Fraidy and Chaim were married for 10 years. They were still in love. They cared for and respected each other. They had weathered the last five years since Chaim’s diagnosis pretty well. Counseling had helped. Chaim learned to accept that he had as much responsibility to be there for Fraidy, not only despite his illness, but because of it. He learned that his illness made it even more important to be an emotional support for Fraidy just as she was a physical support for him. They were the best of friends.
The couple had been trying to have children for years. Finally, seeking genetic counseling, they learned that Chaim’s illness had probably made it impossible for him to father children. Fraidy desperately wanted children. She was still young enough, if she remarried, to have children. And so they divorced. To this day, they remain good friends.
Mini and her husband had also remained good friends and lovers throughout the 15 years of his chronic illness. However, as his condition deteriorated, she began to become ill herself. First she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, then chronic fatigue syndrome. She became ill with shingles and chronic headaches. Her blood pressure soared.
Her doctor first put her on tranquillizers, then antidepressants. Nothing seemed to help. Both Mini and her doctor knew that unless she got her stress under control, chances were she would not outlive her husband. Then, who would care for him?
Mini could never adjust to the perpetual state of crisis chronic illness leaves in its wake. She couldn’t cope with the constant sleepless nights and fears of one disaster following another during the day.
Finally, the couple divorced. Within weeks, Mini’s health improved. She is still there for her husband. She is by his bedside when he is hospitalized. They remain best friends. But not living with him gave her enough relief from the constant stress that the illness brings to still be there for him. For Mini, leaving him was the only way she could manage to be there for him.
A few months after their marriage, a young couple was in a terrible accident. The boy was left a quadriplegic. Despite his insistence, the bride refused to leave him. She felt her place was to be with her husband and care for him for the rest of their lives. The young man, full of love for his beautiful bride, insisted that they divorce. He wanted her to have a life other than caring for him into her old age.
He wanted her to be the wonderful mother he knew she could be. He could no longer give her children. He wanted her to be happy and full of laughter as she had been before the accident. But, she refused. Finally, they agreed to talk to a rabbi and abide by whatever he would tell them to do. Today, she is a mother, raising a large family. She keeps in touch with her first husband and visits often. Seeing her this way gives him joy.
Coping with chronic illness is very hard. The lives of those coping with it are complicated. More complicated then most of us can even imagine. Some people stay in the marriage because of the children. Some leave for the very same reason. Many leave so they can have children. Many leave simply so that they can both survive the stress the illness brings.
We should not presume to judge anyone in that situation for making the decision to stay or leave the marriage. Our job is to lend support. Everyone coping with chronic illness − the one who is ill, the spouse, all members of the family and even close friends, all need our support. They do not need our criticism or our uninformed advice, just our support. And that is the only thing we should feel compelled to give.
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