Encouraging a relation to better face their spouse's cancer?
February 4, 2018 6:47 AM   Subscribe

She's just been diagnosed and is facing the full monty (mastectomy, chemo, and likely radio too); It seems he's currently facing what's coming with a kind of cold rationality that likely aims to minimise, so as to worry less - but it's feeling heartless and disappointing to her.

They're solidly married with two sweet kids; I've known her since she was my partner's kid sister, he's a good guy and kind soul, but just a bit British.

We're in distant countries, and not in contact a whole lot (mostly at holiday family gatherings), but when we are, we really get along. Her operation is in less than a week. How can I best encourage him to try to find the best side of himself (and approach his own fear more resolutely) for both their sake - thoughts, advice, resources, readables, both on whether and on how I could best prod, or where I could point him to, is greatly welcome/appreciated.

(I went through cancer when I was much younger, so I have some insight "from the other side" - but I'm uncertain about how to be the right voice that might help him and them right now.)
posted by progosk to Human Relations (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I’m assuming you’re talking to her. I think she needs to ask for what she needs from him. Like “sweetheart, when you say X it sounds disconnected and cold to me. I need you to hug me and remind me of Y right now.” I have an awesome spouse whose first reaction to things like me lying on the mats with a leg fairly clearly at a Very Wrong Angle is “oh it’s a sprain” so I get it (said spouse also carried me into the hospital and stayed all the way through surgery so.) I do have to tell him sometimes that I need him to sit with me in my reality. And he does just as soon as he can. So I would definitely encourage her to do that.

I don’t think this is a conversation best had outside the relationship. Keep in mind the ring cycle of care you should support him in his journey too, which may be one that takes a trip on the road of denial or of “buck up, sweetie.”
posted by warriorqueen at 7:09 AM on February 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think to some degree it depends on how you know what's going on with Janet. If she's confiding in you, you could encourage her to ask for what she wants and reassure her that he's trying to cope in her own way, and is not heartless. You could suggest that she ask him to go to couple's counseling with her to work on strategies together.

If he's confiding in you, you could say "I know this is hard for you and you're doing your best. I think it would help her a lot if you really listened to her concerns without minimizing. It would be entirely appropriate for you or both of you to go to therapy to talk about how to handle this together."

If you aren't getting info directly from either of them it's a little tricky. On preview I agree with warrior queen - it's best if they talk to each other.
posted by bunderful at 7:13 AM on February 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m assuming you’re talking to her. I think she needs to ask for what she needs from him.

Just to clarify: we are speaking to her, and she is speaking her mind and heart to him. She's also thought a conversation with me might be of use to him. Whence my ask here.
posted by progosk at 7:26 AM on February 4, 2018

If he's British, he would probably be aware of Cancer Research UK, which provides solid, sound and easily understood information on cancer for both patients and relatives. This is advice for relatives and friends, and might give him some insights that he might find helpful. I think there are also forums and help lines, if they're in a position to access them.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 8:19 AM on February 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

She needs to trust him, when everything else is changing and untrustworthy. She can't really trust him if she can't know him, and she can't know him if he doesn't show his feeling to her.
posted by amtho at 8:21 AM on February 4, 2018

The only thing you could do is go there, watch the kids, let them overnight at a hotel somewhere before the operation, and hope they get through. Impractical at short notice, I know, but maybe you can cajole another family member into doing it?

Some spouses are just disappointing in these types of situations, it can’t be fixed from outside the marriage. Keep being there for her, and encourage her to turn to you and other supportive people to get as much love as she can.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:05 AM on February 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

This book written by a son/brother/husband of 3 breast cancer patients may help. It is very honest.
posted by headnsouth at 9:08 AM on February 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

My wife had cancer, a double mastectomy, and reconstruction. My best advice would be to become a full participant in the event. It's not just happening to her but also to him. I changed bandages and emptied surgery drains for the duration. It can become a bonding experience. It's also HUGH to get some humor into the situation; no its not `funny` but humor has an amazing quality to improve the coping...

I find it really troubling (and sad) that too many men stay on the sidelines with breast cancer; understand what is going on and make a contribution to the recovery. Both for your wife and yourself, because it will change the husband also.

posted by sandpine at 9:10 AM on February 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind the ring cycle of care you should support him in his journey too, which may be one that takes a trip on the road of denial or of “buck up, sweetie.”

The ring thing is definitely a clear framing that might appeal to his style of thinking. (Oh, also: he's said to her that he feels he's still in denial - so it's not like he's unaware.) I'm thinking volunteering to be in his 2nd circle might be a way to let him know I'd be there to turn to if/when he needs, and at the same time a good remonder that she is at the center of things. (If being in her 1st circle and his 2nd is doable/advisable, that is.)
posted by progosk at 9:52 AM on February 4, 2018

As an analytical guy, something that might be help him make sense about what is going on is some education about the different coping styles.

So, for him, he might start using some denial (to avoid being completely overwhelmed) and a lot of instrumental tools (doing research, making plans) and might do the emotional processing in small doses later, if ever. For his wife, the emotional are so present and strong, she needs help coping with them so the emotional coping tools get used first and then, as those tools help her deal with the feelings she will be more ready to use more instrumental tools to problem solve. The challenge is that the coping tools each would normally be relying on are the opposite of what their spouse is trying to do.

Using the circle of support, he is called upon to help his wife with what she needs to cope (even though that is not at all what he is feeling the need for). So hopefully this gives him a way to normalize both what she needs and the fact that it is hard for him to do it. There is nothing wrong with either one - they are just different. At at this moment of crisis, the awareness of this difference can help him be a better husband to her.
posted by metahawk at 1:31 PM on February 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

(This seems to now have been somewhat covered, but I started writing it this morning and will just hit post in case it's useful anyway.)

I think any conversation would need to start with validating his coping strategy, and not trying to dismantle it. That could feel really undermining to him. And it's one thing for her to say that, but (given the "comfort in" part of the ring theory) I think it might not work well coming from you.

Also, I do know a couple where one partner threw himself into the science, and the partner found that to feel supportive, or at least so I perceived. So maybe with a few tweaks, his central instinct could be harnessed in a useful direction?

I think I'd work on suggesting he add a few things that will help him better give her what she needs. I'm not quite sure how to do that but that would be the way I'd look at it. And if you don't have the kind of relationship where you were able to give him relationship advice, I'd probably hold back or just try to provide him with as much support as you can. Cheesy-statement warning: often just giving someone love and being there for them are the fastest ways to accelerate their own path of discovery and change.

So sorry to hear that they and you are dealing with this.
posted by salvia at 1:45 PM on February 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

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