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A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words (Part 3)

As I continue to share the cartoons from a well spouse group I interviewed, I’d like to share one that illustrates a common bone of contention to well spouses and their partners. Have you ever noticed how people tend to talk louder to people whose first language is not English? Clearly they know that saying the same words, just louder, will make no difference in helping someone understand them. Yet, they persist. Have you ever noticed how people who are disabled are also treated to louder voices when they are spoken to? Do people really think that the source of their disability is in their ears or that they must be hard of hearing, since they can’t walk or see or stand? Yet, this is a common practice that we all tend to do. For the most part, it is harmless, sometimes even amusing. But there is one common habit, illustrated by the next cartoon that is neither amusing nor benign.


It is very common for well spouses to be asked about their partner’s condition. After all, when a person is chronically ill, people are concerned. It is just as common for a person to ask their spouses how their partner is, right in front of the person they are inquiring about. It is not that the ill people they are enquiring about cannot hear, nor are they cognitively delayed, so that they don’t understand the question. They are not mute, and are capable of dealing with an inquiry about their health, directed at them when they are alone. However, as soon as they are in the company of their spouse, they are treated as less then a child and are totally ignored. Then the simple question of “How are you?” becomes the whispered inquiry of “How is he?” Further, as soon as the well spouse has the audacity to answer, “Fine.” the answer is usually not accepted and tends to be followed by the question, “Really, how is he?”


The woman in the support group jokingly decided that people see them all as either pathological liars, or just as a spouses, reluctant to discuss their partner’s condition. If indeed, they are trying to avoid talking about the health of the person to whom they are married, why would anyone insist on pursuing it? Yet, this was a common experience to every woman in the group. They told me that people just would not accept “Fine” as the answer, and they felt as if they were being harassed until they came up with something negative to say. As for their spouses, they hated being ignored and dreaded having someone else be asked how they were, especially when they were sitting right there. Many of their wives told me that their partners found it insulting and demeaning.


The wives, on the other hand felt that, bypassing the sick persons when making a simple inquiry about their health and directing it to them instead, just gave them added responsibility. Not only do they have to care for their spouses, often in ways people really don’t want to know about, but they are also now responsible for regular updates on their condition. This is something their chronically ill spouses are not only capable of giving, but might really benefit from handling. It would let them know someone else cares. Imagine for a moment someone coming up to your well spouse, leaning over to him/her, conspiratorially and in a hushed voice say, “Really, how is your husband/wife.” What would your reaction be? What would be the reaction of your spouse? I think the cartoon says it all.

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More Articles from Ann Novick

When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

I’ve read your last few articles on psycho-neurological testing (Oct.8-22) with interest. As a therapist who has counseled couples dealing with chronic illness, I’d like to give you another perspective.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

Very often when we can’t face our big hurts or big loses we focus on the little ones. We can discuss those. We can cry over the small loses, be angry at the smaller hurts even though it may look trite and sound ridiculous to others.

Over the last two weeks we have been discussing one way in which well spouses can determine whether behavior displayed by their ill partners is caused by their illness or is a way they have chosen to act. We have focused on Psycho-Neurological testing, what it can tell us, as well as its pros and cons.

Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

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