Chronic Healing

How to live despite and beyond chronic illness

Three Is A Crowd

The Stealth Presence In Relationships

The Stealth Presence In Relationships

Gargoyle at City College NYC
Credit: Michael Markham
Relationships are hard. That's not even worthy of cliché status any longer, but they become even more challenging when you bring a third element into every single one of them. I'm not talking about the stepchild who hates you or the in-laws who think your spouse, partner or companion could have done so much better than to choose you. Or sibling issues or any of those family complications most of us have experienced.

I am talking about someone I can't ditch and suspect many of you are in the same position. It's Chronic Disease. When it comes to relationships the reality isn't just the diagnosis or the progression of illness, it is what this entity - this stealth presence -- can do to sabotage intimacy, sensuality, honesty and dialogue. And I'm only mentioning the obvious.

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As I confessed in Dancing at the River's Edge, I've tried numerous strategies in relationships; virtually all of them fail at some point. If the friendship is strong or the bond of intimacy is based on trust, relationships can survive and sometimes endure. However, both the well and the unwell person must accept that you're never completely alone. The third member in the relationship is the THUG of Chronic Disease. Thugs are worse than bullies - thugs insist on things going their way and you can't always stare them down or walk away.

The other problem with the Thug in my life is that I never know when or how he will choose to show his power. It might be at the precise moment I've secured seats to a much-desired theatrical or musical event. Then I'm confronted with the option of giving my seat to a friend and staying home alone with the Thug. Or, if I go it is in fear The Thug will disrupt the performance or the delicate balance of a relationship. I've learned not to go. Thug wins that round. Once I attended a performance with a close friend when I thought Thug had decided to hang out quietly in his corner for a few hours. At midpoint in the evening I was alerted to his active and fighting status. It was a struggle to maintain my equilibrium as I battled against his outburst ... an extreme and sudden wave of respiratory congestion/distress.

By sheer luck and perhaps some self-discipline I got through the rather lengthy performance. At the end of it I was fatigued and angry. It spilled out as an overly emotional plea for help in a public setting. It stunned and embarrassed my friend. He became annoyed and responded in a manner so hurtful I couldn't contain my tears. The next day as I was about to explain what had happened from my side, he called to tell me he understood fully. And we went forward, our bond stronger than before. It's not always that easy to resolve issues with someone when Thug is your constant companion. I've lost chances at intimate friendships, lost love and what were to have been lasting commitments because Thug took charge. I previously used the codename D.D.I.C. (Dragon-Disease-In-Charge) when things went wrong for me and infiltrated an interpersonal dynamic. Over the years, I have come to personify this as The Thug. It's far more accurate.

Here are my suggestions for softening the punch The Thug can throw your way.

1. If your friend, partner, companion, spouse or lover needs a time-out don't assume you're being rejected or "dumped." Sometimes, a bit of space and time allows the other person to catch enough emotional breath to stay with you and to be more available when you're in crisis.

2. Admit that The Thug is always present. Discuss it openly. If you have to keep The Thug a secret, also keep your clothes on when around this person -- at the very least.

3. Your disease is not your fault, but it isn't the fault of your intimates either. Keep the distinction clear.

4. It's virtually impossible for one person to be everything to and for you at all times. Cultivate interests and quiet things to do when The Thug has knocked you out cold. For me it is reading, when I can, and always listening to music.

5. If The Thug creates disharmony in otherwise pleasant or fulfilling relationships, acknowledge what happened and then go forward. Don't rehash and retell the story to each other or to others.

6. Accept that watching someone you love suffer is challenging (and exhausting). Find new ways to communicate how much the people in your life matter to you - consider engaging in non-verbal forms of expression.

7. If you're in a long-term relationship, you're both part of the Thug's Tango. There are times when memories or events are overwhelming. In those circumstances, benign silence can be the best approach.

8. Touching another and being touched by someone you love and/or trust is extremely healing. It doesn't need to be sexual.

9. Know yourself and trust yourself well enough to ask for your own space and solitude before you bubble-over. Be sure that you communicate clearly that you're not withdrawing because of anything other than Thug-overload.

10. If you must end a relationship or if you're the one who is left, do not blame yourself. Don't waste precious energy reserves raging against The Thug. Bitterness is a temptation but that gives The Thug the ultimate knockout victory. Try to keep an open heart.

© Alida Brill 2011

Alida Brill is an award-winning writer, social critic, and women's advocate. Her most recent book is Dancing at the River's Edge: A Patient and her Doctor Negotiate Life with Chronic Illness. more...

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