Monday, March 23, 2009

What if Your Partner is a Jerk? (part 1 of 3)

I occasionally get emails and phone calls from people who are living with an illness who tell me about their well partner. In their stories, their Mary or Bob or Pete (fictional names) sounds like a real jerk. Of course, the ill partner can behave like a jerk too. But I'll write about that in another post.

Mary (let's give her that name) is indifferent to his illness. She doesn't ask questions like, "How are you feeling today?" or "What did the doctor say?" She ignores the topic entirely, as if it's a pile of dog poop she's stepping around. She goes to work, stays late, watches TV in the evenings and reads the newspaper on weekends. Sometimes she's having an affair with a healthy, younger man.

Bob (let's give him that name) goes one step further. He doesn't really believe his mate is sick, or as incapacitated as she acts. He accuses her of malingering. He thinks she needs to get up off her saggy ass and just do it. Just do the housekeeping, the grocery shopping, get a full time paying job, manage child care, and appreciate how hard he works to bring in some money. Bob is angry. He believes that his paycheck is his contribution and blames her for not rising above her illness to take better care of him and the household. He often tell her that "it's all in your head."

Pete is downright nasty. He'll tell her he'll come to her medical appointment and then will be a no show. When she asks him, "What happened?" he either says, "What appointment? You never told me" or "Something came up." Pete will point to her constant tiredness or repeated trips to the doctor and accuse her of being selfish. He will withhold affection. He will walk out of the room when she shows signs of exhaustion or too much pain. He will be kind to other unfortunates and small animals in front of her.

How can the ill person cope when the partner is acting like a jerk?

There are three options. Whether they can help or not of course depends on how willing both partners are to listen and change direction. Sadly, reconciliation may just not be possible for some couples. For others, though, tearing through the layers of silence and distance and consciously shifting communication patterns may help.

1) Empathic communication initiated by the ill partner.
The main theme of this blog is that when illness falls into a relationship, it resides in one body, but two lives are dislocated. The well partner's present and future have also been rescripted, without his permission. He may be angry, afraid, ashamed, alone and unable to do anything other than instinctively fight or flee the threat, which he now sees as embodied in his ill partner. Empathizing with his emotional pain, especially when he is expecting blame, can potentially catalyze a shift in the toxic patterns that have gotten established. It doesn't make it all better, but it can create a starting point for the work.

Now this may seem almost impossible to do when you are the ill partner suffering the double whammy of illness and anger/hurt at your well partner. And you may even, covertly, have become invested in raging at his mistreatment instead of looking in the direction of your own fears about the illness or at the fractures that have existed for years in your relationship.

But if you can say to him, "Sweetie, I'm so sorry that my illness has caused you unhappiness and has disrupted your life." "I know you may see me as selfish or not trying hard enough and that must make it even worse for you." "I'd like to try to make things better." "I'd like to hear what this has been like for you - can you tell me?" Then you listen, with empathy. Isn't this what you'd like to hear from him? Over time, with repetition, this kind of empathic communication may become two-way and may lead to a mutual desire to build more companionable patterns into your relationship.

The two other options are:

2) Turn away from his darkness and towards sources of light.
3) Get professional help in the form of couples therapy.

Both these options will be described in a subsequent post. Stay tuned.

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