This begins a 4-part series on Relationship Roles and Illness.
Illness is an amplifier – enlarging existing relationship patterns and boosting the complexities. Illness forces awareness that might otherwise go unnoticed for years. In every activity– to hold, to feed, to acquiesce, to argue, to seek outside help - the couple looks into the mirror of their relationship. And often, illness forces decisions that change the nature of the relationship.
Susan and Charles both had a previous marriage and children. They had been living together for many years and had settled into a comfortable pattern in which Susan controlled and Charles accommodated. This was a satisfying arrangement and suited Susan’s outgoing, decisive nature and Charles’ restrained, more placid personality.
After ten years as committed partners, Susan was diagnosed with uterine cancer and had a hysterectomy. Susan’s recuperation was long and difficult, and she could not continue to oversee the tasks and patterns of their lives with the degree of vigor she had prior to her cancer. Initially, Charles responded by accelerating his attentiveness and taking on more responsibility. The situation changed dramatically when Charles’s demanding teenage daughter came for an extended visit.
Swept away by the waves of his daughter's adolescent antagonism, Charles reverted to his customary, more passive stance and expected Susan to return to her "take charge mode." Susan, however, was still too debilitated and wanted to continue to be taken care of. The conflicting role needs of the couple collided repeatedly until a crisis point was reached. Susan insisted that either Charles' daughter leave or she would. The daughter left, but the rift in the couple relationship remained, and Susan and Charles decided to separate.
After several months apart, Susan and Charles reconciled, but they realized that things could not go on as before. They needed to create a better role balance in their relationship. With the help of a good couple's therapist they worked on equalizing the relationship load. Now, they each carry a more even share of responsibility and consciously nurture each other.
They were committed, and lucky. Susan seems to be recovering well, and their relationship had enough elasticity in it so that it could stretch to accommodate changing needs. This is not the outcome for all couples -- especially when the illness is very long-term and leads to permanent impairment or personality changes .