Sunday, December 2, 2007

A Story About Chronic Back Pain and a Relationship Gone Sour: Kate and Frank

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?


JJ said...

I Can understand your pain!
I was hit by a car a few years ago and since then I have suffered a lot of lower back pain and back ache! I was on strong painkillers for awhile but then I was getting addicted to them so had to drop them before it got too bad. That was about a year ago now and since then I have been looking for alternate ways of relieving the pain and aching until a month ago I was struggling to find anything that helped but I managed to get hold of a memory foam and I finally got a good night’s sleep!

Judy said...

I can really relate to this story. My husband and I went through a really rough patch a few years ago when I became consumed by CRPS ( complex regianl pain syndrome) I had to do some deep self evaluation , but not until My husband pointed out how much I was pushing him and my closest friends away. It was very hard to hear about how selfish I had become but I am grateful that he loved me enough to be my harshest critic. I had to work on not talking about my own pain all the time. I didn't realize how emotinally unavailable I had become to the people around me. Once I understood, I worked on not being so selfish and trying to be more sensitive to my husband 's needs and my friends. We were able to work past this thankfully. I still have CRPS ( 4 years now) But I know that pain isn't all I am made up of and the worst pain will eventually dissapear, But Mu husband is a keeper :)

Barbara K. said...

even in the good times, relationships are hard work. add pain and you have to work even harder. Judy - sounds like you and your husband know how to do this work. that's a real achievement. I hope your pain fades more every day.

Judy said...

Thanks for the well wishes Barbara and yes you are so right about it being even "harder" work keeping a relationship strong in the face of chronic illness. I am so glad I found this blog site! I am sure I will learn alot in trying to cope with My CRPS. I know that I am on a journey that brings forth many hurdles but I also know that I have conquered much of them through the help of my husband, doctors, therapists and places like this where we can share our experiences.


Anonymous said...

My husband and I have been married 18 years. He was in a car accident 12 years ago that left him with cronic back pain. After several surgeries he was left with a failed fussion. We seemed to muddle through our new life ok for a while. But as of late I see him diminishing so much mentally. We have two children that he simply does not have the "energy to parent" and my emotional needs were put on the back burner many years ago. I have voiced all of this to him repeatedly over the last three years but nothing seems to have the status that his pain has in his life. I am 38 and he has basically turned our bedroom into the extent of his accessable world. Recently he went past my limit and I had to ask him to leave. He has been living at another house for over a month. I just feel so empty of patients for him. I feel so uncomfortalbe about making him get out of his comfort zone. But at what point do you just give up when your partner can not or will not see past their own nose?

Barbara K. said...

Anonymous - thank you for your comment. You have clearly been trying very hard for a very long time. One thing I have learned through speaking with couples dealing with illness is that there is no right way to do it. You do what you can and live with the aftermath.

It does sound like your husband may be suffering from depression on top of his other pain. And it also sounds like you are exhausted and in turmoil. Have either of you been in individual therapy, or couples therapy? His depression (if that's part of what's going on) may be treatable. And couples therapy may help you both talk about and reconcile to the choices you both make.

I also hope you are finding the support from family, friends, support group, religious organization, etc. to help you carry your load and be compassionate towards yourself.

Please come back to this website and let us know how you are doing. I wish you (and your husband)peace and better days.

Anonymous said...

Barbara your instincts are right on, he is depressed. He is seeing a councelor and is on antidepressants since he left. He has always suffered from some leavel of depression but of course it is very severe at this time. He is upset with me that I am calling all the shots. However when someone withdraws form life like he has, they force you into that possition. You become the only one that is able to fill the car up with gas or make appointments or pay bills. Every aspect of life outside the house becomes your area.
I am wondering if between the medication, depression and pain (his councelor tells me that over time cronic pain patients brains can actually atrifie?) that he is just not capable of any husband reponsibilities. And if that is the case what do you do with a man that is mobile but completely stagnat?

Is there anyone else out there on my side of the situation that has been married a long while still loves their spouse but is past lonely, past hurt, past frustrated? How are you dealing with it?

Barbara K. said...

Anonymous - you write about your situation with such clarity and emotion. The question you pose at the end is a big one.

Would you give me your permission to post your whole comment as a leading main blog post, so that it will appear at the front of all my other blog posts. That way more people will see it and may share their situation. (If you prefer that I don't - that's fine too. It's your choice).

Also here is a website you may find useful:

Anonymous said...

That would be ok. Barbara, thank you for your help.