."

While it's always pleasant to read positive statistics about divorce, I was actually surprised that the divorce rate for parents of children with cancer wasn't lower than the rate for those who don't have ill children.

Various media outlets reporting on the Danish findings have largely emphasized that the study's results show the resilience of marriage. The study's findings are indeed a testament to the ability of parents to simply cope, as Johansen told Reuters, but they also may illustrate that parents of ill children make sacrifices -- even when it comes to personal happiness -- for their children's sake.

As Johansen explained to me, having a child with cancer "changes the whole family life, affects siblings, affects the relationship between the man and the woman, their sex life, taking care of the kids, going to the grocery store -- all aspects of life are affected by the diagnosis and treatment."

I am not married nor do I have a child battling disease, so my take on the data comes from someone completely removed from those life experiences. However, I imagine that a couple caring for a sick child would barely have time to question their level of marital satisfaction, let alone possess the resources to divorce. (Not to mention that no one wants to be the parent who files for divorce in between a child's chemo treatments.) And if you're caring for a sick child and begin to question your marital happiness, it might make more sense to stay together and face it head on as a team, rather than split and wonder if your ex-spouse will be there for you -- and your child -- through the cancer treatment process. In some ways, I wonder if marriage itself becomes a form of insurance that you won't have to go through it alone.

If there was ever a time to stay together for the kids, so to speak, isn't it when one of them is battling a life-threatening illness?

 
 
 

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