Relationships, Part 53: When Illness Take Over

Even when people are firing on all cylinders, relationships can be tricky. When there’s a illness in the mix, they can be impossible.

The partner who is sick, disabled, anxious, depressed, or substance dependent deserves special accommodations. You wouldn’t expect your sick partner to be as attentive to you as you are to her. You wouldn’t pout if your paraplegic boyfriend doesn’t take you out dancing. You’d sooth the nerves of a phobic spouse, cheer up a depressed one, you might not drink in front of an alcoholic husband if it is likely to trigger him. You’d get them to the doctor, remind them to take their medicine, not walk so fast if there’s a struggle to keep up. Few partners would begrudge such kindnesses; most are willing to sacrifice quite a lot. Even those who freely break other wedding vows take in sickness and in health quite seriously.

However, there is a danger that, if illness persists, it will take a couple into a dangerous territory where clarity turns gray and selfishness rules the day. This is a place where individuals disappear and are replaced by need; where spouses are objectified, resented, and manipulated; where wedding vows, conceived to guide people to be the best they can be, are subverted into an evil parody that no one intended.

Illness can change character, the character of both the ill person and the one taking care of him. It ain’t pretty.

It starts in a chicken or egg type manner. It’s hard to say what comes first. You have the sick person who needs accommodations, but the needs of the illness are so great that they push aside the needs of the partner. All the time. Then there’s the non-sick partner whose identity, the very core of why they matter as a human being, can be wrapped up in caring for the sick person and in being what they think is a good spouse. To challenge is to provoke an existential crisis.
The illness takes over. Its needs are so great that it pushes aside all other needs. Caring for the illness is so absorbing, nothing else you do matters.

The ill person believes the illness is all powerful, its demands insatiable, so she obeys. This obeyance gives it power. Illness is fed by the accommodations we make. The sick person who doesn’t eat because all she does is throw up, gets weak. The paraplegic who doesn’t push himself in his physical therapy, withers away. The anxious person who lets his fears control him, puts his fears in control. The depressed person who doesn’t open the blinds, does not receive the healing properties of light. The alcoholic who makes everyone else responsible for his recovery will drink again because others cannot stop him.

The non-sick partner, if he does not already find satisfaction in self-sacrifice and helping, finds that’s all he does anyway. The needs of the illness push aside all other needs. The non-sick partner stops listening to his own desires. It makes little sense for him to acknowledge, for instance, that he needs to get out and see friends when he’s not going to be able to do it anyway. He has to stay home with his sick wife. He becomes more attentive to the illness than to himself, until, at last, all he is, is a hostage and there is no self left.

It may look as though this couple is locked in a pattern from which there is no way out, but opportunities to change offer themselves frequently. First of all, it is inevitable that when illness takes over, the patient will be more impaired, until, at last, he ends up in the hospital, or rehab. The pattern can easily be broken then, if it is recognized and the parties do the brave thing and change.

More often, outside people look in on the situation and say to the non-sick partner, what, are you crazy? They can see clearly when the people in it, can’t.

It’s hard for the non-sick person to take action though, without feeling as though he is betraying his partner. It’s a very delicate matter to stop feeding an illness, because it looks as though you have stopped caring for a sick person.

In my next post, I will talk about the way out.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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