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Ailing Spouses

We don’t normally talk of the difficulty of the decision to divorce or to stay put when the spouse is ailing.

What do you do when your partner suffers from chronic illness? What if you are in your 70s? What if you are in your 50s? Or 30s?

What if it is asthma? Arthritis? Multiple sclerosis? Parkinson’s? Paralysis?

What if it is obsessive compulsive disorder? Schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder? Dementia?

In my limited experience, I find that couples handle the partner’s physical ailment with a sense of acceptance. One wife who had moved out of her home and city moved back in to take care of her husband when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A gentleman takes care of his bed-ridden wife.

It is physically exhausting to take care of an ailing spouse, particularly one who is bed-ridden or whose movements are limited. Some cross their threshold of stress and leave and I can understand that. Many are staying and taking care of their spouse with a sense of acceptance and responsibility. The ailing spouse is generally grateful. That seems to help. Sometimes though, they are not because they are grappling with their own demons. Another reason for the acceptance could be that the healthy spouse can see the cause in front of them and I believe it’s far easier to make peace with what we can see.

But, things seem to take a different turn when the spouse is diagnosed with a psychiatric ailment. The stress is different. Life is seemingly normal, you can’t see the ailment, yet you are doing more than your share because the spouse isn’t fully up to doing things. There doesn’t seem to be a physical reason, just that their ailment comes in the way.

The more important thing is that a psychiatric ailment shatters the bedrock of marriage – the satisfaction of your emotional needs. Empathy, sharing yourself, friendship, respect, trust, a person you can lean on, these things go missing since the ailing persons are often caught up with their own demons, battling each moment of their lives. More often than not, both live in daily hell of a different kind.

The ailing spouse becomes difficult to live with. That’s the nature of the ailment. It becomes difficult to feel compassion for them. They can be critical, aggressive, they may not respond, may be suicidal, and a host of such things.

Often, the ailing spouse refuses treatment and this turns the marriage hellish. The added stress of getting them to the doctor and to take their medication is mind-numbing. You can’t see a tomorrow. You live in constant anxiety and watchfulness – what if he goes off medication? What if she loses sleep – it can aggravate the symptoms. What if he slips from a depressive phase to a manic phase and you don’t catch it early enough to begin the treatment? Will the medicine work? What are the side effects? You are terrified of changing the medication because at times, it seems like trial and error in getting the right one to them.

Even with such ailments, a surprising number of marriages stand on account of a sense of responsibility, although often without the healthy form of patience and acceptance. We hear a sigh, a complaint, an ultra-patient answer that covers the stress and dissonance, these are not cause for complaint, but something to be expected. We are human.

So what should you decide in these cases?

Some have stayed. Some have moved. I have no opinion to offer in this matter. This is not a place for judgement. I am grateful to friends and family who have stuck by their spouses. Yet, I understand with all my heart those who walked out of their marriages.

All I can say is that this isn’t a battle you can fight alone and still remain sane. If the family is with you – spouse’s and yours – you are in better shape. In one family, when the daughter went through a psychotic episode, her family took care of her and pitched in to make sure she received treatment. In another instance, when the wife was ill, the husband’s family pitched in.

In each of these cases, the decision is yours. There is a bit of resilience in each of us which helps us deal with these tough parts of life. Use it well. Don’t use it in a self-defeating cause. When a husband saw that their teen-aged daughter was suffering on account of his wife’s illness, he finally took the decision to separate. It’s a shifting guideline and each of us has to judge for one self.

If you decide to take on that responsibility, I believe you will have accepted the fact that your life is no longer your own. You won’t have much of a married life, nor the pleasures in the smaller things, there is no sharing, and every issue can be a bone of contention. There will be times when it brings you to the brink. One gentleman, who takes care of his wife, wished he wasn’t alive during one such prolonged period. Make room for yourself, take pleasure in a different area of life, you owe yourself that.

The break-up of marriage will place added stress on the spouse. But, sometimes in the most helpless of cases, you decide to move on and to your relief, the spouse stabilises herself or himself. You don’t know until it happens. That’s the uncertainty that makes the decision so difficult.

As I said, I don’t have an answer. Weigh the outcomes. Place the worst case situations on either end of the scale and you may find yourself taking the one that weighs lower.

Image: Yashasvi Agrawal

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