Does staying in a marriage for your partner’s healthcare benefits mean you’re using your partner? Or are you giving up your soul just to stay healthy?
My friend Laurie got married a couple of months ago. I did not send her a present or even a card. In fact, the only thing I gave her was a shoulder to cry on. After the ceremony, she ran into me on her way back to work. We found a quiet place to talk for a minute, and between sobs she said, “That really sucked! Marriage should be a choice, not something you are forced into. It felt like a shotgun wedding; no actually, it felt like a hostage wedding. ‘Marry the girl or she gets it right in the leg.’ I will never know now if Jason really loved me enough to want to marry me or if he just could not live with the idea of me being crippled for life.”
Laurie was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was a teenager. Thanks to the medication she could get while she was on her parent’s health insurance, she was able to finish high school, graduate from college with the highest honors and get a PhD in nearly record time. With the academic job market the way it is, she is working as adjunct faculty. She is cobbling together a living teaching classes at a community college and introductory courses at the University. The only insurance she could get cost more than a third of her monthly income and did not cover her medication. Now she needs several rounds of surgery on her leg to repair the damage. Her insurance will pay 70% of what they determine is reasonable and the first of the three surgeries that she needs will eat through their maximum annual payment for non-life threatening in-patient care. The hospital agreed to work out a payment plan with Laurie, but she could not afford the monthly payments let alone the huge down payment. To add insult to injury, Laurie looked up how much the CEO of her health-insurance company made last year and discovered that he made more in the first hour of the first day of the year than Laurie will earn in an entire year.
In the past year or two, Laurie has been dating Jason, who works in a different field and has excellent medical coverage. Jason made it clear when they met that he was not interested in settling down and getting married. Laurie thought that she would be devoting all of her energies to becoming a tenured professor, so she was relieved to be dating someone who would understand her crazy schedule and relentless devotion to her work.
All of that was before the pain hit, before the cheap medication stopped working and the disease began taking its horrible toll. Jason, to his everlasting credit, stayed in the relationship when Laurie could no longer hike with him, when she could no longer go on bike trips with him because she had permanently lost the ability to pedal. He stayed when she gained 50 pounds on steroids and when she came to the heartbreaking conclusion that she would never be able to have children. When it became clear to Jason that his girlfriend was going to become wheelchair-bound for life, and that she had no other options, he begged her to marry him.
I find myself frequently thinking about Laurie’s sad wedding and wondering how many women get married or stay married because they need healthcare. When I casually mentioned on Facebook that I was writing an article about this my inbox was almost immediately flooded with stories of women who had married or were remaining married because of similar situations.
One woman got married when she was fairly sure that she had breast cancer. By the time that she was diagnosed, it had already advanced to Stage 3. She continues to stay married to a man that she is not entirely sure she loves because without his healthcare coverage, she will die. On some level, I think she worries that she is using him.
Another woman wrote me because a few years ago she had finally decided to leave her emotionally abusive relationship. As she was packing her bags, she began slurring her speech and a friend rushed her to the hospital where it was discovered that she had an aneurysm. She had two strokes during surgery and nearly died. When she got home from the hospital, her husband had already unpacked her bags. He knew that she could never leave him. She is still with him, five very long years later. He no longer feels the need to show her even the slightest kindness. Every time she takes the medication that will hopefully keep her from having a recurrence and every time she goes in for another MRI she seethes with resentment. She is paying for those pills and that care with what feels like her very soul.
I recently mentioned to my husband that I was in the same fix as the women I talked with. If I left him, I would be cutting off my access to healthcare. It had never even occurred to him, and he was a bit horrified to think that leaving him could cost me my life. He asked, “How can you truly consent to marriage or feel like an equal partner in marriage when your options are death or marriage?”
He is right. There really can be no greater inequality in a marriage than when one of the partners literally holds the power of life and death over the other.
I am not one to see patriarchal conspiracies lurking behind every tree, but I am starting to see a trend here. As the editors of Rethinking Schools wrote in their powerful essay “The New Misogyny,” “Attacks on teachers—and other public sector workers like nurses and social workers—are overwhelmingly attacks on women.” These are jobs which are predominantly held by women. What’s more they are some of the few jobs in which women have access to guaranteed healthcare. It seems to me that the war against public sector workers, the rage against any universalization of healthcare, and the recent ugly spate of anti-woman legislation are not three separate problems. Rather they are three heads of the same serpent: patriarchal men’s fear of women gaining true independence.
If I wanted to keep women dependent on men, I can think of few better ways than threatening to take away their access to doctors and medicine. With laws that have equalized much of the divorce process, one of the few things that will keep a woman in a bad marriage is the threat of taking away healthcare for herself and for her children. Fighting for universal healthcare is not just about staying alive and healthy; it is about giving women the freedom to remain single, to divorce or to marry when and whom they please without fear for their health and lives.