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November 28, 2015 / 16 Kislev, 5776
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Private and Public Acts of Acknowledgement and Empathy

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(Names changed)

I have often written about the importance of acknowledging someone’s pain and showing appreciation for what they have done for us. These two acts can make all the difference in how a person continues to function. This is especially true for well spouses who rarely get a thank you from the partner they care for and even more infrequently have anyone acknowledge the difficult life they lead.

Many well spouses − even those that do get thanked and acknowledged− have told me there is a difference in how it is done. There is a public “thank you” and a private one. And though both are nice, for many well spouses the public acknowledgement without the private thanks is worthless and even unwelcome.

Judy’s husband, Manny, was physically multi-handicapped but cognitively fine.  Despite Judy’s many requests, Manny never seemed to be able to thank her for the care she gave him.  She said, “It was almost as if he was allergic to the words ‘thank you’. He would ask me to do things for him, but never say ‘thank you’ when I did. I told him how much I needed to hear an occasional word of thanks, but he just wouldn’t. It was like this even when he lived at home.”

Manny would often publicly, in front of friends, sing Judy’s praises and even occasionally acknowledge some things that made life difficult for her. But he never praised her privately. Privately, he demanded instead of asked and rarely showed any interest in what was going on in Judy’s life.

One particularly miserable day that ended with a visit with Manny, Judy began to tell Manny all the awful things that had happened to her while getting to his nursing home. Complaining about her day was unusual for Judy but after coping with the snowstorm outside, the three-hour wait in the doctor’s office, the flat tire, not finding a parking spot close to the facility and dropping the heavy bag of things in the snow that Manny had asked for and then chasing it all over, in the blowing wind − Judy needed to vent a bit.

Manny kept interrupting Judy with tales of his day and the problems his roommate was having. Judy tried redirecting the conversation back to her. Finally, Manny blew up. “I’m the one in here!” he yelled. “You need to pay attention to what is going on with me!”

Judy was beside herself. Why, she wondered, couldn’t Manny just let her vent, show a bit of empathy and then she would go back to listening to him complain like she did at every visit? She had often asked him to do just that, listen to her for just a few minutes, even if he was faking interest.  It was what she needed to feel acknowledged. She didn’t care what publicly positive things he said about her to his friends. It was when she needed him to be there for her, privately, even just to listen, he wasn’t.

Judy’s way of coping was to visit out-of-town friends for holidays. She hated being alone on Shabbos and yom tov. She was rarely invited to anyone’s home to share a yom tov meal and spending holidays alone left her unhappy and focusing negatively on her life. And so, she went away to visit with friends whenever she was invited. Every time Judy spent any time away with friends, a beautiful flower arrangement would arrive to Judy and her host from Manny wishing them a good yom tov.

Her friends were amazed at Manny’s love and caring. His stock rose mountains in their eyes. Judy, though, only became angry. She told me she would trade in every beautiful bouquet for an occasional single flower sent to her by her husband when she was alone and depressed. She felt that the bouquets were an act of selfishness, to make her husband look good in the eyes of their friends and not a way of caring for her. In fact, she said, the flowers had nothing to do with her at all. All that effort to find a florist near her host and send an extravagant bouquet just tells me he is capable of doing it, but will only do it publicly and deliver nothing of what I need privately − for me − when I need it most.

Whether you agree with Judy or think she misperceives her husband’s motives is not relevant here. What is important is that Judy’s needs, as she sees them, are being ignored by the one person she expects to meet those needs, despite the fact that she has verbalized them to him repeatedly. Worse still, the extravagant bouquet Manny sends only when she is away, the words of praise and acknowledgement of her difficult life made only to friends but not to her, shows Judy that her husband is capable of understanding what she needs, but just refuses to deliver. The public display makes the private ignoring even worse.

The chronically ill that are cognitively capable need to hear what their well spouses are asking for privately, and should be ready to deliver. Just delivering in a public forum doesn’t fill the need. To meet someone’s stated need, privately as well as publicly, will not only make the well spouse’s life better, but will also help the well spouse reciprocate in kind.

You can contact me at annnovick@hotmail.com.

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