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Why Do They Stay?


(Names Changed)


 


         Last week I tried to give some insight into the real existence of a well spouse. “Existence” is mostly their word, because not many of the well spouses I interviewed felt they had a life. They just existed, caring for their spouses and those around them. Their needs, and even their presence, are invisible to those around them. They often have no time for themselves, and when they occasionally find the time, they either have no energy to use it or have completely forgotten what they used to enjoy doing. And so the question of “Why do you stay in the marriage?” always comes up. Here are some of the answers they gave me.


 


         Hinda: I don’t have the courage to leave. My community would condemn me. “How can you leave a sick man like that?” they would ask. They would shun me and probably shun my children, as well. I couldn’t do that to my kids. They wouldn’t understand. I couldn’t deal with that condemnation after giving up 20 years of my life to that illness. I feel guilty about staying too. I know that most of my problems and my kids’ problems − medical, physical, and emotional − would disappear if I got out of the marriage. I just don’t have the guts to be more alone in my community than I already am.


 


         George: I love her. She was always there for me when I needed her. I can’t leave her now when she needs me. Thank G-d I can afford to get help. I’m 70 after all and can’t deal with her physically. But I’ll always be there for her emotionally. I love her.”


 


         Malka: I don’t know. I just don’t know.


 


         Fraidy: It just doesn’t seem right somehow. I don’t think I could cope with the guilt. “For better or worse. Isn’t that the American slogan? I just got the “worse.” I know my life would be better if I divorced, but I just can’t. I don’t even think his life would be worse if I left him. The fighting would stop. The tension and anger would be gone. His needs would still be met, just not by me. But I just feel it’s wrong.


 


         Mark: It’s against my religion.


 


         Susan: I’ve threatened to get a divorce. I even went to see someone to get information. But, yesterday, he finally said, “thank you”to me. It’s been years since he’s said that. He told me how much he appreciates what I’ve sacrificed for him. He even sent me flowers. I feel like maybe, it’s a new beginning. All I’ve ever wanted was to be appreciated by him for what I’ve given up. Just acknowledged. And now, I finally got it. If he keeps it up and continues to appreciate me and show me he does, the whole idea of divorce won’t even enter my mind.


 


         Chaim: We were on the verge of divorce before the accident. But after the accident… I just can’t leave her like this. I couldn’t live with myself.


 


         Minnie: I’d lose the little security I have. I’d lose my house, part of my income. How would I live?


 


         Cybil: I would feel disloyal. I couldn’t be disloyal. I have to stay together for the kids. I have to keep my family together.


 


         Rosey: We started counseling. Things got better. I think the problems most of us have is that the illness disrupts your life so much you both don’t know how to deal with it. Counseling has helped him see what I’m going through. It helped him see that the illness doesn’t affect him alone. It affects the kids and me as well. He is not free of caring for us just because he’s sick. He has to do his share by doing as much as he can for himself and being extra kind and caring of us. If he gets that, I’ll stay. Who am I kidding? I’ll stay even if he doesn’t get it. That’s just who I am. But…I hope he will get it.


 


         Lieba: You know that saying, “When one is sick, two need help.”  I changed it to “when one is sick two must suffer.” That’s it. I accept it.


 


         Moshe: This is my test. Everyone has a test in life. I hope I pass in my eyes and in the eyes of G-d.


 


         As we went around the table I noticed a young woman sitting in the group who looked in shock. She had not participated as yet. Her husband had just been diagnosed with a chronic illness. She had a young family. This was her first support group meeting. Her husband had been diagnosed only two months ago. Finally, she spoke up.


 


 


         “I don’t understand any of you. I love him. I married him. He is the father of my children. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. You all seem so miserable. Is this my future?”


 


         Most of the group didn’t want to tell her it probably was. They didn’t want to scare her away. They knew she’d need their support more than she realized. This was the only place no one would condemn her for her feelings, her inner thoughts, her fears. No one would judge her here. As time went on, as the illness took over her home, she’d need to be able to talk of her ambivalence and get support. As time went on she’d need to have this very discussion with someone. She too, eventually would probably, deal with the question of “Why do I stay.”


 


         You can reach me at annnovick@hotmail.com

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When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

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.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

Very often when we can’t face our big hurts or big loses we focus on the little ones. We can discuss those. We can cry over the small loses, be angry at the smaller hurts even though it may look trite and sound ridiculous to others.

Over the last two weeks we have been discussing one way in which well spouses can determine whether behavior displayed by their ill partners is caused by their illness or is a way they have chosen to act. We have focused on Psycho-Neurological testing, what it can tell us, as well as its pros and cons.

Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

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