How to DTMFA....when they are disabled
July 31, 2015 10:28 AM   Subscribe

How to end a relationship with a partner who is physically dependent on you? How to deal with the guilt?

I am asking this question for a friend.

My friend is a in a very unhappy relationship. His partner is self-centered, controlling, lazy, and unsupportive. Please trust me when I say the relationship is unfixable. If she did not have the physical condition that she does, he would have left her long ago. However.

She has a physical condition that severely limits her mobility (she can walk, very slowly and carefully, but uses a wheelchair to go most places). He is her primary/only caregiver. He prepares all her meals, helps her move around the house, drives her everywhere, does all of the housework.

She has all her mental faculties, is well qualified, and is capable of working. She has worked off and on from home (consulting) over the past few years so is capable of supporting herself financially if she puts in the effort to find work.

He works full time outside the house (standard 9-5 hours), so she manages things herself when he is not around. But when he is home, he does everything.

Please know that her disability is real and she truly does need physical help for many things. The issue is, he cannot be the one to provide that for her anymore, but doesn't know how to leave. He struggles with immense guilt about how she will live without him in her life. He will support her financially (spousal support laws would require it anyway) but his main concern is her physical caretaking and the guilt about leaving her when she needs him. She goes to regular doctor appointments and physical therapy, but she has no family or friends in the area. She has relied completely on him for everything. And, her condition will not improve over time. It will only get worse.

This relationship is eating him alive, emotionally. She is unkind to him and pays minimal lip service to all he does for her. The physical toll is huge, but the emotional one is even bigger. He would be quite willing to stay and do the physical work if the relationship were fulfulling in other ways, but it is not, and likely never will be.

He needs to leave. But how?

For the record, they are late 30's/early 40's, no kids.
posted by yawper to Human Relations (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
He should work with her to find appropriate care by someone else (home health aide) as a condition of the breakup.
posted by Aranquis at 10:34 AM on July 31, 2015 [12 favorites]

Is he in a financial position to pay for someone to help her with the physical tasks he currently does for her? Not indefinitely, but for the next X weeks. Being able to offer her that might help soften the blow a bit and give her a chance to find a suitable long-term solution for herself. (I envisage this being a temporary addition to long-term/permanent financial support/alimony.)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:34 AM on July 31, 2015

Lots of advance warning. We're breaking up, I'm moving out by X date, in the meantime I'll do what I can to help you find alternate arrangements for care, etc. And then he needs to stick to the date and not beat himself up for doing what he needs to do for the sake of his own quality of life.
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:41 AM on July 31, 2015 [54 favorites]

I really think this is just like any other breakup scenario in most ways. He just has to talk to her and tell her he wants to leave. Then they can work out the details. The big step here is just him getting over the hump with his regard to his own guilt.
posted by something something at 10:41 AM on July 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Staying with someone that you don't want to be with is not a kindness. It is very likely the disabled woman knows your friend is staying with her only out of guilt. These are the most miserable of relationships, for both parties.

I mention this in case your friend has not thought about it much. Can be hard to do in a case like this. Even in this special case he is probably doing her a kindness by ending it, even if it is terrifying in the short term. At any rate he should end it for his own sake.

I agree with others that there should be a transition period where he helps her figure out alternatives to his assistance. How long this should be depends on how dependent she is on him, but I'd guess a month to a few months. If she has never lived independently, then longer, and with more responsibility on him to make sure things are squared away before moving out. If she has lived independently before, less time and he doesn't have to worry about loose ends as much when it is time to go.

First he needs to make the decision, declare it, and stick to it. Then work out the details of the transition and see it through. Then deal with the guilt. First things first.
posted by mattu at 11:09 AM on July 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am disabled. I was the person who said "Yeah, no. Let's get divorced." So, I imagine this will be a lot bumpier for him as the person trying to do the dumping when the disabled person is not interested in getting their shit together. But here are some things that happened in my long, drawn out (amicable) divorce:

He accepted as much travel duty as he could get at work. He was gone a lot. That meant we didn't have to put up with each other full time and that reduced the emotional stress. It also gave me time and space to work on figuring out how my life worked on my own without really being on my own yet. If travel for work is an option, accepting travel duties and letting her know "I will be gone three days" or whatever and working out how she will cope for three days can be a good transition strategy. It can get some immediate emotional relief for him and is potentially a means to start the transition in stealth mode so, hopefully, she will be more cooperative with short periods of being on her own instead of intentionally failing so as to guilt him into not leaving.

I began gradually moving all my crap out of the master bedroom. We turned the master bedroom into a studio apartment for him. The one bathroom apartment had a Jack-And-Jill style bathroom, so the master bedroom had it's own sink area and had a separate door accessing the toilet/shower area. I bought a pull out couch and turned the dining room into my office/studio apartment. We still had to share the kitchen, but, as much as possible, we slowly separated our lives in physical space while still living in the same home.

The divorce took a long time. He was patient with the fact that I needed substantial transition time to get my act together.

Initially, when he was financially able, he gave me enough money every month for me to be able to support myself without having to work.

During the divorce, at some point, he was spazzing about me needing a job and I told him "We are getting divorced. My finances are not your problem anymore. Your financial responsibility begins and ends with getting me my alimony and child support check on time and in full every month." He was more able to accept that answer after I moved in with relatives and it was more clear that me and the kids would keep eating.

Look into whatever support services are available to help her live independently without him. But accept that even handicapped people are still people and still have agency and can still simply be assholes and, no, they do not get to make you a prisoner of their assholery because of their physical disability. So if she just is going to dig her heels in and refuse to try to make her life work, then, past a certain point, if you don't want to be her abused slave, you accept that her shitty choices are on her after you have made reasonable efforts to accommodate her special needs during this transition. And then you have a good cry and start rebuilding your own life.
posted by Michele in California at 11:12 AM on July 31, 2015 [25 favorites]

Good advice above about making the transition as smooth as possible for each of them, but I have said this before and will say it again: Your friend is not a prescription. He was not assigned to her by a Service Human agency. There are many, many people with disabilities who manage to live their lives without his assistance, and she can be one of them.
posted by Etrigan at 11:14 AM on July 31, 2015 [8 favorites]

Therapy is the other fallback boilerplate answer to AskMe questions, besides DTMFA, but it sounds as if (based on my own experience) that's something your friend should cue up. My ex wasn't physically disabled when we were divorced, but she is older than me, and had recently lost her job--something that we both saw coming, but she refused either to alter her behavior to keep it or to look for another job--and I felt guilty enough to agree to a divorce settlement that, even according to her, was better than any that she was ever likely to get even if it went to trial. I signed over my share of the house, assumed a hefty chunk of the household debt, and paid alimony to her for three years, and never missed a payment even when I was going through a bankruptcy (and numerous other problems that were partly, although not 100%, as a result of the breakup).

The upshot? She got a job that she's held onto for more than a decade (much longer than any job she had when we were together) and has also held onto the house. And never said thank you to me for helping her out, when I could easily have pressed for less financially punishing terms for myself. Probably we never should have been married in the first place. I would suggest that your friend get help before he starts negotiating the separation and divorce. She's already using guilt as a weapon, from the sound of it.
posted by Deja Stu at 11:35 AM on July 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

I recommend your friend see a lawyer. Spousal support may need to be on the high end and he may be obligated to help cover extraordinary medical costs, such as that for a caregiver. It's also possible that his partner may suffer emotionally from the divorce and that may be a factor in her ability to care for herself. These are NOT reasons to stay in the relationship. But they are things to address in planning.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:50 AM on July 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Re Deja Stu's remarks:

When we agreed to divorce, my guilt ridden husband said he would take all the debt and leave me with all the furniture. I said "No, you won't. There is plenty of furniture to furnish two households and I will take my student loan." California law sided with me on this. I think my student loan was half our debts. It should be paid off in a couple-ish more years.

So if your friend is tempted to ease his guilt by volunteering to cut his own throat in order to leave, please tell him to get therapy.

I spent a lot of years wondering about relationship alchemy, for lack of a better term. Everyone seems to think that ending a bad relationship ends MOST of their problems and they conclude that their ex was at fault. I think it is more like one third of the crap was mine and one third was his and one third was some magical outgrowth of the relationship per se. In other words, a good chunk of the problems was something that only existed because we were together -- the way dish soap is useful and ammonia is useful but if you mix the two, suddenly you have a deadly toxic gas. And it isn't because dish soap is a bad guy and asshole who is trying to create problems, nor is it because ammonia is an asshole and just not doing what she should do.

I tell that story to make this point: When a relationship does not work, it is a huge burden for both parties that amounts to flushing a lot of time and energy down the toilet. So it may well be a kindness to leave. When you are handicapped, the cost of being in a bad relationship can eat up a disproportionate amount of your limited personal resources and actively undermine your ability to accomplish things in ways neither partner can easily identify. She may be seemingly more competent once the bad relationship exits the picture.

What I am trying to convey is that it may be a relief to her for him to leave and it may free her up to get her act more together. Her life may just mysteriously work better once he goes. And I am trying to say that in a way that does not add to his guilt because I sincerely believe this is just a fact about bad relationships and it burdens a handicapped person more but it isn't anyone's fault. Some things just do not mix well.

So, while it is appropriate to be accommodating of her extra needs during the transition, I really think he should not let guilt keep him there and he should be prepared for the possibility that her life may work better once he leaves. And he should not see that as evidence he is somehow guilty of some personal defect. He should see that as evidence that, no, seriously, the relationship really did not work for either of them and leaving was the right choice.

I will add that I decided I wanted a divorce one summer in August and told my spouse the following July. We filed the paperwork I think the July after that and he physically moved out the next May. So this was a long process but there was, essentially, steady forward progress. I learned to aim for milestones, not deadlines. Set goals. Figure out what needs to happen to make this work. Take steps to make that happen. If necessary, put blinders on wrt the calendar. As long as progress is happening, they will eventually get through this.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 12:22 PM on July 31, 2015 [14 favorites]

As noted above, I would give a lot of notice.

Because she sounds like a mess:

I would also ask her to let her know specifically what she could not do for herself. Travel? Preparing meals? Ask her to figure out all of these things.

Then I would present her with details regarding what the friend could do over what period of time. Maybe there's X, Y, and Z that are going to be significant obstacles. The friend could help with these obstacles or find an agency or person who could help.

I'm paraplegic with chronic pain. I've lived on my own for six years. It can be done.
posted by angrycat at 1:03 PM on July 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

This non-married relationship is in some ways harder to break up than a married couple. When a married couple gets divorced, there has already been an explicit agreement about shared finances, and there are expectations of alimony and support and dividing of assets. For two unmarried (and fully able) people, then there's no real expectation that he would continue to send her money, continue to pay rent, leave her all the furniture, or otherwise go above and beyond to help her out - so it's the fact that she's disabled that starts to add that expectation, not any legal expectations like alimony. SO. Is your friend willing to treat this breakup like a divorce and to take on financial responsibilities that he never explicitly signed up for (as he would have in getting married)? Or is he not willing to do that, and your question is about how to deal with the fact that he doesn't actually owe her anything he just feels incredibly guilty?
posted by aimedwander at 2:28 PM on July 31, 2015

I don't know giving her a lot of notice is a good idea if it results in them living together post break up. I can't imagine anything worse than being physically reliant on someone who has given me the elbow. Can he contact a friend/relative of hers and ask them to come and stay and make arrangements for her ongoing care? Failing that, pay for someone to come and assist her until she makes her own arrangements?
posted by intensitymultiply at 2:36 PM on July 31, 2015

aimedwander - sorry if it wasn't clear; they ARE married. But the question is mostly about his guilt and feeling helpless about where to start.
posted by yawper at 3:25 PM on July 31, 2015

At least in the States, there are some really good resources and programs to assist disabled people, usually at the state level. (My brother is quadriplegic after a swimming accident years ago; with persistence he now has routine home care visits and even received a $75K grant to retrofit a van so that he can drive.)

It's pretty rare that married couples stay together when one of them becomes severely disabled, so I don't think anyone is going to judge your friend if he decides to leave. But has he looked into possible financial and physical assistance at the provincial level that might take some of the pressure off?
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:30 PM on July 31, 2015

"...but she has no family or friends in the area."

If she has family and friends elsewhere, can he help her move back home as part of the breakup?
posted by Jacqueline at 9:25 PM on July 31, 2015

I'm the one who needs help, more and more as my condition deteriorates. That in itself can be hell. If the person giving the help isn't able to do it with love (or for a salary) it would be intolerable.

I say this to encourage your friend to release the guilt. He may feel he is essential to her, but the resentment and desire to be gone and -- especially -- the guilt make what he does very, very bad for her while seeming on the surface to help.

I suspect that when he finds a way to move on, they will both feel a huge sense of relief.
posted by kestralwing at 10:34 PM on July 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think people are being far too kind. She is able to work. There are taxis and meal delivery services and cleaning services and who knows what on top of that for the disabled in your area. "She manages things herself when he is not around."

And she is, from this account, a rotten person.

He should just break up, as quickly and as cleanly as possible. She is an adult with her mental faculties intact; she can be the one to pick up the telephone and start looking for services.

It sounds like the issues keeping her so very dependent on him are more "lazy" than "disabled." That she is capable of generating a respectable income in spite of the disability, an income that could pay for home help, and chose not to and placed so much burden on him is...odd. And to be ungrateful and unkind to him in return! Horrible.

He should feel no guilt at all about moving on, and should not feel obligated to re-purpose himself into her social worker to do so.
posted by kmennie at 7:51 AM on August 1, 2015

You know, my oldest son has a lot of special needs and we get along well and I adore him. But we get along well in part because I spent years jokingly saying "For your 18th birthday, I will be giving you a 30 day notice of eviction."

So he was explicitly told that this sweet deal he has, where mom puts up with his shit and tries to take excellent care of him anyway, has an expiration date. I am both morally and legally obligated to take care of you, no matter how much of a shit you are to me, as long as you are a legal minor. But on your 18th birthday, that deal goes bye bye permanently. So if you want this sweet deal to continue past that point, you have until you are 18 to figure out how to answer your mother's question of "What's my motivation?"

This woman is not a child. With computers and internet access and all kinds of delivery services available these days etc, if you have enough money, you can get a lot of your special needs addressed by commercial services without needing to even tell people you are handicapped. They will make your food the way you asked because you are a customer. And if your brain works, you can make money online without leaving the house or even moving from your damn bed if you do not want to.

So if she has all her faculties, no, he is NOT obligated to stay and take care of her. If she does not want to figure out how to make her life work, well, too bad, so sad, there is tragedy everywhere.

Again, the right and honorable and good way to handle this is to give reasonable and appropriate accommodation during the transition. But past a certain point, you just have to accept that handicapped people are still people and assholes gonna asshole and, if you are tired of their shit, it is okay to end it.

My sons can both be difficult. They both still live with me. Once in a while, I still remind them that they can get away with their general "fuck you world!" attitude only as long as they stay on my good side. Because if I walk, they suddenly have to deal with things they currently get an exemption from. And they have the good sense to make sure I have reason to stick around.

No one should be expected to just be someone's bitch. They outlawed slavery.
posted by Michele in California at 11:04 AM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

"The relationship is not fulfilling me in the ways it did in the beginning, and it's time to move on. I understand this will be difficult news, but understand that I appreciate the time we spent together and wish all the best in the future."

Broadly, it's not his job to deal with her misbehavior if she's not adding anything to his life. If he's giving more than he's getting, his partner should recognize and rectify that in order to keep the relationship going smoothly. Given that his partner has not done this, he should have the freedom to walk without getting worried. Disabled chick will be OK. And, if she's not OK, there are psychiatrists and such to get her OK. Either way, it's not his fiduciary responsibility to worry about his partner once she becomes his ex partner. I commend his empathy, but wish people didn't get so awkward about breakups. Just make sure he says nothing about her disability in the breakup. Phrase it more like "irreconcilable value differences" and "change of life goals," and it'll sound a bit nicer.
posted by aristotlefangirl at 1:59 PM on August 1, 2015

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