Can’t vs. Won’t
Yesterday was “treat myself good” day. Hubby was at Melabev (his daycare/club) with Violet from 1 to 5 PM and that meant four hours of freedom for me. I met my friend April for lunch. April is not her real name. I actually do not know anyone named April. I have been sitting here for a while trying to think of a name I could use, that does not actually belong to a person I know. She is entitled to her privacy if I am going to write about her.
April is a very special woman. Bright, hard-working, committed to her community and her husband. She has been fighting cancer for a long time and has other health issues which have landed her at death’s door. Still, she bounces back with a terrific attitude: Life is worth living. Fun is worth having. Enjoy each day as much as possible. Watch old movies and remember when life was simple and everything was possible. Sing old songs and feel the joy of being alive.
On top of all of this, April’s husband has the early stages of dementia. She cares for him with no aide by her side. She is a heroine.
Her husband’s condition has been progressing slowly but surely for years. April says that she would rather have lunch with me than go to a therapist. She is now experiencing the same emotions and situations which I too experienced, a few years ago. Our lunches give her an opportunity to vent and get a bit of guidance at the same time. That works for me! I have a friend who was willing to do the same for me for many years. Her hubby was more advanced than mine, and she helped me to sort out my feelings and reactions. I needed her wisdom. April comes to me for mine.
April shares that it has been a terrible week. Not because of her health, but because of her hubby. She witnesses that he reads a book for hours, but remembers nothing of what he has read. She tells me that he becomes angry and aggressive when she tells him that he is doing something wrong. He used to be the chef in the family, and now assists her. Even that he cannot seem to get right.
April tells me that he “won’t listen.”
I respond quickly: “He can’t.”
“Yes” she responds, “I know.” (I will not let this moment pass)
“No, you do not know. If you really “knew” you would not be upset.”
She looks at me waiting for more. Of course, there is more… Why use two words when I can elaborate at length? It is my “one weakness!”
There is a massive difference between “cannot” and “will not.” How did the word “won’t” come to mean “will not”? Shouldn’t it be “willn’t?” like “can’t for cannot?” I digress again. Sorry.
I ask April to focus on her reaction to these moments of disappointment. Her hubby cannot process the information that she gives him when she asks him to fulfill a task. He cannot remember what he is told. He cannot do what she asks of him. He tries and he fails. Her admonishment makes him angry as well as embarrassed. He would do what she asks, if only he could. He internalizes his desperation: “Doesn’t she realize that?” He is not responsible for what his brain cannot handle. His frustration results in his anger. I ask April to consider all of this. If she will do so, she will not be as upset.
The difference between “cannot” and “will not” – is massive. Once we accept that our loved one no longer has the ability to process our questions and requests, everything changes.
When Hubby begins his rejection-routine of the foods that I put before him, my frustration with it all often forces my lips to move and say “tell me what you want to eat, and I will make it for you!” I know that he cannot. He cannot remember what he likes. My question is unfair and takes us nowhere. It is not that he is unwilling to tell me. He simply cannot.
Understanding that our spouse or loved one cannot access the ability to remember, deduce, and conclude as they did in the past, we will stop our asking it of them. Every once in a while, we will slip up and ask the impossible. We are human, and this is a process.
April finally nodded as a sign that it all made sense to her. When she stops expecting her Hubby to be able to help her the way he once could, she will also reduce these unexpected explosions of anger and frustration. That is not to say that there will never be exasperation or unfair releases of accumulated stress in the future, but hopefully they will not be generated by her expectations of that which Is not possible.
Many years ago, my Hubby had a friend who pointed out to him the difference between “can’t” and “won’t”. They were then- two vital young men dealing with raising a family and running their businesses. His friend Sheldon (of blessed memory) pointed out that not being willing to do something is very different from being unable to do it. It was a discussion about attitude that stayed with Hubby for many years to come. Apparently, it stayed with me as well.
Four months have passed since the luncheon with April. She has called me multiple times to thank me for sharing the difference between “can’t” and “won’t” with her. She thinks of it often and uses the concept to open up conversations with family members who are trying to understand her Hubby’s condition. At the “end of the day”– understanding is our goal. Changing the facts on the ground, is simply not an option.