Feature Archive

Spousal Stress

Are women burdened more when illness strikes a couple?

WebMD Feature

March 13, 2000 (Philadelphia) -- Fern Zeigler, head of a chapter of a national support group for caregiving spouses and partners, knows why the women in such support groups are stressed out. She's been there. "As a woman, I expect to be able to handle everything myself -- work, home, husband, kid," says Zeigler, who directs the King of Prussia, Penn., Well Spouse Foundation. "I find it difficult to ask for help. I think that I should be strong and not burden anyone else."

Zeigler's pattern -- asking too much of herself and not enough of others -- is hardly unusual. A recent study suggests that many women who face illness, whether their own or that of a spouse, feel a sense of overwhelming responsibility. And that?s one reason why women tend to suffer emotionally more than men when serious illness strikes.

When Women Take On Too Much

The study, published in the January 2000 issue of Social Science and Medicine, looks at the ways couples adjust during the first year after surgery for colon cancer. It found that women who have colon cancer or who care for spouses with the same ailment suffered greater emotional upset and felt less satisfaction in their marriages than men in the same situations. The study's authors -- Laurel Northouse and colleagues at the University of Michigan School of Nursing -- noted that women who took care of a partner reported even greater stress than women who were sick themselves and receiving care from a spouse.