Divorce Involving Multiple Sclerosis Requires Care

  • Multiple sclerosis symptoms can flare up at any time.
  • Chronic illnesses, like multiple sclerosis, can lead to divorce.
  • The stresses of custody and divorce can exacerbate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

The predictability of life can be a comfort in an ever-changing world, but often times, the predictability ends abruptly through rapid changes, like divorce, which can often be in our control. Other times, it is disease, which can be outside of our control. When both occur, it can feel like it’s all too much and too soon together.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) deals with an immune-mediated process in which an abnormal response of the body’s immune system is directed against the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves, according to the National MS Society.

The cause for the disease still is a mystery, but many researchers have found several immunologic and environmental factors that may be involved. It’s a disease that researchers have yet to fully understand, and couples can find themselves divided after a diagnosis.

Marriage and MS

Chronic illness has a harmful effect on marriages, as a study at the University of Michigan found. Researchers found that not only did 31 percent of marriages involving at least one sick partner result in a divorce, but the risk of separation for older couples was higher when the wife was sick, rather than the husband.

In fact, a woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced soon after a diagnosis of cancer or MS than if a man in the relationship is the patient, according to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Some researchers focus on how the MS divorce rate is, in comparison to the general population. In the book, “Multiple Sclerosis: A Guide for Families,” Dr. Rosalind Kalb stated that the rate might be lower for people with MS because a person with MS may stay in an unhappy relationship for fear of being alone with the illness.

She also said that the healthy partner may stay in the marriage through a sense of commitment or obligation. Additionally, couples may stay married in order to maintain insurance coverage for the person with MS.

This trend is rising from where it was years earlier. In 1994, the United States National Health Interview Survey of nearly 50,000 households said that 20.7 percent of disabled adults were divorced or separated. For spouses diagnosed with MS, it can feel like the healthy spouse is not displaying the support and comfort that you need.

Case study

Everyday Health profiled a couple, where one spouse was diagnosed with MS, and the healthy spouse was so embarrassed by the diagnosis that they did not want it to be shared with friends in their community, because they saw it as a flaw.

This is a strategy that is actively discouraged by the National MS Society. Seeking support as an individual suffering from MS and their healthy spouse utilizes the comfort of others. If the spouse with MS needs full-time support, asking others to help or seeking respite care programs can be necessary in order reduce the amount of stress placed on a relationship.

Stress can make the symptoms of MS significantly worse, according to Psychological Medicine. The profiled couple was in the midst of a heated custody battle, causing extreme stress that exacerbated the symptoms of MS.

Symptoms, stress and needs

The unpredictability of when MS symptoms will strike can lead to strains on any relationship, due to developing dependency on the healthy individual. The Acta Psychiatrica Belgica published a study on MS’s impact on family and social life, and they found that 56.4 percent of the patients involved in the research were dependent on help from a close relative, more frequently a spouse. The study described the individual with MS’s need for help, risk of divorce, loss of contact with relatives, difficulty in going out, need for structural changes in the home, and the need for pension all increased with the increasing physical handicap.

The thought process behind these risks involve allowing another person’s shortcomings define one’s day-to-day life, and for some, that type of day-to-day life can wear on an individual, until they want out. Dr. Sandra Weintraub, director of an Alzheimer’s clinic at Northwestern said, in a New York Times article, that there is psychological layer where, when you get married, it’s not to be someone’s nurse, and suddenly, you are forced to be someone’s nurse.

There also is a financial aspect to battling MS, while facing marital problems. Not only are you paying for the lawyers to fight your case, but there also are financial obligations for health insurance, disability insurance, life insurance, long-term care insurance, doctors, caregivers, medicines, and additional resources to help someone with MS. It can prove to be a costly experience to say the least, and all of that will be considered by the courts during divorce hearings.

Resources to utilize

The National MS Society also has compiled a brochure, in order to help an individual with MS navigate their legal options. Topics include divorce, child custody, visitation, child support, alimony, maintenance, and other related family law topics, relevant to someone with MS. The National MS Society also holds a free legal clinic the first Saturday of every even-numbered month.

An individual suffering from MS already has a lot to deal with without having to stress about navigating the ins and outs of divorce and custody. Asking for help and finding the support and resources needed during this difficult situation can relieve some of the tension and retain the focus back onto what matters: maintaining one’s overall health and wellness, amid the challenges that disease entails.

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