Uneven aging: When partners keep secrets
As I listen to others' lives in relationships marked by uneven aging, I have had a reckoning about the role of secrets.
The first secret-keeper was Tamar. She and her screenwriter husband Neil had been married only six years when, at forty, he was diagnosed with a terminal neurological disorder. He said, "In this business, if they know you're sick, you're already dead." They kept the illness a secret for a year and a half, even from his parents and siblings. She felt that her compliance was the last gift she could give him.
When I met Tamar, she had been widowed nearly a decade, and still felt they had made the right choice. But, she added, it had taken five years in therapy before she could cry over her her loss, to truly mourn Neil. She thought that her denial, even when all could see Neil was very sick, had, as she put it, "frozen me somehow, to this day."
The second secret-keeper was my across-the-street neighbour. Ruth travelled the world as an executive with an international charity. Her husband, Clark, was a carpenter who designed and built furniture, by commission. Clark was the at-home parent and though I noticed that he rarely seemed to be in his workshop, I saw him mostly in the evening. Clark said he was the luckiest man in the world, to spend so much time with their four children. He was a towering, solid fellow; I would watch him cook with his son Lane atop his shoulders for an hour at a time.
When I attended Ruth's retirement party, I noticed Clark had a cane, and asked if he had an injury, common for carpenters. Lane said that Clark had spent thirty years at home because he has lupus, which made regular work impossible. Those times Lane had spent on his father's shoulders were an act, as he put it, "of sheer will combined with a healthy pinch of vanity."
I recalled the times my husband and I had invited Ruth and Clark to kayak or hike, and there was always a reason why they couldn't join us. I had no clue, and realized that I wasn't meant to.
Misdirection, feints, fibs: all tactics employed to batten down a tarp of privacy and to maintain a semblance of life-as-normal. If a couple want to keep infirmity within their walls, it's their choice. And yet, there ought to be a sense of what is being demanded of the healthier partner, because keeping up a front is unceasing work. The subterfuge also means she has far less support from friends.
The healthier partner must care for the afflicted partner while simultaneously downplaying the situation, a psychic drain. "The truth shall set you free", the saying goes; it also brings relief to those asked to collude. Secrets load stress into an already intense situation: Did they see those medications on the counter? Will his Dad believe that he's just "down with a stomach bug"?
I urge anyone wondering "what the heck is really going on?" to offer compassion first, and accept that the openness that characterized your relationship may be off to the side for a bit. A secret in such situations reveals what is most cherished: the maintenance of a valued, habitual way of living. Illness, age-related or not, is a whole other realm of interaction.
Most secrets will time out. In some cases, friends or family see through dissembling; in others, the afflicted person moves beyond holding privacy as the paramount value. Mark, a longtime colleague, decided to reveal his struggle with depression when he realized he could help others by ceasing to think of his condition as shameful.
I'm reminded of the image of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, transitions, time, passages, endings. Janus presided over the beginning and end of conflict. Secrets enter near the beginning; at the end, the dissolution of a secret accompanies closure.
He is also associated with doorways and pathways. To be deceived is sometimes referred to as "to be led down the garden path". We can accept this behaviour with more equanimity if we see it a coping strategy rather than a personal betrayal.
(Names have been changed in this post.)