Friday, October 5, 2007

Relationship Roles & Illness: Why Is It So Hard?

Part 3 in a 4 part series on Relationship Roles and Illness

Serious illness seeps into every refuge and rift in the terrain of an intimate relationship. It strains all daily routines and customary roles. The ordinary can no longer be taken for granted. Doctors, drugs, hospitals, and healers merge into the substance of the relationship. Unexpectedly, life and death choices become the focus of conversation instead of the wonderfully conventional “How was your day, dear?” or “What would you like for dinner?”

Underneath the enormity of this shift, some couples find that the relationship-building work they have done for years is there to support them. They can be partners in crisis just as they have been partners in life all along. Other couples find that the health crisis slices through the fragile ties that have held them together and that without the familiar routines to buoy them, they flail.

However, no matter how strong the relationship structure, illness creates new rents or widens existing cracks. Why is this? Because on some level illness makes us children again and then takes away the promise of “happily ever after.” Both partners are hurting and scared and want someone to make it better. Both are facing loss and abandonment and want someone to make it stop and to tell them that it will be all right. And that cannot happen. Even with physical recovery, the sundering caused by illness leaves its stains.

It is awful to look at the face of your sweetheart and see pain, fear, and helplessness when what you want so badly is to have it back the way it was. Some couples can find and hold each other with understanding and compassion. Some couples direct their rage against the seemingly omnipotent enemy, illness, against each other, and demand from each other the fortitude illness has taken away.

And all this turmoil is backdrop to the daily demands of dealing with a health system in crisis. Couples still have to deal with making appointments, finding specialists, researching new treatments, taking new medications. And the demands of ordinary, daily life don’t wait either. Children need new school clothes, groceries must be bought, and the office still expects you to do your job. Can you feel the pressure building?

How can couples deal with all three intersecting tensions -- daily life requirements, illness demands, and erupting emotional issues. One answer is they can't. Not alone. It takes a village to help a couple dealing with serious illness manage the daily tasks, the medical choices to be made, and the emotional upheavals. Neighbors, friends, and family (if you're lucky) can be enlisted to chauffeur the kids, do grocery shopping, rotate cooking dinners. A trusted companion can sit with the ill partner when the well partner needs a break. I, thankfully had my beloved friend, Tom, "Barbara-sit" when Richard needed to see the opening of the first Lord of the Rings movie. And I have participated in cooking brigades when an ill friend and her partner were too exhausted to prepare anything more demanding than cheese and crackers.

In the next installment on the topic of Roles and Illness, I will offer some more suggestions of things the couple can do themselves to help each other cope.

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