(Names and situations altered as requested)
I recently had a discussion with a friend. Her father was in care. On his floor was a young man with a chronic illness. He had been placed in the facility after his wife divorced him. “Can you imagine divorcing someone because of that?” she asked me. She was shocked when I simply said, “Yes. I can.” I have tried to explain in the last few articles why some people have no choice but to divorce and how, sometimes, it works out for the best for everyone involved.
One well spouse described it as follows: “You know how when someone is drowning and you go to help them and in their panic they hold on to you and you both start to drown. The only thing to do for both of you to survive is to loosen their hold on you, even if it means knocking them out. If you don’t do that, neither one of you will survive. And, horribly, sometimes you have to let go and watch the person sink because they are too frightened to let go of you long enough to grab the life preserver. Then you have to let go of them or you will drown alongside them. That’s how I see chronic illness.”
Chronic illness calls for the family to make adjustments − frightening, unusual adjustments. It is often the difference between life and death of that family whether these adjustments are made.
One of the few things that gave Moshe relief from the stress his illness caused him was to smoke. His wife understood this and put up with the odor the smoking left in the house and the discoloration of the walls and household items. But when their one-year-old son was diagnosed with asthma, Moshe’s wife asked him to stop smoking in the house. The doctor had said that it was detrimental to the baby to be around smoke.
Moshe’s response was, “This is my house and I’ll do what I want,” and refused to smoke outside. He could not overcome his fear, or need long enough to grab the life preserver for the family. And so, over time, the family drowned. They divorced.
Sally’s way of coping with her chronic illness was to be quiet. When things didn’t go her way and she didn’t get what she wanted she refused to speak to her family for weeks at a time. As a result the family desperately tried to engage her in conversation, worked harder to meet her needs and became guilt-ridden about what they had done to cause this behavior. When Sally was feeling better about things, she felt she didn’t need her family and pushed them away with her words and deeds. Never knowing which of the guilt-imposing behaviors they’d come home to, Sally’s family felt the only way to save themselves from drowning was to release Sally’s grip on the family. The only way they could do it was to leave. That marriage also ended in divorce.
Yochanan was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The traumatic stress that was identified, was his marriage and the way his wife coped with her chronic illness, her fear of having to go to a nursing home and the way she reacted to him because of that fear. He asked his wife to join him in counseling so they could change the dynamic in the family, change the way she coped and relieve his trauma. His wife refused. Yochanan stayed in the marriage. He died several years before his wife. As a result she had to be placed in a nursing home.
Marvin’s chronic illness left him fearful of losing his job. He put all his energy into doing his job, leaving no time for his family, who were left to cope on their own through all family problems and crises. Marvin chose his job over his marriage, which eventually ended in divorce. In the end, Marvin was placed on disability. He remained as alone as he had forced his family to be before the divorce.
All marriages have their problems. Chronic illness compounds those problems and adds a tremendous number of new ones. Sometimes, for either party to survive, divorce is the only answer. Sometimes, families work it out and survive intact. And sometimes the family stays together because no one can do anything different. No one can let go of their fear long enough to grab the life preserver and make the needed changes.
And, that is the saddest choice of all because, in that case, the family just drowns slowly − together, a little each day, with everyone miserable and stressed. It is up to each member of the family to decide which way he/she will choose − even if that choice ends in drowning. Sometimes it is the only way they can go.
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