My marriage is sick. It caught it from me.
July 7, 2010 7:48 PM   Subscribe

How can you be a good partner when you have a debilitating chronic illness? Is it even possible?

I've been married for ten years to a very good man. I have a chronic mental illness that, despite years of treatment, has not improved, and seems to be worsening. I am reaching the end of the line where treatment options are concerned, and I have to face the possibility that things will never get better and that I will just have to learn to cope with being permanently sick.

My illness is making me a bad partner. I can't be counted on to take care of basic life details that you would normally count on your partner for (division of labor stuff, chores, etc.) I also have trouble being generally emotionally supportive, taking an interest in his interests, supporting him with his troubles, and so forth. I spend a good deal of time sleeping, staring off into space, and avoiding going outside or socializing. We don't have much of a sex life or show each other much affection, since the strain has, over the years, eroded much of our closeness.

Basically, I am not a good partner at this point. As my illness seems to worsen, I am not sure I ever will be. It is beginning to affect him in a major way, after so many years of struggling, to the point where he is developing his own illnesses in response.

I am seriously considering dissolving our marriage because I don't think it is fair to put him through this for another decade or more. We would both be better off alone than to be together, making each other more miserable and unhealthy.

My question is: can someone with a chronic illness to this degree ever be a good partner? What can I do to be a better partner? Given the limitations I've described, is it even possible?

If you have a chronic illness (mental or physical), what have you done to help compensate for your limitations and be a better partner? Has anyone had to abandon long-term relationships altogether because of illness?

Please don't give me suggestions for how to treat my illness, or suggest that I am not actually sick. I've been through extensive assessment and treatment with many doctors, medications, and therapies, and I'm continuing to explore the options I have left. I have an extensive and fatal family history of this illness, and my doctor has broken it to me that my chances of recovery are remote.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know the answer to the question of whether/how you can be a better partner to your husband.

But not everyone has the same needs. You can be a perfect partner to a person who needs the things that you are able to provide, and doesn't need the things that you can't provide.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:05 PM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am so sorry, Anon. This sounds heartbreaking. Is there any way you may be able, when feeling well, to delegate some of the day-to-day responsibilities to someone(s) OTHER than your husband and yourself? Even for a little while? I wonder if being able to focus primarily on each other (rather than laundry, chores, compensating for everything you weren't able to accomplish while NOT doing well) during your better days might help a bit.

I know all too well that mental illness can wreack havoc on relationships - my own depression (and, to a lesser extent, that of my partner) has been punishing. For us? We utilize a "live like you're dying" approach when we're both doing well... goofy, spontaneous, lovey-dovey shit can tide you over through a lot of rough times, moreso than just normalcy (however blessed normalcy seems). However, YMMV.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:15 PM on July 7, 2010

A couple of people close to me have chronic illnesses, ones which negatively impact on their lives and will never get better. Both of them have said that therapy really helped. You're getting to the point where you have to learn to live with this problem you have, which sucks I know but that's how it is, so getting some outside help to teach you to do that is entirely appropriate.

Both the people I'm referring to above have happy healthy relationships, and a good part of that is due to the therapy and coping skills they've learned. Your partner probably needs support too so either therapy or couples counselling or some kind of support group for this kind of illness would be helpful for them too. It might be that they can't cope long term but having support through that process will be helpful for both of you regardless of how it turns out.

Even if you do leave your husband you still have to live with what's wrong with you. Even if you gets better you both have to deal with the fall out of what's going on now. So instead of giving up on everything fight for a decent life despite the problems, you deserve it. Therapy and other support services are there to help you do that.
posted by shelleycat at 8:17 PM on July 7, 2010

You don't have to make the decision to leave him on your own. If you go to a marriage therapist you can both talk about it in a neutral setting with an objective observer. But then sometimes relationships run their course, too. If that's the case you shouldn't have to beat yourself up about the reasons. The only way to find out how to be a good partner is to talk to him about it with a marriage therapist.
posted by amethysts at 8:18 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am seriously considering dissolving our marriage because I don't think it is fair to put him through this for another decade or more. We would both be better off alone than to be together, making each other more miserable and unhealthy.

Even if this is true, it's also unfair for you to make this decision on your own. He needs to be involved in discussions and decision about how your joint relationship goes forward, or not, given this sad news/circumstances and its ramifications for you both, as individuals and as a couple.
posted by carmicha at 8:22 PM on July 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'll probably get in trouble for saying this, but would you be opposed to polyamory? If he's starving for affection and you're just not up to giving it and probably never will be, would you mind terribly if he had some kind of secondary/FWB relationship for that? It might help him to be able to stay with you if he can get some needs met elsewhere, and you might not feel so bad about not being able to be there for him on that level.

(I'm assuming the answer will probably be "hell no, monogamy forever," but I'm trying to think out of the box here. I have heard of some folks having arrangements like this when they had a chronically ill spouse.)

On a similar note, is there any other person you could have come in and help with the chores and other things? Friend or relative that's willing to take some burden off him where it can be done?

Can you be a good partner? If you define that as someone who gives him sex and can do the chores, maybe you're just not going to be able to provide that on that level. I'm not sure what you can do to be "better" given your limitations, especially since I don't know them. But I don't necessarily think breaking up is better either, especially if well, you are unable to care for yourself, which it sounds like is the case. If I were your husband, I'd feel like a real asshole leaving my wife who's too ill to live on her own, even if I disliked you (which I'm sure isn't the case). I suspect you may just have to try to provide for him on an emotional level as best you can given your physical condition. And how to do that is where therapy comes in.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:47 PM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

One of the first steps is to talk to your husband about this -- get out in the open that you want don't want to make him unhealthy, and that you recognize that the marriage is not an equal partnership. By working together, you can hopefully reach a new balance.

During my worst period of depression, I tried to encourage my husband to enjoy himself -- to go out for drinks, out with friends. I couldn't support him by getting off the couch, but I could shut my mouth when he wanted to do something fun, even if I wanted him to curl up on the couch with me.
posted by freshwater at 8:51 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

You also need to recognize that this hopelessness and inability to see the possibility of things improving is itself one of the symptoms of your illness. As such, it is hard to use it as a realistic barometer by which to measure things. NAMI has some good resources for families & partners - perhaps your husband might find some support there.
posted by judith at 9:05 PM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am so sorry you're going through this. I have been in the position your partner is in, in a long-term relationship that ended for a variety of reasons. Her chronic illness was hard on us both. Besides struggling with her illness, she was also struggling with her conviction that she was an undesirable partner.

My advice, such as it is: if possible, do not take it upon yourself to decide whether or not you are a suitable partner. With due respect and empathy, that's your husband's call.

I hesitate to pronounce on what you can do to be and feel like a better partner. I know that in my case, mostly what I needed was to hear a "thank you" every now and then. That often made me feel it was worth it to shoulder a lot of the division of labour stuff, and deal with the lack of intimacy/sex life.

It makes me feel like a bit of heel to say all that, but I guess that's what I was feeling. Those thank-yous do often get forgotten in relationships.

Warmest wishes.
posted by YamwotIam at 9:22 PM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's a tough question that you ask.

I'm physically disabled and it does indeed put a huge strain on my relationship (wonderful husband of 10 yrs). We talk about it when we need to. We talk about what he needs, what I need. We talk about the things that are hard; for a long time he tried not to, thinking that it wasn't fair to burden me with things that I can't change, but that just leads to even more stress (and I can certainly bear to know what's making him unhappy, even if I can't fix it). Sometimes just telling someone you love about how hard life is can make it ease up, at least a little.

It's hard to try to be a partner when there's so much I just can't do. We both feel overwhelmed, all of the time. There's too much to do and not enough time to do it in, because I simply can't hold up half of the home life or the income. But there ARE things that I can do, and I do them. Some things I still do better than he does, and I do those. I keep track of others so he doesn't have to, and just let him know when they're coming up due. There are things I can do easily: be emotionally supportive, be there for him when work sucks, be someone who loves him.

I try to emphasize the things he does think are important, the things he really wants from me. Sometimes they're not what I expected, so clear communication really helps. He does the same for me. We know what's important to us and we do as much of that as we can; other things may take second place. We try to keep a sense of humor and a sense of play. We've got a major drag going on but we don't need to sit around and contemplate it all the time. It's okay to think about other things.

It's also okay to realize that sometimes we need help. We *are* both stressed and we don't really have a good handle on that--we're dealing with some pretty unreasonable elements in life. We're going to be going to couples therapy to make sure we can manage things as much as possible. We can't change the disability, but we can change what we do, and maybe there are things that would work out better for us.
posted by galadriel at 9:32 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is such a delicate issue. It seems that only your husband can tell you if you can\will meet his needs and be a good spouse.
He could be heartbroken that you're even having these thoughts since you are so ill. He may be trying to stay by your side and support you as well as he can through such a difficult life.

It's hard to say since we don't have much of an idea of what your illness is but you say that you avoid going out, socializing and taking interest in him.
That makes me think that if you really wanted to, you could suck it up and take one for the team every once in awhile.

I guess you need to ask yourself, before speaking with him, if you think dissolving the marriage is TRULY something you want to do to make yourself feel better -- regardless of your current or future abilities as a partner.
Is this something you are thinking about so you feel less guilty and have less pressure on yourself to live an active physical\social life? Is there a different reason? What will really make you the happiest?
That's priority 1 as an ill\possibly dying person (no matter if that pursuit of happiness leads you to leave him OR make some kind of personal sacrifices so you feel better while you're with him because he feels better, etc...)

After you think you know that answer talk with your husband and ask him what would make him the happiest. I hope you meet in the middle.

Best wishes on your health, happiness and overall well-being.
posted by zephyr_words at 11:07 PM on July 7, 2010

You sound really depressed.

There are two issues here: first, whether you can help around the house with chores etc. Second, your ability to be emotionally supportive as a partner.

I really, truly think that if you commit to treating your depression and perhaps engaging in talk therapy to deal with your feelings around this terrible chronic illness you will be able to better be a caring partner.

The chores then will simply become something to be managed like anything else.

Best wishes to you.
posted by miss tea at 4:45 AM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

We would both be better off alone than to be together, making each other more miserable and unhealthy.

Well, this is the answer you need, if you truly believe it, but I don't think that you do. I think that you want to be with him and want to be happy. How do you make that work?

The first step to me is to get your affection for each other back. Take the weight off of yourself to do everything but show him affection. That's your job. Be kind to him. Give him kisses. Fake like you're excited to see him when he comes home. Show him that you love him.

The next step is to get individual therapy, or couples therapy, or a support group for people with your illness and a support group for partners, or all of these things. Chronic illness requires chronic support--emotional and physical.

Best of luck.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:10 AM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was severely depressed for a couple of years. Life was simply an agony - for me and for the people around me.

Then I got better.

But the thought of how I could drag people down has never truly left me. I broke off a budding relationship or two simply because I truly believed it was not fair to them.
I am now married to a wonderful woman but the thought still weighs heavily on my mind.
I could relapse. And once I do, it is not fair to her.

And it is not. It truly is not fair to anyone living with a mentally ill person.
I would not put this kind of burden on her. But I also would not presume to know what she will and will not put up with. It will be mightily selfish of me if I just break things off out of the blue without giving her the chance to say otherwise.

And that is my long winded way of saying give your husband a chance.
Tell him what you told us. Tell him that you don't think it's fair that he would have to put up with a mentally ill person who can't cater to his needs. Tell him that you want him to be happy and if that means a divorce, so be it.
He might take it and leave. That's the human thing to do.

Or he might stay on his own will and show you that love is stronger than any mental illness.

p.s. Do not lose hope. If there is only one thing you do, try with all your might to keep the embers of hope alive in your heart. Yes - you might never get better. But admitting that means you've lost the battle already.
The best of luck to you and your husband.
posted by 7life at 12:02 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am the other side of the sort of coin we're talking about here. I am a sole caregiver to a disabled adult - my wife - on top of a full-time job. Feel free to MeFi mail me about this. I don't know that every relationship can survive a situation as dire as the ones you and I have been in, and I'm certainly not going to try to tell you about yours in particular. Ours has been remarkably strong through very difficult years and remains resilient as things have improved of late. I think I can point to a number of reasons why.

One, to be quite honest, is that I have very simple, modest tastes. My happiness has never been dependent on lots of exotic experiences, boatloads of cash or being catered to in extravagant ways. If I get to do what I live to do, don't have to bite my nails too much the week before a paycheck a friend comes over now and then to have a drink and tell long, boring stories that don't go anywhere, I'm more content than most people would be with far more.

But the greater reason is that my wife and I have never really thought of our relationship as an *exchange* in the way a lot of people do. When you say you wonder if you can be a good partner, in the background I can almost hear you saying, "If he does A, B and C for me, then I have to do X, Y and Z for him, and my illness keeps me from doing some/all of those things." I don't think I could make that list, or at least I couldn't make it without loading it with very vague terms. I sometimes say to people that I don't keep score in our marriage. There are lots of social relationships where I do keep score - my plumber better not lie on the estimate and my employer doesn't get my services for free. But my bond with her was never really about that sort of tit-for-tat exchange. I was always enthralled by her and adored her, and I feel at home with her in a way I have never felt with anyone else. It is not a point of regret for me that there are things we haven't done, because those things weren't what drew me in in the first place. I wanted to be with her, and I always knew that no one could tell me all the things that that would bring. I think our being together has far more to do with each one of us waking up every morning and living and planning a life where the other mattered as much as yourself - making changes together, if you like - than any particular thing she has or could give me.

Now, let me say that I'm not preaching sainthood. If she were abusing me or my trust somehow, all of this could go away. But everything she can give me, she does, and knowing that means an enormous amount to me. If I never got anything I found satisfying, I could not sustain all this. But I do get to go up to Nearby Big City to see my buddy Jack every now and then and tell my long, boring stories that don't go anywhere. I've also come to find pleasure in simple intimacies like doing physical therapy with her every day, so the list of things that satisfy me is itself isn't something that's written outside of the relationship and brought in. We both do everything we can to keep this all going, and we're lucky in many ways to be able to do so. I don't know that everyone does, can, or should have a relationship like ours. But if you two are going to stay together in the face of something this challenging, maybe you can ask yourselves how much of what I'm saying sounds familiar. When he imagines the next 10, 20, 30 years without some of those things you could have given him, does he feel like something's being stolen from him, or does he start thinking about how he could squeeze everything he can out of what you'll have? If he feels more like the latter most of the time, then there isn't anything to feel guilt or shame about; what he's got with you is what he wants, and there's no pile of debts stacking up in the background.
posted by el_lupino at 3:38 PM on July 8, 2010 [21 favorites]

If I get to do what I live to do

er, love to do
posted by el_lupino at 3:40 PM on July 8, 2010

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