What do you do when your partner is struggling with chronic illness and pushing you away? In order to understand what you need to do, you have to first understand what your partner really needs, and what they are really asking for when they push you away.
The following question came via email from someone who had found my blog:
“My wife suffers from chronic illness. It’s taken a toll on our marriage and I’m trying to keep us together, ironically she’s the one leaning towards divorce. I love her, our kids love her (and us together) and I’m struggling to understand why being alone is a better option for her.”
If you can relate to this question, I hope I can shed some light on how your partner is feeling, so that you can determine what is best for both of you.
There are a few reasons why your partner may be pushing you away. I don’t know the details in this scenario or in your situation, but I have been that partner. I have been the partner who during the height of my illness pushed my partner away because I felt they’d be better off alone rather than stuck taking care of me.
I was also the partner who later asked for a divorce because I realized that my relationship was only making me feel worse. I realized that I would be better off alone than continuing the relationship.
When you have chronic illness, it often takes over your life, it seeps into everything that surrounds you. But there is also so much more going on. Chronic illness only plays a small part in the realities that are your life and your relationships. It’s easy to say that we push our partners away or that we act a certain way because of our chronic illness. The reality is that there is so much more to it than that.
Two reasons your chronically ill partner would push you away
They push you away because they think you’d be better off without them.
During the worst of my illness, I felt worthless. I couldn’t do the things I’d always done. I couldn’t contribute in the ways I’d contributed it. I spent almost two years barely leaving the couch. I honestly felt that those I loved would be better off without me. I thought that my husband would be better off with someone healthy who could meet his needs. I felt that all those I loved would be better off without the worry of taking care of me.
When you live with chronic illness depression often takes over and part of that is a feeling of worthlessness, as well as feeling that those who love you would be better off without you, that the world would be better off without you. Even if we don’t reach the point of being suicidal, in a way we are, because we are considering ending our life as we know it.
The constant ups and downs with chronic illness meant that one day I’d be able to meet his needs and another I’d barely be able to meet my own. We fought often over my inability to meet his needs. This created a stress that often made me feel physically worse.
When chronic illness is part of the picture, everyone has to go above and beyond. The healthy person has to understand that chronic illness is always there, even if the ill partner has times when they are doing well. The ill partner is always doing a bit more just to manage to the basics of life, so it’s important for those who care for them to step in and manage their own needs. You can’t expect your chronically ill partner to continue to do for you and for your household in all the ways they did when they were healthy.
We talked with multiple marriage counselors, but things never seemed to improve. In the end, I felt that the most I could manage was my needs. I didn’t have enough in me to take care of myself and someone else.
There’s no way for me to tell you which of these is the reason your partner is pushing you away. It may be out of a desire to protect you from what is to come with their illness. Or, a misguided hope of giving you a better life that they don’t feel you’ll have with them. Or, it may be that they feel they’d be better off alone. Maybe they feel they are already carrying your relationship and just can’t keep doing it with chronic illness. None of us really know what is going on your relationship or in your partner’s head.
When we live with chronic illness it’s often difficult to be truly intimate with someone else, even the person we should be most intimate with. Our fears get in the way.
Chronic illness also puts us on the defensive. Our body is already out to get us, and that can often lead us to feeling that everything and everyone is out to get us. This puts us on the defensive. When we are on the defensive, we are quick to judge. We are quick to think the worst of everything and everyone.
When we are living with something that our partner has never experienced, it’s easy to believe that they can’t possibly understand how we feel, so there’s no reason to bother sharing it. It’s true that they will never understand our side, but we will never fully understand theirs, either.
The healthy partner is going through a situation just as stressful. They are suffering as well and trying to just figure out what to do. We often forget this, and instead think that they should just know what to do.
Both sides have to realize that they will never understand what their partner is going through. Both sides have to make an effort to really listen to their partner.
The knowledge that the healthy partner has that choice scares the ill partner. The knowledge that while we are stuck with this illness, the healthy partner is not. They can walk away at any point, and we often wonder why they don’t. After all, if we had the choice we’d walk away from this illness in a heartbeat.
Chronic illness means that some needs or desires may not be met, or they may have to be met differently, or by someone else.
You (the healthy partner) may have to pick up more chores around the house and pick up some slack because your ill partner just can’t do it anymore.
If your partner is the extend of your social circle, it’s time to broaden that circle. Look for support groups of others who understand what you are going through. Find other friends or family that you can rely on to spend time with and do the things with that your partner is no longer able.
You may not be able to hold your partner the way you used to. It’s not that they don’t want to be held that way, but that they just can’t be held that way. It’s hurting them that their illness has affected the way they can be touched. They need that touch. Work together to find ways that you can continue to be physically intimate without causing them pain.
But intimacy is about so much more than touch. When you can’t be intimate physically, it becomes so much more important that you make every effort to be intimate with your partner mentally and emotionally.
Talk to your partner and try to really understand why they are pushing you away. Are they just trying to protect you? Or do they feel that they need that distance for healing reasons?
If your partner is pushing you away in an effort to protect you…
You do not want to reach the point where your partner stops asking you for help. At that point they have found you to be unreliable and likely realized that they’d be just as well off alone, perhaps better.
While continuing to be there for your partner, you also need to give them space. Don’t crowd your partner or smother them. Your partner needs to feel they can be as independent as possible. Chronic illness leaves us with a constant worry of losing our independence, so it’s important that we not feel it’s being taken early.