Worries about our relationship in face of shitty cancer diagnosis
June 29, 2015 4:26 AM   Subscribe

Please help me sort out my feelings about my relationship with my boyfriend, my relationship with his cancer, and how the two might be interplaying.

My boyfriend is 28, I am 30. He was diagnosed with bowel cancer two months ago and since then things have been a whirlwind. At the time we were in a seven-month-old relationship where we were both leading busy, full lives and slowly incorporating eachother into them (maybe seeing eachother 3 or 4 times a week, talking on the phone most nights). He is amazing, and I felt very lucky that we were together. He's not had anything serious since he split up with a serious girlfriend 5 years ago (they were together six years). He said three months in that it was rare that he really liked someone, so I don't think he took the relationship lightly.

I was starting to get a bit antsy about where we were headed, I think mostly because I’m a words person and he hadn’t said much about it. I really wanted to hear the words ‘I love you’, I guess, because I love him. And also, I want a kid at some point and don't want to waste too much time on anyone that I’m definitely not going to have a chance of settling down with. I know I know, 30-year-old stereotype!

His cancer is stage 3c – so 50% chance of 5-year survival, heavy stuff). I’ve been pretty dedicated to supporting him. For a while I was able to put all worries to the side – they seemed insignificant compared to, well, his mortality.

I have to admit though that it's been really emotionally draining trying to balance a full-time job and caring for him. To my slight surprise at the beginning, he wanted me at his medical appointments and for me to be the main source of support despite having close family relationships. I think if he could, he’d have me at everything. I realised at that point that perhaps I meant a lot to him. Although an unhelpful ex that I spoke to about the situation just said 'of course he wants a hot girl with him at the hospital instead of his family - it's kind of easier' (or something to that effect), which spun me off into worrying that perhaps my boyfriend is just using me for emotional comfort. That sounds really cruel, writing it down, actually. And the ex that I told (who I now work with unfortunately) did have a real knack for making me feel insecure, I guess. But it still has shaken me.

Recently I have had to draw lines and say that I can’t be there all the time for him (my work was really starting to suffer, I wasn’t keeping in touch with friends and family and I started to feel like my life had fallen apart). This has been difficult for him, and me, and we’ve had a few conversations about when I’ve felt overly drained and responsible for it all, and he has acted a little needy and demanding at times. I think he’s found me drawing lines hard, but I felt like it was best to be honest. I tried to do it in a diplomatic and kind way, but I think he's felt hurt and like he doesn't need those conversations on top of the cancer stuff.

On the plus side, this has meant that we’ve gotten to spend lots of lovely time together, and we’ve both said how much we’ve enjoyed that. I’ve seen his parents quite a lot too – I hadn’t even met them before this, though there were plans in the offing and he’s keen to meet mine (I don’t have the greatest relationship with mine, which is why he hasn’t – nothing to do with him).

Unfortunately, recently I’ve been feeling really insecure, and I don’t feel it’s fair to bring it up with him on top of what he’s going through (chemotherapy right now). I’m worried that he hasn’t said that he loves me. I’m hoping that his actions and the way that he’s wanted me around for him when he’s been so sick means that he does, but just isn’t the type to say it. That’s not to mention the longer term worries around what might happen to him and, if he’s okay, whether our relationship can survive such difficulty as such an early stage.

I’m also worried that he spoke to his ex-girlfriend the other day for the first time in a while. They went out for six years, and had an idyllic, lovely relationship where he was very much part of her (well-to-do) family – something which he loved, and which will never be the case with mine, and seemed to spend loads of time riding horses and hanging out on the beach. Not quite the rushed, London-centric relationship we’ve been having, which is slowly being consumed by a backdrop of hospitals and cancer. Hardly fun, and I’m really worried that he won’t ever love me and the relationship won’t work now this has all come about.

I know this is petty compared to what’s going on with him. But as much as I try and forget all worries just so I can support him and be positive, I wake up anxious from sleepless nights, go quiet at times when I’m thinking about stuff, and generaly don’t seem myself to him which isn’t great anyway. I need a way to put these worries to rest without bothering him about it.

Even though I’m sure you think it’s petty for me to worry about this, do you think I need to worry about him not having said I love you yet? Do you think he might miss his ex-girlfriend and his idyllic life together? They broke up five years ago and he’s said that ‘the relationship ran its course’, but didn’t give a clear answer when I asked if he ever felt sad about breaking up with her – he just said she was ‘super happy’ with her new life. Do you think it’s right to just silently try and quash these worries and not talk to him about it? I think his patience is very thin right now, and the smallest bad thing seems to seem bigger to him as he can’t process information in the same way or be as emotionally generous, or even happy, in the way he used to be able to.
posted by starstarstar to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Obviously, none of us can speak for him, but in his position if I had received a cancer diagnosis in a fledgling relationship, personally I wouldn't be throwing I love yous around simply because I would feel it would place undue pressure on my partner to feel they had to stay with me regardless. Also because you would rather it come up in calmer circumstances rather than a fighting for your life situation, where it could be perceived at being said under duress or panic just to have someone there.

I wouldn't bring any of this to him right now but it may be worth talking to a counsellor or trusted friend about this as it's a lot to go through with someone you don't really know that well and I'm sure it's stressful. It's good that you're maintaining boundaries and taking care of yourself as well.

I have a very good friend who had been with her boyfriend for three months when he was diagnosed with cancer. He's made a good recovery and they got married but I know it fast tracked their relationship, which could be good or bad depending on how well you get to know someone. It might help to look for a support group, maybe the hospital can help?
posted by Jubey at 4:49 AM on June 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Okay, firstly, you have a right - nay, a duty! - to feel your feelings and experience your own challenges and struggles and highs and lows. His cancer does not eclipse your right to be a thinking, feeling person in the world with your own thoughts and feelings that might not even have anything to do with cancer. Also, you are not a cancer-fighting robot - this is a struggle that you are facing, too, albeit in a different way. Being a supporter is a role with its own challenges and struggles; just because it's not cancer doesn't mean it's easy. Things are allowed to be hard and not be cancer.

Protect your right to hold down a job in a productive and rewarding way, to carve out a space for your own emotions, a time for your own activites. It's super important; critical to being a supporter over the long haul, I believe.

Secondly, I notice an interesting contradiction in some of what you've written above, I wonder if you are aware of it.

On the one hand, you are talking about how heavily your boyfriend is relying on you, how much your support means to him, how he's introduced you to his parents, how he's said how much he has enjoyed spending time with you, even in this difficult period.

On the other hand, you say that you are afraid he doesn't love you, that spending time together isn't lovely, that you aren't important to him etc etc. Looking at the first group of things, do these, in your heart of hearts, seem congruent with the second group of things? That someone who didn't love you would do all this and make these efforts and want you there, through the scariest, most full on shit?

I don't think so. BUT, I also think you can ask for an I love you. You don't mention if you have told him that you love him yet. Have you expressed this yourself to him yet? You can do this, and ask him at the same time, e.g "Sebastian, I know all this crazy stuff has been going on, but it's important to me that you know whatever is happening that I love you, [pause, wait for him to say something], do you love me, too?" Even with cancer, you can get an "I love you" without being considered too demanding, you know!

Finally, I think you are conflating his previous, cancer-free life, with his previous life with his ex-girlfriend. Be careful going over on this ground cause I'm sure he would look quite fondly at the time when he didn't have cancer, girlfriend or no! I am not a jealous person, myself, and have very very little time for the jealousy of others, I don't have cancer, but needling questions about an ex would irritate me quite a lot. Girlfriend, he chose you. I'm still sad about my serious break-up, and we had lots of fun and good times when we were together - that does not mean I would want to be back in that relationship, good god, not at all! We broke up for good reasons; but they don't erase the respect and friendship of our relationship.

I feel like that is an insecurity of yours that has no doubt emerged during this time of stress and uncertainty. I don't think there's anything wrong with getting security from your partner, but try to do it positive (focus on the I love you stuff, what you have together, how you make each other feel), not negative (getting him to repudiate past relationships, exhaustive post-mortems, bringing it up more than once. He's moved past it, so should you).

Also, don't forget you are not the first person in this situation, nor the last. There are tonnes and tonnes of resources in print, on the web etc for people supporting those with cancer. Best of luck OP, you sound like a catch.
posted by smoke at 4:50 AM on June 29, 2015 [7 favorites]

It sounds like you need, at the very least, a break to refresh and recharge. Can he spare you for a week for you to get away somewhere and just be yourself, alone?
posted by ocherdraco at 5:02 AM on June 29, 2015

Definitely look into caregiver resources and support groups. A common metaphor they talk about it the oxygen mask-- put on your own oxygen mask before you help somebody put on theirs. That is, if you're not in a healthy state of mind and body, you're not going to be able to help somebody else.

Take some time off for yourself. Enlist others to help with things so you can take some time off. It's definitely not inappropriate for you to say you can't be there all the time. And it's also not inappropriate for you to take a time-- preferably when his health is somewhat steady-- to ask for a clarification of your relationship.

And agreeing that you shouldn't worry about his calling his ex girlfriend-- fondly reminiscing with somebody when you're ill and might die is not in any way a sign that he wishes he was back with her or wants to leave you.
posted by damayanti at 5:28 AM on June 29, 2015

1) Caregiving is like a full-time job on top of a full-time job
2) Anecdotally, the only people I want with me in hospital situations/ doctor appointments are the ones I really care about. Your ex is a jerk face.
3) If I was facing a 50% mortality rate, I can totally see calling an ex that I was on good terms with. Facing death makes you value your relationships -- the ones that are over -- much, much more

Hang in there, seek out caregiver resources.
posted by angrycat at 5:59 AM on June 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Wow, this sounds really tough. I'm sorry that you're both going through this.

You've asked a few questions about this boyfriend and they all seem to have a common theme - insecurities about the relationship and how it's progressing. It seems that you're not getting what you need, but I wonder if maybe you're not always making it clear what your needs are. Or, you're letting your needs slide for so long that when you do speak up it's shocking and confusing for him.

Have you told him that you love him? If you have and he's never said it back, I think it would be fair enough to have a conversation with him about your differing "love languages". Because it seems like maybe he's able to show you that he loves you with his actions, but that one of your needs is to hear that in words. It's okay to let him know that that's how you tick, preferably using non-accusatory "I-statements".

I wouldn't read anything into the conversation with the ex-girlfriend unless you've left out important details. (I think that it actually says really good things that he's still on good terms with his ex. A warning sign for me has always been guys who bag out their exes.) I think your worries about their conversation are probably just coming up because of these other insecurities that you're having. I'd suggest talking to a friend or your therapist about that, but not bringing it up with him. He's dealing with enough at the moment, he definitely does not need to be dealing with your jealousy over something that is most likely completely innocent.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 6:01 AM on June 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

You're not, like, obligated to put your new relationship with him on hold in order to take care of him. I understand that cancer is a big fucking deal, but that doesn't mean that your own needs are invalid or unimportant. This is especially true when he's leaning on you to take care of him and offer all this support, I think.

Tell him you love him! If he doesn't say it back, ask if he loves you! You have a right to love in a relationship, especially a serious one. I know there are other issues, this is just an example that jumped out at me.

You can't just push your needs under the rug and hope things will change in the future. There's always something, and you're setting the stage for how things are going to go. If you want a real relationship, you have to make it one. I'm sure there will be things you'll have to compromise on because of his situation, but being/feeling loved isn't one of them.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:34 AM on June 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi guys. Thanks for your responses so far. A few of you have asked if I have said I love him, and the answer is no. I actually find it quite hard to lead on things like that myself! (I know, I know - why should I expect him to? Gender bias going on here).

I'm frightened too that if I say it and he says he's not ready, I'll feel resentful about all the energy that's going into looking after him and it will all just be too much drama. I wouldn't want to stick around, but I also wouldn't want to leave either, because it could just be that in this situation, it's difficult for feelings to love to solidify - normal stuff just goes out of the door and the immediacy of cancer kind of takes over.

And I will feel a little taken advantage of if, after all this, he's not that into me. How would I deal with that?! "Oh, I'll wait it out - at least a year till you're better if you get better - for us then to have better conditions in which to grow a loving relationship". I'd feel terrible if I left him whilst he had cancer, but I really wouldn't want to stick around like a chump if actually I was just a convenient nice person who happened to be around to care for him before he got better and dumped me.
posted by starstarstar at 6:43 AM on June 29, 2015

You were already together for 7 months before the cancer diagnosis. That's not a super long time, for sure, but I think that he would know by now whether he loves you. If he doesn't, I don't know whether it's likely that those feelings would grow. I think that you're better off finding out sooner rather than later whether you're on the same page about the relationship.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 6:59 AM on June 29, 2015 [13 favorites]

Then you need to get it out of the way. This is something that is clearly damaging you as a person and the relationship as a whole and he has no idea! That's not fair to you. That's not fair to him. He can't know your needs unless you tell him.

If he says he's not ready, then you need to examine your feelings then. It is perfectly okay if you decide to leave him. He has family who will care for him. Plenty of relationships end because of bad timing where you'd otherwise have been perfectly okay but for a catastrophe that got in the way. It sucks that this happens sometimes, but it's okay.
posted by inturnaround at 7:07 AM on June 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'd expect to know if I can say I Love You well before seven months of interacting so much with a guy, and certainly if I'm being expected to pick up the reins of Significant Other, the way you have been doing - if you're looking for anecdotal support.

The problem here for me is that you could ask if he loves you, he could say yes, you could feel relief and throw yourself in more unreservedly. He could still break up with you. Now, or in the future. That is life. It could also be felt as a manipulation later, since he is vulnerable. (So are you, for different reasons)

Saying I love you is always precarious at the start but own your feelings, if you feel it say it. If it's risky for you and if you're saying it so you'll hear it from others, don't say it.

On that: do you love him? I'm 46 and I've said it all the way through my relationship life, but it's only recently that I've really thought about what that feels like and how it manifests in an authentic manner. It's no magic cure all, it's not a magic pass to enlightened beauteous unfettered times. People say it too soon, to cross a barrier or something, but what does it really mean to you? It is freighted and significant and it does herald something our culture values as a boundary shift, but take the time to examine what love means when you say it.

Saying I love you might feel momentous, but for someone/ many of us with anxiety, insecure early attachments it is often about accessing a new form of personal theatre to act out our childhood worries. Saying I love you cures nothing about that stuff. Take this as an opportunity to look inside and 'research' what I love you would mean if you heard it.
posted by honey-barbara at 7:28 AM on June 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

I was in a relationship with someone for about 6 months when there was a life-changing accident and he was in the hospital for months, etc. Feel free to send me a private message if you'd like.

I'll say that we HAD said I love you, and I did love him, but it wasn't a good relationship overall for me. Which made it much more difficult. A couple of his friends were really awesome in giving me some of the support I needed, in terms of the relationship, since my partner really couldn't provide it at that time.

Also, and this the harder part, I really did my best to give the love and support freely, because he needed it at that time. I was never going to get it back, and it didn't guarantee that I deserved anything one way or another from him or anyone. He was in crisis and I was in a position to be supportive, and so I did. I felt like that was the right thing to do.

It was basically one of the hardest times in my life and I still have difficult feelings about it.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 8:21 AM on June 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

You are an iron lady to go through all this so bravely.

I've been in your shoes as far as waiting for those three magic words, but one day I realized something: actions speak louder. You will know by how your boyfriend treats you and how he looks at you. Someone could say those words insincerely, or be kind and attentive and crave your company in ways that tell you all you need to know.

For all you know, your boyfriend is consumed with doubts and fears about whether you'll stay with him and for how long. That might lead him to postpone saying "I love you" until he's sure you will say it back. If all goes well with his treatment, the whole experience will help him see you as an indispensable source of support. For now maybe put the "ILY" thing on hold and just be there for him week by week?

As for the ex, five years is long enough that people don't break up without a damn good reason. If he ends up with anyone other than you, it won't be the five-year ex.
posted by Guinevere at 11:41 AM on June 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just a counter point that I didn't know that I loved my now wife until over a year after we started dating. It was not as serious as yours at the start - - much of it was long distance - - but it was still around 2 years after we had our first date that I told her I loved her. This summer we celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary.

I can see a cancer diagnosis really making it harder for me to focus on a relationship. I will say the fact that he wants you around all the time is a great sign. Liking the time you spend with another person is, in my experience, one of the better indicators for long term compatability.

I don't know how much of the "love language" theory is solid, but perhaps you and he have different ways of communicating that you love one another. For example, you want to hear the words "I love you" but don't feel driven to do so yourself. At the same time, the energy and care you have devoted to him serves as a demonstration of your feelings. I wonder if there are things he does or says which represent his love for you, and whether he too is wondering why you haven't sprung the love word.

Give yourself some time to yourself. Contemplate using your words with him. Maybe ask him about the future and where you are in it.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:10 PM on June 29, 2015

When I was diagnosed with cancer and told it could well be terminal, I felt an overwhelming desire to contact the people who had been significant in my life, including some ex-girlfriends. It wasn't that I wanted to get back together with them at all. But my diagnosis sent me into a kind of frenzied nostalgia, wanting to reach out to the people I'd been close to and... I don't know. Reminisce? Say goodbye? Affirm that I'd mattered in their lives, that when I died I wasn't going to just poof away to nothing without leaving a tiny mark on this planet? It's hard to explain because it came from such a desperate, primal place, practically beyond rational thought. My life was ending, and that meant I really needed to talk to the people I'd been close to in high school.

I suspect your boyfriend's situation with his ex is a lot like that. I don't know for sure, but I suspect his talking to her was all about what they'd meant to each other once and had nothing to do with any thoughts of a future together.

I think I know what you should do, but I know it will be frightening and hard for you. I think you should tell your boyfriend that you love him. If he doesn't immediately say he loves you too, you need to ask him if he does. I strongly suspect he does, and that this has just become a scary, unspoken thing between you that has become scarier the longer it's gone unspoken. It's a weird situation, but weird situations happen and I'm afraid you need to be the one to break the jam here.

It's possible he'll say he doesn't. If that's the case, it would be good for you to know. But it would honestly stun me. I suspect it's more likely that he is terrified of losing you.

He is going crazy, because his situation is crazy-making, and he may sometimes behave in irrational or even infantile ways. You are being strong and he is clinging to you, wanting you to help and help and help, because part of him feels like a lost baby with no skin and you are the kind hand he desperately needs. Do what you can for him while respecting your own needs, and when he sometimes becomes insufferable try to remember that he is desperately afraid. Being that afraid doesn't excuse everything, but it sure makes you act in ways you wouldn't act if you weren't so very afraid. In some ways he is not himself, and in some ways he has never been more himself. He is a skinless baby.

(I'm not saying cancer excuses everything. It is also possible for jerks to get cancer. If he's a jerk and he's using you, don't let the cancer blind you to that. But even the best people can be jerks sometimes, if you give them cancer.)

You may well have some tough times ahead, as you struggle to define your role in each other's lives. There may be times when he needs things you can't provide, and vice versa. But if you know you love each other, those struggles will happen against a much more solid foundation.

I'm sorry you're going through this, and I wish you both the best.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:53 AM on June 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been pondering your hard question for 2 days now and feel like there's a certain caregiver-centered cost/benefit analysis and perspective that has not shown up quite yet in these answers. I'm deeply concerned for you that your needs are getting short shrift here -- that's what I hear when you say he has been "needy" and "demanding" at times. I get it-- your needs are not being met, and you are afraid to ask for what you want because you might not get it and knowing it for sure, you might then need to leave. And that frightens you. It's like you're walking on eggshells around him, because of his precarious health situation. You're not able to really talk this out together; you have not even been together all that long, things are still new and developing.

Pay very, very close attention to how this caregiver role and overall situation is affecting your life physically and emotionally, in light of the reality that you are not say, his wife, live-in girlfriend, family member, long-term partner, nor say, the mother of his child. Because I feel like if you were any one of those things to one another with much more of a history between you and the promise of a real future, at least orbiting each others' lives together, my take on this would be vastly different. As it stands today, you are his girlfriend of 9 months who had never met his parents before his health crisis. Frankly, I'm surprised his parents and family members are not doing more of the caregiving work here, but you are-- and that you seem to be doing the lion's share of it. Is that correct? And if so, does that seem strange to you if he's from a functioning family? I don't know the background here, but it seems like he has a pretty supportive family. Why aren't they more front and center regarding his care? But I digress.

You wrote: "my work was really starting to suffer, I wasn’t keeping in touch with friends and family and I started to feel like my life had fallen apart... I wake up anxious from sleepless nights, go quiet at times when I’m thinking about stuff, and generaly don’t seem myself to him which isn’t great anyway." What does this tell you? It tells me that caring for a partner with a serious cancer is a huge, huge burden for anyone, and it is a hell of a lot to come to expect of a person one has not yet been dating for a year. Nobody has mentioned this piece yet-- you wrote: "I want a kid at some point and don't want to waste too much time on anyone that I’m definitely not going to have a chance of settling down with." And this: "His cancer is stage 3c – so 50% chance of 5-year survival, heavy stuff." Assuming this prognosis is correct, you're 30 now, and he could very well be dead by the time you are 35. Or not! Sounds like even odds he would not be around to send your first future child off to Kindergarten. Ask yourself -- is that what I truly want? Is this a definite and foreseeable risk I'm willing to take?

"I'll feel resentful about all the energy that's going into looking after him and it will all just be too much drama... I'd feel terrible if I left him whilst he had cancer, but I really wouldn't want to stick around like a chump if actually I was just a convenient nice person who happened to be around to care for him before he got better and dumped me." With respect, I think this is you saying you are not comfortable with the current arrangements. I'm not sure hearing an "I love you" from him now would solve the bigger issues here. You would not be a bad person for deciding this is all too much, too soon, and taking a walk. For whatever it's worth, you have this anonymous internet stranger's permission to prioritize your own emotional health and future goals over continuing to take on this caregiver role. He has local family for that. I really believe this is absolutely something to discuss with your therapist. Good luck and hugs to you.
posted by hush at 1:18 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is really tough. It's hard because it sounds like you guys were thrust into this more intimate relationship than you would otherwise have naturally had. Honestly, I don't think I would be willing to put significant care-giving hours toward someone I'd known for only 9 months, especially when we hadn't said "I love you" or made any other sort of serious committment to one another. At least to me, this is in line with a serious, committed relationship. This is doubly so if he has strong family relationships that he could be leaning on -- it's not like he has no support without you.

There is no way to put your worries to rest without talking to your boyfriend. I think the ex is a red herring, as many people have mentioned. But the fact that it sounds like you've never had a serious conversation about committment with your boyfriend is troubling. I don't think I'd be okay with dating someone for nine (or seven) months, period, without some committment or I love you, at least when I was 30 and looking to get married and have kids (for the record, I was fine with that sort of relationship when I was in my early 20s, but I also for sure wasn't caring for those people when they had the flu, much less anything more serious).

I get that a serious coversation like this is going to feel tough and probably awkward, but this is your life too. You haven't made some sort of lifelong committment to this dude (and he hasn't to you). You have the right to prioritize someone who's in a place to make a committment to you and have kids with you, if that's what you need to be happy. I think you guys need to have a real conversation about where you are and what your future looks like.
posted by rainbowbrite at 1:20 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

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