Relationships are an emotional engineering feat. There’s communication, so easy to get wrong, a thoughtless word can drive a canyon between two people. There’s the non verbal stuff, body language, expressions, eye contact (or lack of it). There’s building intimacy and trust, or letting that slide. Another great divide.
There are so many unintentional ways we can trip our relationships up. My primary relationship is with a man, so we have gender difference warping our perspectives and carving new terrain for intrepid exploration. He’s direct. I’m sensitive. What a winning combination. Not.
Sometimes I’m tired of strapping on the explorer kit and mapping the divide. I get frustrated and fed up with the effort it takes to make it all work. It’s not easy maintaining a healthy relationship. Is it worth it? Absolutely. But when I am scaling the sheer slick rock face of another misunderstanding, I think how nice it would be if we could cut to the chase and mind meld.
A little discussion was had this morning about Zed’s school concert.
“I don’t think I can go this time, honey” I said. I knew it the moment I woke. It is a fact of Dysautonomia that I miss out on many of the things that really matter to me as a Mum. That means my kids miss out too.
(sigh) “Is this how it is for single parent families?” he thought out loud.
Then: (another sigh) “We ARE a single parent family.”
He left the room and went on to the next thing before he could see my eyes fill with tears. My face turned toward the window. I stared out at the grey day outside. My thoughts weren’t very pretty in that moment. I thought about what I must be to him. He doesn’t know how it feels to be inside this body. He sees, this lump in the bed. This drain on his energy and patience. The not-so-silent partner, making my demands but not able to support him every time he needs it. I thought then about how unattractive I must be, this lumpy useless person I have become. Often so lost in my own health struggle, there is little left to give.
And then, I got really angry. I assessed who I am as a parent. What I offer my kids in spite of my compromised abilities. I thought about all the things I do manage to get to, the smile-though-the-small-talk just for the chance to see my kids do something at school. The meals I cook, gripping on to the bench and willing myself through to the finished stage. I thought about sitting up at the bench to pre-wrap sandwiches and lunchbox snacks, long after my best-before had been and gone. About morning cuddles on my bed with my babies, good long deep-and-meaningfuls. I thought about all the little bits of evidence that I am doing my best, despite Dysautonomia. I am still parenting. I whipped all that up into a whirlwind of objection.
And I told him how much it hurt to hear him suggest he parents on his own.
He was exasperated. “That’s not how I meant it! Why can’t you take it the way it was intended?”
And again, we are surveying the divide. We decide we can, with some teamwork, breach the gap.
These discussions aren’t uncommon for us. Relationships are hard work. Once our bridge was built, we took a moment to discuss the difficulty of relationships in the context of chronic illness. I asked if I could write about our morning argument and he agreed. I asked him what the worst part of our marriage is for him. If you too are living with chronic illness, you know all too well what the perspective of the sick person is. Here are his reflections from the bloke point of view, the other side of the dysautonomia divide.
“One of the hardest things to cope with is the inconsistency around the margins. I can never predict if you’ll be able to help or be of no help, I have to be able to roll with that. Even when I’m exhausted from a big day.
I carry a lot of guilt towards the kids, I seem to spend so much time doing necessary stuff around the house instead of hanging out with them or doing fun stuff.
I have to watch myself. It is easy to compare what would’ve been with the way it is. That can be really depressing. It’s best if I don’t compare. I feel sad about what the kids are missing out on by not having an active mum. I try not to think about what I am missing out on.
I am balancing the challenge of work, sick wife, kids. If I need to do more at home, that’s less time working and earning. There’s a knock on effect. That doesn’t leave me much mental space. I grind through every day trying to be optimistic. But it’s not easy. Sometimes I have to go and smash zombies with my cricket bat*”
“So, why do you think our marriage still works?” I asked.
“We love each other, we’re friends, we’re supportive and we don’t let our differences fester. We make ourselves deal with it. Generally we dovetail really well. We are tolerant of each other. We respect and trust each other. We believe that the other has our best interests at heart. So there is room to argue and get over it.
Also, we’re committed to our future; we’re both working really hard towards it. I work hard to earn the money and keep the family going, you work hard to find a solution to the health situation. We’re both pulling in the same direction.
It’s like Jack Reacher said in the last Lee Child novel. ‘You have to expect the best and plan for the worst’. I’ve seen you through so many dips. We have always come out the other side at some point. Also, I’m optimistic about recent treatment possibilities. There are lots of arrows pointing in the same direction. Is that wishful thinking? That’s what optimism is.
It’s like when Team New Zealand were racing in the America’s Cup. Every time you lose a race it dents your confidence. But you still have team spirit. You still believe it’s possible. We are a team.”
* don’t worry, it’s a computer game.
Does your relationship suffer because one of you is ill?
What do you do to keep it together?
How do you bridge the divide?