Tough times are likely to invade all relationships at some stage, and unexpected challenges can come upon us very suddenly. Life will sometimes deal unforeseen blows that appear with shocking suddenness.
When ‘Sickness/Poorer/Worse’ replace the ‘Health/Richer/Better’ options that we hoped would be our lot, we need to find fresh skills and understanding in order to learn how to cope in any new situation.
A sudden diagnosis of illness in one partner can prove a serious challenge to even the most solid of relationships. Resilience will be needed by any couple faced with the prospect of having to cope with unexpected adversity. The person with the diagnosis may well react strongly to the changes they are experiencing, some of these changes may be temporary, although it may seem a mighty mountain to climb when the process is being endured.
The supporting partner needs time to adjust to what may seem a situation unfairly imposed upon them, too. Loss of control around the established pattern of our lives is a situation likely to bring difficult emotional responses of helplessness and unfairness leading both partners, at times, feeling trapped and out of control. It’s so vital to talk to each other, to exchange feelings and reactions, to listen with empathy to the world in which the other is now caught. The traditional family patterns will need to adapt. A turnaround in established roles may mean they now become a patient and a carer. It takes time to discover how habitual ways of relating could be now at odds with the new needs of both parties. Tricky feelings left unexpressed will stick and it’s easy for grievances to spiral. Remember that the frustration is with the illness or impairment and not with each other. Keep ‘the enemy’ on the outside, it’s so much easier to fight this in tandem than allowing it to come between you. Talk and explore together, take time to find out how each partner feels, learn as much as you can about the situation you face – information gives feelings of control. Knowledge in this, as in so many other places, is power.
It’s very easy for couples to get locked into a cycle of competition – who is the most hard done by – and get enmeshed in the feeling that neither can ever truly understand the burden the other carries. Illness and impairment can be lonely and isolating. Unfairness rankles and anger is an understandable response. It’s normal to be sad or overwhelmed and both people will need to find outside places to talk and offload a little.
New contacts or fresh interests can emerge from a need to sometimes break free and it’s possible to believe that we can still enlarge a life that might start to feel smaller and more insular. It is so important to find new connections, as well as nurturing existing relationships.
It may be difficult at first, but explore groups, local resources and ideas that fit in with the different pattern of your lives. Reach out. People, even those closest to us, often just don’t know what could help, so never be afraid to ask. We have no influence on what happens to us, but we do have choices around how we respond to these changes. Resilience is not a static situation but a life long and ongoing project. Facing adversity is a big challenge and needs some self-compassion. It’s easy to for couples to neglect themselves when life overwhelms. Always remember to look after ourselves as well as each other. Treats, sleep, good food will all help, but are easily pushed aside when we struggle. The patient and the carer both need to make sure that they know how to find, and use, all resources open to them – physical, emotional and spiritual.
After the sudden death of her husband, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg put her energy and grief into the book ‘Option B’, a good resource for anyone experiencing loss. Here she explains how it took a painfully long time for her to face the dreadful truth that what she yearned for, the normality of her life, was just not there any longer. She offers up her truism that:
‘if option A is no longer available, then let’s kick the shit out of option B’
Change is inevitable for us all, and will bring loss. There may have to be substantial adjustments in all areas of couple life. But the best defence is to change our defences and adapt to new situations.
Find that option B and use it to the best advantage of your new selves. Accepting the new normal takes time, and it’s sometimes hard to hold onto hope, but try defying gravity, and don’t let adversity bring you down.