Uneven aging: Ending marriage, retaining a connection

The Uneven Aging series explores a relationship in which one partner who has an acute or chronic health issue, and the other is more or less healthy.

The cultural norm is that the healthier partner will take care of the other; those who made traditional marriage vows typically say, "In sickness and in health... as long as we both shall live."

Over time, parties may question that promise. Then what?  Two stories, with names changed to respect their privacy.
Terri and Jack

Terri married Jack thirty-one years ago. They were well-matched, both in interests and life goals; neither wanted children. In 2000, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Since then, their relationship gradually changed from, in her words, "head-over-heels to an in-like friendship".

Four years ago, Terri realized her needs for emotional closeness were not being met, a matter that was easy to ignore because they ran a small business together. Jack admitted that he was not interested in the effort and focus required to revive their bond. She moved to an apartment below his, and began to build a life with separate friends and activities.

The distance grew but Terri stopped short of dating; she had never wanted an open marriage. For several years, she hoped for Jack to return, but he asked for a divorce. Intense, difficult discussions took place, because they wanted to stay connected. The divorce is final, and Terri will continue to assist in his daily care and their business.

What struck me about Terri is her resolve to not be overtaken by guilt. It is as if she and Jack are clearing brush off a path they intend to walk, but no longer arm in arm.

Terri referred me to an excellent short article by Barry Jacobs, published by The American Association of Retired Persons, "What Happens When Spousal Caregivers Fall Out of Love".

It is packed with wisdom. The closure of a romantic relationship, Jacobs says, may preserve the caregiving role, which he presents as "another dimension of love".

This article is useful for educating family and friends, who often think that the healthier partner has abandoned the afflicted one.

Peggy and Bill

Bill, who had COPD, become so abusive that Peggy went to Urgent Care thinking she was having a heart attack. He had been mixing medication with alcohol, which made this already irascible man hell on wheels.

Peggy gave him an ultimatum: clean up or I'm  moving to my sister's. He replied, "Don't let the back door hit you in the butt."

After she moved, Peggy managed their investments (as she always had), but did not engage with Bill and left personal contact to their son, who supported her decision. She told his siblings that she wasn't taking their calls to discuss "what to do about Bill." She divorced him, and was promptly dropped by all of Bill's family and some of their friends.

A year after the divorce, a fall landed Bill in hospital, where he listened to a social worker and began a course of detox and therapy. When he had been sober for eighteen months, Peggy began to visit for an hour, a few times a month. Bill lived for almost three years after that. She and their son moved in for his last two weeks; he died with them holding his hands.

Peggy and Terri made gradual transitions from wife to friend, though neither wished, initially, to take that route. Each examined her attitudes toward commitment and loyalty, and considered her own needs, which had been subsumed by the partner's.

Each had family members who judged them harshly. "At one point", Peggy said, "I realized I could never justify my leaving to them."

Even when a caregiver-partner is actively appreciated, the vow is demanding. Another friend, caring for a husband with Parkinson's disease, says it all in two words: "Some days...".

Love is at the best of times complicated and nuanced—except perhaps in the first fizzy stage. We promise to devote ourselves to someone "in sickness and in health", but "to respect and rebalance" is another way to conduct a relationship, and in some cases, the end of a marriage is the healthiest choice.


LauraH said…
You write of these women and their partners with such compassion and thoughtfulness. I can learn a lot from the wisdom of this series, thank you.
Laura J said…
Agree with LauraH ;a very helpful series. Thank you
Jeannine said…
I find this a very thought provoking series. Thank you for doing it.
Kamchick said…
Very thought provoking, always...thanks for these posts. When things become uneven, it really is essential to at least be 'in like'. Also we need to remember that the 'situation' that a couple is in can change/reverse in a heartbeat. We need to try to be there for each other. For me, though, the drug/alcohol problem would be a deal breaker and I would have no need to justify to anyone my leaving the situation.
sensitive poet said…
Part 1: I never thought it would happen to me (famous last words!). But, against all odds, there was a happy ending. My husband and I were vigorous, active professionals in our mid 30's when we both married for the second time, bringing a blended family of 3 similar aged children together. We enjoyed a wonderful marriage for 30 years, both enjoying active professional and family lives, robust good health and many shared interests, including lots of travel together. Fast forward to our middle sixties: first, I developed, within the space of 12 months, an aggressive hip infection which required an urgent hip replacement, and then, when that seemed to be completely resolved, and unexpected autoimmune disease which paralyzed one leg completely and required me to be in a wheelchair for a year. My wonderful selfless husband took me to work, to rehabilitation and physiotherapy and to outings (concerts, theatre).
sensitive poet said…
Part 2: I got 80% better, other than using a cane most of the time, and not being able to lift objects more than 10 pounds. It pains me I was not able to lift my grandchildren as I would have liked to, but they soon got used to Grandma's walking stick.
Then my husband needed a double hip replacement urgently, after his marathoner's hips rapidly deteriorated. I did my best to help him emotionally as he deteriorated, and again after his surgery, but I had significant physical limitations of my own; he eventually recovered but was never able to run again. During all these difficulties, we were as optimistic as we could possibly be, not to say there weren't dark moments, but we somehow powered through them. One reason was that he was the love of my life, and I, his - and we felt we had been greatly blessed with each other, so there was no question of not stepping up to the plate. To be frank, it did not hurt that we had good occupations, but we had always been careful with money, and had a nest egg set aside for unpredictable events. Our children, although they lived in distant cities, were unfailingly supportive via Skype and phone calls. Our friends were also wonderful. Although life is not exactly the same as before, it still is wonderful, even with the "new normal".
Duchesse said…
Kamchick: Yes, things can change rapidly and even a relationship on a firm footing can be rocked. Neither of these women thought, even when illness entered the picture, that the marriage would end.

sensitive poet: Thank you for writing about your experience. I have long said that one cannot be there for another, either re one ill partner or taking turns, if the foundation has not been built. Part of that foundation is the achievement of a blending a family; your words "unfailingly supportive" about your children say a lot about that.

In the cases I wrote about, the persons they felt blessed to find were no longer there. I wrote about the possibility of the end of a marriage as an option because it is rarely discussed— not to endorse it. Those in committed relationships hope to employ the "go the distance" approach; as Taj Mahal sang, "You're gonna need somebody on your bond."

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