A Deep Wound
Not every partner is a natural caregiver.
By Hara Estroff Marano published March 7, 2023 - last reviewed on May 2, 2023
I’ve been in the helping professions all my life and have been successful at it. My husband has been in media, attended to by everybody, due to his very successful career. We travel well, love each other, have worked hard on our marriage, and generally do well, but he’s a terrible caregiver. When he is sick with just a cold, he’s whiny. Recently, I had surgery and despite thorough prepping by the doctor and me about post-op care, he was bothered by my stitches, begrudgingly provided food and water, and hid in his office. I had to direct everything and insist on follow through. He wore me out. I think his behavior is a result of trauma and a family that saw caregiving as a chore. He says he just couldn’t handle my having surgery! I think I should hire caregivers for any future needs. What do you think?
Some people are good caregivers, others not. Many people are disturbed by wounds to the flesh. After all, blood and wounds are undeniable signs of danger, and humans would not have survived to invent surgery if we didn’t have some built-in safeguards against danger. Even medical students often need a lot of exposure to overcome aversions to flesh wounds and blood.
Which is to say, you don’t have to posit a traumatic childhood to explain resistance to wound care. Love does not conquer all deeply etched reactivity. Consider, too, that your husband may have been too terrified of losing you—it’s that wound thing—to contend with your stitches. Avoidance is rarely a winning strategy, but it is often the most accessible one.
The more interesting issue is why, early in your recovery, you couldn’t calmly say that you weren’t getting what you needed. That might have helped your husband summon enough compassion to overcome his fears. And why couldn’t he confide that designating him wound-dresser was not in your best interest? Drafting him into the role seems misguided from the start. Please consider the possibility that you wore your husband out, too: Directing and insisting are not generally signs of a relationship going well.
Were you dreaming of being waited on tenderly by a man who has trouble wiping his own nose? Did you simply assume he would provide loving care without asking him first? Or did discussion of post-op care not happen before being in the doctor’s office, where it could be awkward to hold the private conversation needed?
As two successful professionals with discretionary income, you presumably have resources to hire help. Hospitals have people on staff to facilitate such arrangements.
Now that you’ve recovered, have you confided your disappointment to your husband and asked what it might take for him to give you what you need the next time there’s such a situation? Or what he would expect from you if the stitches were on his body? What does he make of his own lapse?
It’s time to get real about these matters. You don’t need to add insult to injury the next time around.