One last nugget from the book Madness on the impact of serious illness on the marriage relationships. Marya explores the impact of her bipolar disorder on her second marriage and her very devoted husband who spent two years entirely focused on caring for her. When she begins to recover, she notices that he is rather a shell of himself.
In some ways it is simpler to be married to someone who is all need and no give. It’s an enormous drain. But there is benefit too: you become the hero, the center of someone else’s existence. You are the saint. You have, in this sense, a great deal of power. You tell this person what to do, and she does it. You feed her. You hold her, You are her mother, her father, her husband, her priest. And you are never required to her on an adult level. There is never anything wrong with you; any problem is caused by her, her illness, her meds not working, her malfunctioning mind. …
You relish your role and resent it enormously at the same time. And when your role is upset–when the patient climbs out of bed and walks on her own, makes her own food, drives her own car…–you see she now does everything wrong….And–who does she think she is?–She doesn’t always agree with you…she doesn’t need you anymore. This is unacceptable. This won’t work. (222-3)
What she describes is oh so true. Whether mental illness, disease of some other organ, or impact of an affair, one spouse picks up the slack to make life work. And so it does for a time. But when the sick one gets better, when the alcoholic gives up the bottle, when the adulterer gives up the affair and wants to renew a partnership again, the “strong” spouse often then experiences rages, resentment, distance, etc. At the just the time when a partnership is possible–the thing that the strong spouse most desired and fantasized about, they find it now difficult to allow or participate in such a partnership.
Why is this? In part it is due to comfort in one’s role and the dislike for change. It is a changed belief that the “sick” spouse is now incapable of really being a partner. In part it is due to the the hidden belief of the unfairness of the previous imbalanced relationship and the desire for some level of payback.