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A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words (Part 4)

The next two cartoons from the well spouse group I interviewed are almost identical. One seems to me to come from society and one from chronically ill spouses themselves. Perhaps it is the message that society gives us that forms the expectations of an ill spouse. The only one in the pictures, who seems to be objecting to the expectations placed on them, is the well spouse.


I see the box in the cartoon as society’s expectations of well spouses. The role others have decided we should play. Others include, as illustrated in the second cartoon, our ill spouses or perhaps a parent or relative. Anyone who might refer to us as “Dear”. The box, to me, is rigid and inflexible. It does not allow for change. It is being imposed on an unwilling well spouse who is desperately trying to avoid it, even to the point of screaming. The person imposing the box is smiling in one picture. It seems to imply that once s/he is in the box things will be better, at least for those outside the box. The other picture seems to indicate that once you have succeeded in placing the box of expectations on the well spouse, you work very hard at keeping him or her there. The box holder is even jumping on the box in order to keep the well spouse captive.


I spoke to the group about their reaction to the cartoon. Many were surprised to see their feelings illustrated in this way. They were surprised that the cartoonist had picked up on it. Few of them remembered talking about expectations that came outside themselves. Yet, most of them felt it was a very accurate picture of how they felt. They felt trapped in a box of expectations that was not of their making, that they had no say in but could not change. Many of them had been living with ill spouses for more then a decade. They felt the rules needed to be different then in a crisis illness. No crisis lasts 10, 15 or 20 years. Yet here they were, decades later, having the same expectations placed on them as if their spouse had just had his first heart attack after years of exceptional good health. It’s not that those in a crisis have it easier. They just felt that when your life never returns to how it used to be, and you’re always in crisis mode you need to give to yourself. No one else will.


One member of the group saw it a bit differently. She felt the box was self-imposed. They are the rules and behavior we feel are appropriate for ourselves. When I asked her about the look on the faces of well spouses, she told me that it is not something we enter willingly or easily. We may enter it kicking and screaming, but in the end it is we who choose to put the box of expectations on ourselves. To her, the box holder was our conscience, morals and or religious training that helps decide, though not happily, to impose the life we live and the things we do in caring for our loved ones, on ourselves.


Everyone agreed that it was not as much an issue of right and wrong, but more one of what we choose to accept as our role in a terribly challenging situation. The group did feel that if the “box” of societal and personal expectations was not quite so rigid, it would be easier to make changes in care giving that might be beneficial to both the well spouse and the chronically ill. But, most often, any change from the expected norm is dismissed as wrong without even thinking it through. The box is just too big and too hard to break out of.


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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.

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