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In Sickness and in Health

I, John, take you Krista, to be my wife, to have and to hold, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, from this day forward until death do us part.

The traditional Christian wedding vow has to be one of the most powerful sentences ever constructed in the English language. It’s concise, clear, and direct, and almost chillingly packed full of meaning. For better or for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. ‘Til death do us part. There’s no room left in there for ambiguity, and it’s enough to immediately make even the most love-struck individual turn somber and thoughtful. That’s a sentence that say, “This is for real, kiddo. Are you sure you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

But that’s an unfair question; no matter how long and hard you think about it, you can never truly know the answer. Are you ready to spend your entire life with this person? Will you be willing and able to cope together with all the obstacles life throws at you? You can hope so, sure, but nobody out there can foresee all the difficulties they will have to deal with in life, or how they will cope in every single case. When you say that vow, you’re making a solemn pledge and a promise… but you’re also hoping like hell that you’re up to the task.

It’s so easy to judge others based on what we can see from the outside. That fact was painfully on display than this morning, when news broke that John Lackey and his wife were divorcing, a mere six months after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and went through a double mastectomy. The headline writes itself, doesn’t it? What sort of person leaves his seriously ill wife just at her time of need? For those that wanted to judge, it was all too easy to react negatively to the news and to cast Lackey as a villain.

But the underlying assumption hidden in that criticism — that serious illnesses strengthen relationships and reduce divorce rates — sounds backwards to me. Illnesses like cancer put a stress on a marriage unlike anything those people have had to deal with before; if anything, wouldn’t illness promote discord and stress, and increase the couple’s odds of divorcing? Let’s see what the stats say.

Before we look specifically at families dealing with critical illnesses, it’s important to get a basic understanding of the complexity of divorce statistics. There have been hundreds of articles written over the past decade about the high divorce rate and what it means about marriage in America, but more often than not, those articles overstate the current epidemic of divorces. Consider:

I wish I could claim credit for such research, but this chart is from “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers.

The important lines to look at in this chart are the bottom, sold black line (divorce rate) and the very top line (divorces per 1000 married couples). Both rise through the ’60s and ’70s, and peaked right around 1980. While there are all sorts of interesting societal factors that contributed to the surge, it’s worth noting that divorce rates these days are the lowest they’ve been since 1970. In fact, when you look at those historical trendlines provided, our current divorce rate is about what you’d have expected in 1930 if you simply extrapolated past trends into the future.

As for the commonly cited “50% of marriages end in divorce” statistic, that fact was taken from a research article that tracked couples married in the 1970s through time. While 48% of those marriages ended in divorce, that hasn’t been the case for people married in later decades. It’s still too early to tell how many marriages from the ’80s and ’90s will succeed — same can be said for the Aughts, obviously — but with the current lower divorce rate, odds are those end up closer to 40% than 50%.

But when you try delving into the “why” behind divorces, things become messy real fast. There are tons of variables that affect if a person is likely to get divorced or not, and it can be easy to assume causation when, in fact, a relationship doesn’t exist. Are women from Wyoming so likely to get divorced (28.7 divorces/thousand people, highest in the country) simply because they got married in Wyoming, or is the root cause some other tangential factor instead (economic status, isolation, etc.)?

In John Lackey‘s case, he had a handful of variables working both for and against him. He got married at 29 years old, an age where only 22% of marriages fail, and this was his first marriage (which are generally more successful than second and third marriages). He graduated from high school and attended one year of college… and as education increases, so does the success rate for marriages. But at the same time, he was making a large amount of money, and people that bring in more than $75K per year have a higher divorce rate that people that bring in less. And according to Census data over at divorce360, Lackey’s marriage had an above-average risk of divorce.

And of course, that’s without us considering his wife’s recent diagnosis of breast cancer. While we could use more research on how a diagnosis affects a marriage, the best available studies that I could find all had relatively similar points: having a spouse diagnosed with cancer (or another serious illness) makes your marriage slightly more resilient (i.e. lowers the observed divorce rate). However, it’s not quite as simple as that; divorce rates vary depending on which spouse was diagnosed, and what type of cancer they were diagnosed with.

While each family is obviously unique, in general, when a wife is diagnosed with cancer, the couple is at a much higher risk for marital problems. These marital problems may not end in a divorce, but they can result in increased stress and depression for both the husband and wife; it’s not necessarily that “men are spineless weasels” looking to worm out at the first sign of trouble, but simply that they aren’t as well prepared to care for themselves and their spouse, and keep up their job, and manage their family all at the same time. Due to how our society prepares us, women find it more natural to step into the homemaker, caregiver role (again, we’re talking in large, general terms right now), but it can be a difficult transition for many men.

Also, as a general rule of thumb, the more serious the type of cancer, the lower the divorce rate. Terminal cancers can be very stressful, but it’s actually the more run-of-the-mill cancers that have the highest divorce rates.* Enough stress to cause emotions to flare and friction to develop, but not serious enough that it causes too much guilt over a divorce. And yup, according to one study, breast cancer is around the 6th most likely cancer diagnosis to end in divorce.

*Well, there’s more to it than that, but we’re already well over 1,000 words here. If you’re looking for more specifics, read that study I just linked to.

John Lackey has had one heck of a rough year. He’s struggled mightily with his job performance, and while we can’t know what goes on in his head, I think it’s safe to say that his wife’s diagnosis and his subsequent marriage problems have been a large stress for him. So personally speaking, I have a tough time demonizing him. Yes, he’s divorcing his cancer-addled wife, but who among us is to say how we’d react in a similar situation? Do any of us know what it’s like to be a multi-million dollar athlete with a sick wife, huge job pressures, and a schedule that requires constant traveling? Maybe Lackey is a jerk, maybe not, but who are we to pass judgement?

Instead, if I had to pick one “villain” of this story, I’d go with the Red Sox. When Zack Greinke got placed on the Disabled List a few years ago for mental health issues, I was hoping more teams would start paying more attention to their players’ mental well-being and acting accordingly. I understand that these players have huge contracts and teams want to get as much value from them as possible, but seriously, what has Lackey contributed to the Sox this season? One-hundred and sixty innings of a 6.41 ERA and 4.70 FIP? I find it tough to believe the Sox couldn’t have found a way to replace that.

When Lackey first said earlier this season about that, “Everything in my life sucks right now,” the Sox should have acted. Send him to a psychiatrist to get mentally evaluated, give him as much time off as he needs, and don’t let him back until he’s also been cleared by his doctor and he agrees to having regular check-ins. He obviously was in no fit state to pitch, yet the Sox gave him a few weeks off and then sent him right back out there again. And well, we can see how much good that’s done both Lackey and the Sox since then.

“Are you sure you know what you’re getting yourself into?” None of us ever do with marriage, and John Lackey was no exception. While I don’t want to lessen the import of his divorce — divorces suck, even at the best of times — these sort of decisions are not as cut-and-dried, black-and-white as many people make them out to be. At the very least, Lackey deserves the benefit of the doubt, and MLB deserves some tough scrutiny until they improve their track record with mental health problems.