So often when I speak to well spouse support groups, and we talk about how difficult the life of a well spouse is, the topic of why we stay in the marriage comes up for discussion. The reasons given are as varied as the people in the group. The reasons range from religious/moral considerations, love, commitment to the marriage, not being able to afford to leave, right down the spectrum of reasons that usually ends in, “I just don’t know why I stay.”
Until recently, I never had an opportunity to interview well spouses who have chosen divorce. Those women who chose divorce did not make their decision easily or compulsively. They stayed married to chronically ill men for many years before feeling they had to leave. I want to thank them for sharing their stories and feelings with me.
When Lois’ husband insisted she prepare him dinner before she went to chemotherapy, she knew she had to leave the marriage in order to survive. Her husband had been chronically ill for over 10 years. During that time her focus had been totally his needs, his care, his wants. And so, along with her family and friends, she had helped him become totally self-absorbed and dependent.
It was not that her husband wasn’t capable of making his own dinner or even ordering in. It was just that he no longer thought it was his responsibility to care for anyone but himself. To him, his needs came first, to the exception of all else. Now that Lois was diagnosed with cancer, and needed him to be there in any way he could, he seemed no longer capable of giving to her.
His main concern this day was that Lois would come home too sick to make him supper. Therefore, she needed to do it before her treatment, while she could. She heard no words of support for what she was about to go through. He never asked how she felt or if she was scared. He just needed to know his wants would be attended to, as they always were. And so it was on this day that Lois knew she had to leave the marriage if she was to survive.
The self-absorption that often becomes part of those who are chronically ill seems to be a very large contributing factor to the unhappiness of well spouses and a major reason for divorces. The give and take that is so much a part of marriage is often gone. The well spouse gives and the ill person takes. The community supports this by rarely asking the ill person about his family, and asking his family only about him. And slowly, over time, the pattern of self-absorption is set.
Rochel came home from a support group meeting to find her daughter sitting on her doorstep in the snow. She was only wearing her nightgown. She refused to reenter the house until her mother came home. She was angry at her father’s constant demands and constant yelling. He kept interrupting her work for school asking her to do things for him that he could easily do for himself.
She had to come downstairs to hand him the remote control. Then she had to come down to get him a paper he had dropped. Then he wanted a cup of tea. Rochel told me that normally her daughter handled “Dad-sitting” without complaint. But lately things had changed. She had stopped bringing friends home and couldn’t go to their house after school because of her responsibilities at home. She began to get migraines and the pediatrician feared she was suffering from excessive stress.
Rochel had shared her concern about her daughter with her husband. She had asked him to try and be as independent as he could and not ask his daughter for constant help unless absolutely necessary. Her husband only became upset with her. “I’m sick,” he said. “You’re both lucky you’re healthy enough to help me.”
Some spouses leave because they have reached their limit. They feel they cannot go on caring for their spouses without getting some care back. Some leave because they fear for their children’s health, mentally and physically. More reasons next week.
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