Friday, July 17, 2015

The Last Straw: What Do You Do When You Reach Your Breaking Point? Part 2

Part 2:

In Part 1 we met a woman who had reached her breaking point in her troubled relationship with her ill spouse.  She, like many others, had to ask herself the tough questions that live at the intersection of love and obligation.  She wrestled with deciding what her obligations were to her partner, and what her obligations were to herself.

This wrestling led her to examine her deepest beliefs, feelings, experiences, values, family legacies about illness, and her vision for her future.  Those of you who find yourselves at your breaking point will need to do your own inner excavation.

You will need to carefully and patiently examine all these elements.  You will need to ask yourself core questions like:

  • What does this feeling want me to understand about it?  
  • Is this belief still valid?
  • Do I still need this value? 
  • Are other values and beliefs more important now?
  • Is there another way to think about old family stories about illness and caregiving?
  • What are my bedrock truths?

Hopefully, your findings will begin to take shape, possibly in surprising patterns.  You may see new possibilities emerge, ones that may be pointers to better pathways.

But that's not all.  If possible, the partners should share their awareness, their self-discoveries with each other.  They may find unexpected overlaps or unanticipated differences.  By sharing their discoveries they may find ways to create a better balance, together.  Or they may find that their differences are grievous and irreconcilable.  Either way, the path will become clearer and clearer.

Not all couples can reveal their true-est feeling to each other.  For some, that has never been their habit, and it may be too foreign, or too risky to do so.  In this case, each partner needs to decide for herself what path she wants to walk, how she wants to take the next steps, and whom she wants to invite in as her allies and supports.

The woman I recently spoke with talked with her husband about her unhappiness.  Surprisingly, he not only listened, but shared his feelings about his own misery.  They realized that they each wanted to separate and began considering divorce.

It took courage for this woman to explore her deepest feelings, values, and needs.  And it took courage to share them with her partner.  Her reward was that instead of feeling guilt and shame over inflicting a separation on her ill husband, she felt incredible relief that separation was actually a shared choice.

Reaching your breaking point needn't be a time of shattering.  The intensity of energy at that point can serve as a crucible where the different elements of your essence (and potentially also your partner's essence) can interact to produce something new.   That something new can be separation (as it was with the woman I spoke with) or greater closeness, or a calmer acceptance of what is.


Anonymous said...

I have reached my breaking point. I have been a caregiver for my husband for 21 years. He has had MS for our entire marriage and has had a downhill progression the whole time. Now he is full time in a wheelchair, has a colostomy, and an indwelling catheter. He now has secondary progressive MS. I feel like I am just waiting for him to die so I can start living. Then I feel guilty for even thinking this. I want out. I have to do things I never thought that I would be capable of doing but I’ve had to get over my aversions because there is no one else to do it. It makes me resentful that I’ve had to do that. I’ve told him that I want a divorce. Yes I know that I vowed for better or for worse but I didn’t fully know what I was agreeing to. I was young and idealistic. Now I’m older and resentful. I don’t love him any more. I take care of him because he is my children’s father and I don’t want them to hate me. If I leave there is no where for him to go. Unless you’re destitute there is no help for people. Assistive living won’t take him because he’s not ambulatory. He weighs 450 lbs and requires a hoyer lift to get him in and out of bed. We can’t afford to hire help, we live paycheck to paycheck as it is. What am I to do. How long must I sacrifice my life for his? Yes I know that he has it much worse. He doesn’t have a choice but I do or should anyway. After over 10 years in a sexless marriage, I started cheating 6 months ago thinking that would help me cope. But what it has done is made me realize that I want something more than what I have with my current husband and now I just resent him even more. If I leave I’m an uncaring bitch. If I stay I’m a resentful shrew.

Barbara Kivowitz said...

Welcome Anonymous. What comes across loud and clear from your post is the feeling of being trapped. And waiting - for an ending, for rescue. You are , as I call it in my book about couples and illness, at the intersection of love and obligation. You are asking yourself the perfect question: "How long must I sacrifice my life for his?" And you describe this intersection so clearly:

One road is CHANGE and the other REMAIN AS IS. I think we would see an accumulation of strong feelings (anger, resentment, sadness, yearning, loneliness, and more) on the CHANGE road; and a set of assumptions (may be values) on the REMAIN AS IS SIDE (guilt, no one else will do it, for better or for worse, children will hate me, If I leave I’m an uncaring bitch. If I stay I’m a resentful shrew, and more).

I urge you to give yourself permission to fully examine the confluence of forces at this intersection - the strong feelings, the assumptions, and the values. Allow yourself to turn statements into questions - e.g. turn my children will hate me into will my children hate me. See what thought spaces open up when you stretch your thinking.

There are no rule books when it comes to living with illness in your relationship. You are not bad for elevating the importance of your life. You are not bad for feeling resentful at your partner and at his illness. This makes you normal.

It can often help to reach out for support and help when you are stick at this intersection. Friends, family members, community members, a counselor - people who can help you hold yourself more gently, more compassionately, as you wrestle with the directions you may want to go in.

I hope you return to this site to see if this community can offer any support and personal stories. I'll be thinking of you

Anonymous said...

I am the ill partner, and for 13 years my wife (we are lesbians) has been there for me. I have Crohn's with a j-pouch (I started out with severe ulcerative colitis), incontinence, and strictures/fissures. I also have transverse myelitis, likely an unfortunate side-effect from the Remicade I was given early on. My illness, pain, and disability all but killed intimacy . . . well, heck, in truth it smothered it. Arousal starts the spasms and incontinence, and cuddling is often cut short by neurological issues.

Two months ago I learned my wife took up with her ex for the six months before I found out. Her ex is also disabled, but obviously less so than I am, and was ever-so-willing and available to offer her an ear for her frustrations and her body for closeness and "comfort." While there was no sex, there was lots of hugging and comfort giving-and-taking. I had not a single clue before finding an open dialogue in a chat, but I have to say looking back, I FELT her attention, her time, her care, her giving, slowing seeping away. I have felt the Earth slip away from beneath me, and all I need is for her to know how to give me a hug when I am hurting! I have been waiting for that hug now for two months.

I don't want a divorce, but I am feeling less confident every time we fight that she can withstand the time and effort to help me heal.

By the way, 20 years ago I climbed mountains and kayaked with orcas and my favorite week-end was with a backpack far from people in the wilderness. Now I am tethered to decent plumbing and can only walk so far before I am hobbling. But for some reason I don't get to grieve my loss ... but I must endure her grief for her losses. I am not sure how much more I can take.

Barbara Kivowitz said...

Thanks you for writing to my blog. You are clearly in a lot of pain, physical and emotional. It's hard enough to lose one's sense of self to illness, let alone to see your partner also going down - and seeking comfort elsewhere.

The only recommendation I can make is to communicate with each other - about the hardest stuff. What's not acknowledged doesn't go away, it goes underground and and can become a barrier rather than a bridge.

And if talking together feels too hard or too risky, I'd suggest working with a psychotherapist, for yourself, and maybe for the two of you. You are clearly suffering and a therapist could provide support and possibly help you find greater clarity -- and a safe place to grieve for your own losses. I also encourage you to reach out to the sources of support that may be around you -- family, friends, a spiritual advisor, etc.

You may also find our book helpful. It's for couples living with illness, and the people who love them. There's a button on the home page or you can go directly to to learn more about it.