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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Your Dying Spouse 62 - Hard Feelings

This post was inspired by Paul Byerly's essay 'Choose to be Wronged' in The Generous Husband on September 27, 2015.

We are linked to Inspire Me Monday, and with Wedded Wednesday, on the awesome Messy Marriage site.

Seriously (or terminally) ill people are not easy to live with. They're hurting, and uncomfortable, and scared, and they are liable to say hurtful things, lashing out against the most convenient target...you, the caregiver.

Life is not a book or a movie; unhappy, illogical things happen, and relationships can be soured, and never quite fully repaired, because of trivialities. There's no story arc that we can see from our perspective.

I wonder how many divorces began from an argument about leaving the toilet seat up?

But what do you do? When you're verbally attacked and slighted, what do you do?

The greeting-card approach is to try to keep yourself reminded that the person who's hurting you will not be around that much longer. It's the sentimental approach, and it's usually not very effective, because it demands that you live both in the now, and in the future.

There are better ways.

First, when you're attacked and offended, wait before responding. Just wait, and think -

What will a harsh response-in-kind actually do? Will it change your spouse's mind?

Not likely. Attacking in kind will cause defenses to be raised, and will be more apt to solidify the position he or she has taken. Shocking someone into seeing their error only works in Hollywood.

It'll thus perpetuate the argument. Adding fuel to the flames is a metaphor that's become a cliche, because it's so very true.

Meeting anger with anger is sometimes justified as cathartic, a 'venting'. But we're not pressure tanks that explode when overfilled and thus need safety valves. It's a nice image, really...but it's wrong.

Catharsis breeds more anger, and more unhappiness. Jonathan Shay, in his landmark study of PTSD Ulysses in Viet Nam, found that veterans who attended therapy in which they were encouraged to 'let it all out' were more likely to kill themselves than those who never received (and acted on) that advice.

Another thing to consider - and this is hard for most to think about, much less enact - is that you're not supposed to give someone else the 'keys' to your emotions.

It goes against so much of what we, in the West, take as Truth. I'm nothing without you...my heart is in your hands...you complete me...those are the messages we get from popular culture

But consider this - God created us as individuals, built in His image (for those of you who don't believe in God, or are not on speaking terms with Him, I think you can accept that we're all individuals anyway?).

We're responsible for what we feel, and for how we act on our feelings, and for what we say.

It sounds like a form of distancing, and it is, and that may feel wrong and almost scary. But that kind of distance does not say you don't matter enough to hurt me; it really means I choose not to take offense at this, because my mental health is important to me...and I can show you a purer compassion when my mind is clear.

(OK, you do lose the supposed joys of make-up sex, but that embrace is just the other side of anger's coin; you're embracing an unhealthy pas de deux that can eventually do damage, through both the lows and the highs. In that dance you're a slave to powers that can accelerate to scar your soul, and tear you apart.)

To turn to Gautama Buddha for a minute (a smart man, and Buddhist's don't consider him God), we find what are called the Four Noble Truths -

  1. There is unhappiness
  2. Unhappiness has a cause
  3. Unhappiness can be overcome
  4. There is a way to overcome unhappiness
We will have disagreements; we will fight. That does make us unhappy.

We far more often over trivialities than over major issues, and that's especially true in the case of terminal illness.

We can be delivered from this unhappy paradigm for life.

And the way to do that is simply to think before we respond, reflect on the consequences, reflect on what a harsh response will do to us...

...and then, taking Jesus' hand...

...turn the other cheek.

This is important for both the caregiver and the terminally ill spouse...BOTH are responsible for their words and actions. Illness is not entitlement.


  1. First of all, I love this line, "Shocking someone into seeing their error only works in Hollywood." So true! I've often thought about how Hollywood skews our view of romantic love, but hadn't really thought about how they also add to our perspective on confrontations, Andrew. And I also want to add that researchers are finding that giving full vent to our anger only solidifies the anger in our hearts rather than releasing us from it. That doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't release the anger through tears or even speaking those angry thoughts out, but it's almost never a good idea to do so with our loved ones--especially when they are sick or terminal. I'm sure you would understand if your wife blasted you one day, but what if that's the last words she said to you. I know she would be riddled with guilt and remorse over that. She would reflect back on that one misstep over and over in her grief. So once again, you bring such truth and practicality to this difficult issue. Great thoughts, Andrew! I do hope you are doing well today.

    1. Beth, thank you so much for this; you've added a tremendous value to the post.

      That was one issue I didn't address, because it never really crossed my mind...what if angry words became the last conversation?

      It's happened to many, many people. It hurts them all.

      Thank you so much for being here!

  2. So practical and laced with realism. Thank you.

    1. Michele, thank YOU. I appreciate your presence here.

  3. Well is it me is your book getting better and better with each chapter you're writing or what?


    1. Linda, you just made my day! Thank you so much!

  4. "Just wait" - if we would take just this one piece of advice, how different our relationships might look! Thanks, Andrew.
    I'm still reading Paul Knitter's book so it was good to be reminded of the Four Noble Truths here.

    1. Lisa, thank you for being here...and it is so hard to wait, sometimes, isn't it?

      But the world would be better if we did.

      Always liked the Four Noble Truths, and the image of the Eightfold path being the spokes of the wheel with the Truths as its hub. Turn the Dharma wheel...

      I did, and found Jesus. Small world.

  5. Think before we act/respond....such wise words!
    Thinking and praying still friend!

    1. Thank you, Tara, and thank you so much for the prayers!

      Praying for you, too, my friend.

  6. This is such a great post. I do not live with a spouse who is physically ill and I'm mostly physically healthy myself, but I am mentally ill and multiply-disabled and this causes some of the same issues that serious physical illness can cause. I may be around for a long time, so your first approach is especially ineffective in my case. I do agree that taking responsibility for the way I react, insofar as I can, helps and I think my husband does the same.

    1. I'm so glad that you found something of value here. Thank you for taking the time to comment, and you are in my prayers as I write this.

  7. We're such complex creatures. Emotions undependable, yet they drive much of what we do. Truly we must be led by the Spirit, 'else we flame out in self-pity or self-congratulation. Stay the course, Andrew, even as you are scraped down to raw sinew and bone, so to speak.

    1. "...we flame out in self-pity or self-congratulation."

      That is SO perfect! I love the way you put that.

      It's hard to stay the course...it just plain hurts. But I will.

  8. Yes, it would be so much better if we all waited before we responded...but, well, I confess to be one who speaks first then reacts or suffers the consequences later! It may be that seriously or terminally ill people are hard to live with; may lash out, etc...but one with dementia and a hearing issue is too! In fact, I think at some point we may all be hard to live with!

    But, I love the visual of taking Jesus' hand, and THEN turning the other cheek! What words to live by you share with us, Andrew...

    And, with each chapter, I agree with Linda S. that your book is getting better and better with each chapter written...hold on, Andrew! God is using you in such an amazing way...

    Prayers...my friend!

    1. Barbara, I so appreciate your being here. The perspective you bring to the discussion is very valuable, and illuminates things, as it were, from a different angle.

      And we are all hard to live with sometimes. That's a given...sometimes I think Jesus took his time to pray and fast mainly to get away from the Apostles, because they were always fighting among themselves and bugging HIM to take their side.

      I will hold on to get this into a book. It's hard work, almost harder than writing from scratch!

      Thank you again for being here, Barbara. You are a blessing.

  9. This is a really interesting post, Andrew, I think it applies to people who have spouses who are NOT terminally ill as well. Really interesting data on the veterans. Waiting to respond, if I could just learn that when the going gets tough, helps avoid so much mess. This is even a good word for dealing with my sometimes angry teen: responding in kind DOES NOT HELP! Hope your week is full of grace.

    1. It does apply to everyone, Betsy, you're right. It's more clearly drawn in case of terminal illness, but these are things that every couple can address.

      Responding to an angry teen...I think sometimes the only thing that can help is Divine Intervention!

      Thank you for being here - and I hope your week has been grace-filled as well.

  10. Andrew, such good words here. It's so hard not to be a react-or, and my family and I are all healthy. It's truly practice and choosing to not react, but to respond. And I get to choose how I respond.

    Your words here: "simply to think before we respond, reflect on the consequences, reflect on what a harsh response will do to us..." Spot on. If it means we walk away for a few minutes to cool, down, then that is what we do.

    Sorry, I guess I'm challenged to think about this with the relationships closest to me. If I come to the day when I'm caring for someone who's terminally ill, I'll need to choose this even more. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective.

    1. You're right, Jeanne, it is very hard not to react...especially when it's a habit that is to some degree encouraged by our entertainment and culture. The term "in your face" is not altogether disapproving.

      Walking away can be the best thing we can do sometimes. Walk away, and simply leave it.

      Some disputes will fester, yes...but I think most will be overtaken by opther events and simply dry up and blow away on the wind, forgotten.

      Thank you so much for being here!

  11. Andrew - Nice follow up, sorry it took me so long to see it.
    "you're not supposed to give someone else the 'keys' to your emotions"
    I agree. On the other hand I think we can and should grant some access to carefully selected individuals. The problem, as I see it, is we don't use our heads when we do this.

    1. Too right! This is one area where we need to be wise...and we often let our hearts (and other things) rule.

      Thank you for being here, Paul.