SO FAR, I'VE ONLY broken one part of the wedding pledge in which we vowed to love and cherish each other "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health."
I grew up in the generation whose mothers taught us that it was just as easy to love a wealthy man as a poor man. What mothers didn't say was that it's much easier to love a healthy man than a sick man. While mothers sent us off on honeymoons with sage advice about pushing our husbands' careers (do), and dealing with mothers-in-law (don't), they conveniently overlooked telling us that the man of our dreams would one day be sick as a dog, would be unbearable to be around, and that there was no force on earth that could get him to the doctor.
Perfectly reasonable, intelligent, sensible men, who demanded the best of medical attention for their wives and children, refuse to go to the doctor themselves until they are desperately ill and have to put their wives and famililies through no end of torment. "He's absolutely ghastly," says the wife of a scientist who refused to seek medical attention during more than 20 years of marriage until finally driven to the doctor recently by a frightening cough.
Says the ex-wife of a prominent journalist: "I would say he ought to see a doctor and he'd say no, I'm not that sick, and he'd get sicker and sicker and I would insist he go to a doctor and he would adamantly refuse to go. He'd get furious any time I made a move to try to take care of him or make him feel better. He'd say go away and don't bother me and when I finally went away, he'd almost pout. Days later he'd say, but I wanted you to take care of me. How was I supposed to know that?"
"It blows their ego for something to be wrong with them," says the wife of a government official. "When I try to get him to go to the doctor he says he's not sick.He'll be rolled up in a knot and writhing on the floor, in such pain he can't move. Never in a million years would he go to a doctor for a bad cold.
"If you're sick, it means you can't go to work and if you can't go to work, it means the whole world is going to crumble at your feet because you're not there," she says. "They love their work and they sincerely feel they're making a huge contribution and they don't have time to be sick. I don't like to go to the doctor, but if I'm sick, I want to get better and I want to get better quickly."
"We just stay as far away from him as possible when he's sick. He doesn't want to be touched. He wants to go to bed and sleep and be left completely alone. It's a drain on family life. It's a strain on other family members because there's somebody who refuses to accept reality and get some help. You can almost compare it to having to live with an alcoholic. You try to get him to a doctor and he refuses and you argue and it becomes another bone of contention."
Men say they don't go to the doctor when they're sick because it costs them money and time and they're afraid the doctor will find something seriously wrong, and besides, they're bound to get better sooner or later.
"I think it has to do with the macho image," says Washington psychiatrist Belinda Straight. "Boys are supposed to be men and not give in to sickness and not give in to danger and not be afraid of body contact sports and certainly not cry. I think boys are much more reluctant to seek help when they need it. I think it's much easier for girls and women to accept getting any kind of help whether it's from a doctor or a teacher or asking directions in a car. I can't tell you how many men won't ask directions in a car. They'll wander around for miles and miles rather than stop and ask help.
"Men make it very hard on their wives who want to help them. They see they're sick and yet they can't get them to make a move toward taking care of themselves until they get so sick they can't really take care of themselves anymore. They say doctors are as bad as anybody about this."
That's image part of the problem, but there's also the practical part, says another Washington doctor. "Until now men have been the only ones who've had to go to jobs, who've had to be certain places where lots of adults have depended on them. They've felt they're indispensible. In addition, . . . for some men being known to be ill is a career handicap. Since so-and-so had his first heart attack, he may get passed over for a promotion . . .
"Women have been traditionally allowed to be sick. The pharmaceutical profession has been criticized for using women in advertisements for tranquilizers but in fact, it's been women who are most willing to admit to physical and psychic distress.
"Women now are adopting all the pseudo appurtenances of masculinity-indifference to pain and discomfort, unwillingness to seek care, vulgar language. Colonized people oftentimes adopt the very worst habits of colonial administrators."
The National Science Foundation scientist who finally went to the doctor for a terrible cough spent months refusing pleadings from his wife, children and friends. "You could hear him all over the house and all over the neighborhood. He was so congested, it was really serious," says his wife. "But he was too busy to have it taken care of. Finally, he did go to see a doctor. I never did have any luck getting him there. He finally went by himself because he kept waking himself up at night, and waking me up and waking the dog up and the dog would start wandering around. It really got to be annoyance."
There are, of course, women who refuse to go to doctors but there is a strong conviction here that men are much more pigheaded about this than women. It is men, after all, who take to the beds and insist everyone in the house be absolutely quiet while they suffer. It is men who let themselves become so desperately ill that when their wives finally get up the courage to secretly summon the doctor the husbands don't have the strength to get nasty about it anymore.
Men like this aren't easy to love and they certainly aren't easy to cherish. You can love men when they're poor and when they're having a career crisis and when their ex-wives hit them for back alimony and child support and when the IRS audits the income tax return he prepared and you signed. But it's awfully hard to love a man who takes to his favorite chair in the living room, wrapped up like an angry bear in layers of blankets, coughing and wheezing, cursing and sneezing, defying anyone in her right mind to get near him. Men simply aren't lovable then. They're a pain in the neck.