Relationships, Part 62: When Illness Take Over: What Walking Can Teach Us about Relationships

Stand with your feet comfortably together. If you’re going to walk, what do you do? You take one foot and put it forward until you throw yourself off balance. Then, when you’re ready to fall on your face, at the last instant, you bring the other foot up to meet it, until you are back in balance. Repeat this dangerous operation as long as it takes to get where you’re going.

What are you, nuts? Why would you throw yourself off balance and risk injury when you are perfectly fine standing in one spot?

Because you want to get somewhere.

Relationships are like that. You and your partner are like two feet. Standing together, things are perfectly comfortable, but you can’t stand there forever. You want to try different things, be someone different, do something with your life, develop, grow. It’s inevitable. You feel stuck standing in one place too long. It’s static, suffocating. The blood pools in your legs. It’s bad for the heart. It’s safer to be a moving target. You have to move or everyone else will leave you behind. Can you wait for your partner, your other foot, forever?

Sad to say, people do. It happens all the time.

Normal marriages cycle through two phases: comfort and growth, standing still and moving forward. When you first meet, you take great strides as you get to know and accommodate to each other. Then you are comfortable. Then one partner gets a wild hair to do something outrageous, uncharacteristic, and steps out into perilous space. In healthy relationships, they’re not afraid to do so, because they know their partner will follow. In healthy marriages the partner will come along and they will soon be back into balance.

It’s always one partner who takes the first step. People don’t often get places by jumping with two feet at the same time. Whoever takes the step sets the direction and the pace. The other has to follow.

In unhealthy relationships, people are afraid to change. They wait around for the other to be ready before they take a step. Conditions have to be perfect before they try. If they want to get someplace, they feel obligated to convince their partner to jump with them.

When illness enters a relationship, people get stuck waiting for their partner to change. If one of your feet is injured, the other foot takes the weight. You nurse the bad foot. You don’t go anywhere. Standing on one foot for a long period of time is very hard; just as hard as taking care of a loved one subsumed by illness, but you could do it a very long time if you thought you had to. People have done it forever.

At some point, even a broken foot will be mended. The bone will fuse together, but the muscles will be weak, the tendons stiff, and the spirit uncertain. You’ll put weight on it gingerly and there will be some pain even though the bone is fine. Your first steps will be tentative. You might not even try, but it’s important that you do, because the other foot has been bearing the burden and is getting tired. When illness takes over, people don’t try, even when they could. They avoid pain, dodge uncertainty, and let the other foot carry the weight, even when there is no need.

So, if you are the non-ill partner, in order to prevent illness from taking over your relationship, you will have to take a step. Distinguishing the difference between your loved one and the illness, getting help, creating illness-free zones, and putting on your oxygen mask are all important steps, but the most crucial is to grow. Don’t let the illness prevent you from growing. When he sees you change, he will have to follow along or be left behind.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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