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Relationship Trauma?

Stiletto Wheels Question Maze

I’m in the final few weeks of my creative writing course and one recent exercise required us to write a scene involving a confession and separation.  I produced the following:

Sarah looked at the printed invoice for the hundredth time as she heard the car draw up. Tears blurred her sight. She didn’t move.

“Sarah, what is it? What’s wrong? I came as soon as I could get away. Did the hospital call?”

Mark rushed in, put his briefcase down. Wordlessly, she held out the page of paper. Mark looked at it, puzzled, then at her.

“I don’t understand. You called me for this?” He turned it over. “It’s a receipt. Business.”

“Look at the date.” Her voice shook. Impossible to control.

“It’s …” His voice trailed off. “I told you about this. I couldn’t cancel. You said it was okay. To go.”

“It was the day of my operation. How could you?”

The hotel had called. Earrings left behind. Did Mrs Janiston want them sent on? Had she enjoyed her stay? No, actually, she had not. She had been in hospital having her breast removed. It had not been a pleasant experience, neither had losing her hair, being sick every day for weeks and, now, finding out that her husband and the father of her children had been sleeping with his twenty-something junior colleague – it was too much.

Looking at Mark, Sarah allowed the incandescent, visceral impulses throbbing through her body to take control. The lamp beside her … standing, she swept it to the floor. Fists clenched, she faced the man she had trusted with her love.

Mark’s gut roiled.This was worse than he’d ever imagined. With every instinct, he wanted to deny the truth. He didn’t want to be that man. But she’d covered every avenue. Spoken to the hotel. Looked at his personal emails.

“It’s not what you think.”

He sounded pathetic. She had evidence. His phone. Oh, god, she’d even called John to check up on him. What would people think? He tried to get mad. Whatever he’d done, she had no right to … hack … into his personal stuff.

“You told her you’d never loved me. How dare you …”

She was ranting but the words … resounded.He had said that but it meant nothing. Tears welled. No one got it. He had to watch her die. He was supposed to be strong but he wasn’t. He just needed a break. Some space. Time away from the doctors, the sympathy, the illness, the sheer, grinding misery of it. Was that so bad? He’d never meant for it to go this far. He wasn’t going to leave Sarah, his family. Never. That would be bad, really bad and he wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t.

“You’ve destroyed everything.”

Oh, shit, she was sobbing now. The constant misery. He had to be honest with himself. He did want to leave. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He wouldn’t but if he could just walk away … Mark struggled for words … anything.

“I’m sorry.” And he was. Sorry, this had happened. Sorry, he wasn’t strong enough. Sorry, she was dying. Sorry, he wanted to leave.

This scene generated a number of responses with many suggesting that Mark was a weak man.

Responding to my classmates, I thought otherwise, having experienced the stresses that long-term illness brings to a relationship.  I said:

I have pulled on the strong emotional responses that extreme illness tends to generate though this scene is not one from my life.

The idea that Mark is a ‘weak’ man in this situation is, I suspect, one that most of us would think to be so. Living with long term illness myself, I guess my view is more that he is human, flawed as we all are, flailing and doing the worst not the best thing in dealing with life. Sadly, none of know how we will respond to extreme situations until we are called on to do so.

We all imagine we will be noble, true, love will endure and difficulties be overcome together even as the evidence of our own eyes, ears and lives tells us that this is not in fact the case at all. Divorce and separation rates amongst couple when long-term illness is factored in are something over 70%. Men leave in an even higher % number.

The brave thing is to stay. Maybe braver is to acknowledge your weakness and stay.

Maybe better is to find a less destructive way to deal with your weakness … but, hey, flawed humans …

I do think it is important that the healthy partner of an ill person does have some private space to be themselves away from the constraints and difficulties that illness often imposes but does that mean carte blanche to behave in a way that would be entirely unacceptable if illness were not a factor?  How bad is this situation ? Am I more tolerant than most would be about this?  I have no idea.  Any other views?

4 Responses to “Relationship Trauma?”

  1. em

    This is compelling, very emotive. I think both partners in a couple want to think they can overcome the illness, but reality is different. I’m stuck with my health, but once the healthy partner considers that they have a choice to live with it or leave, it must be hard (if not impossible??) not to let that build up and taint every hospital visit, every stumble, and so on.

    • Elle, StilettoWheels & PlusBlack

      Hi, thanks for taking an interest and commenting on this.

      I think there are two aspects to the perspective I was trying to relate as, in the short term (with potentially recoverable illness), it is the fatal brush with mortality and the sheer grind and ugliness of getting through a severe illness that shakes people up so fundamentally.

      Then, in the longer term – with progressive, chronic illness – it is the changes in relationship dynamic and in expectations about life that become so hard to deal with.

      Of course some people have no problem with this – my former boss told me of a former girlfriend who was diagnosed with MS whom he had to break up with because she would have ‘held him back’ in his career. Sweet, not! She was well rid of him, IMO.

      But even if you really love someone who becomes very ill/disabled, it is a big ask to face the sacrifice of your own life expectations to accommodate their ‘new’ circumstances. It takes the healthy partner into a whole new realm of self sacrifice and one that is asked of few, many of whom do not feel capable of it. I’m not sure this should surprise us but it does surprise the many of whom it is rarely asked.

      My own wonderful husband, D, has stayed with me throughout but at huge cost to his own career and lifestyle aspirations as well as to his own health and well-being. Rarely saying so, I am massively grateful to him, not in a creepy, sucky way but because it has been such an unselfish undertaking on his part which I truly appreciate even if, at times, we have been at each other’s throats over aspects of our lives together.

      The impact of illness on life is very under-estimated by the healthy who are quick to blame when those in such marriages/partnerships struggle. I think I was trying to illustrate that in this piece – a perspective that my colleagues on the course did Debate with some vigour.

      Again, thanks for your time and interest and all the best, Elle 😉

      • em

        Wonderfully written reply, and very familiar to me. I totally agree that healthy people underestimate the daily constraints and challenges of living with a disability and as a result, it sadly takes a ‘settling’ period in the relationship for them to realise it’s unsustainable long term. I guess the glass-half-full approach is to take that as a positive and cherish the time you have, but it’s easy to be defensive and cynical from the outset. Pleased for you that you’ve found a happy relationship which isn’t too compromised and strangled by illness.All the best.

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