This is a true story. All identifying information has been changed to protect confidentiality.
Chronic, long term illness can make couples turn nasty. Almost everyone can rally for the occasional acute situation – a hernia, a broken leg, appendicitis, a cancer diagnosis. But when the acute doesn’t resolve, when it takes hold with its vampire teeth and begins to draw away the life energy, the couple relationship can slowly begin to toxify, and even die.
Frank and Kate settled for each other. Each of them had gone for several hot-blooded rides on the relationship roller coaster where they started with the thrill of infatuation and landed at the finish line broken-hearted. With each ride they took, they became a little bit more panicky and a little bit more cynical. Separately they each decided that any relationship that began with chemistry was destined to crash. The pledged secretly to forswear infatuation and seek stability.
When they began dating there were no sparks, no buzz, but there was compatibility. They preferred to read biographies rather than novels. They didn’t like spicy food. They cross-country skied in the winter and rode bicycles in the spring. They rarely argued about personal matters. The only tension that disrupted their calm surface was that they managed a retail business together and Frank started becoming more dependent on Kate for maintaining the office (which she did not enjoy) while he handled sales (which he did enjoy, and was good at).
Five years and two children into their marriage, Frank started developing back pain. He threw himself into the hands of the medical system. Two surgeries and hundreds of pain pills later, Frank was still in chronic pain and hooked on an array of medications that made him drowsy and impaired his memory. For a while Kate commiserated and compensated. She took over all the household responsibilities in addition to managing more of the business. And she did this while trying to bolster Frank’s increasingly depressed ego.
Frank was indeed in pain, and impaired. He asked Kate to prepare special meals for him and to be the one to chauffeur the kids to gymnastics and soccer. Kate began to think that he was exploiting the “privilege” his role as patient offered him. She continued to maintain him, but her early compassion slowly turned to ice cold resentment. Frank reflexively responded to her growing distance by increasing his neediness. He developed headaches, lost track of customer calls, slept until noon, and took frequent naps. Kate felt trapped because they were locked into their business as their only source of income. She became harsher, and he became more helpless. The relationship had turned nasty.
There is no happy ending to report. Kate and Frank continue in this toxic loop that is their relationship. Kate finds distraction and sympathy with her women friends, and Frank finds the same with his army of doctors. While they each might have some subterranean motives for remaining in this tangle that has become their relationship, neither one has any interest in disentangling and repairing. They carry on.
Do you know a couple who found illness too heavy a load for their relationship to bear? Or who found that illness put too much pressure on already frayed relationship seams?