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Two Relationships in One

By Rose M. Schreiber
 

To be entrusted with the care of another human being is one of the greatest honors that can be bestowed on you.  It takes on meaning that is beyond approach.  New parents have nine months to prepare for the responsibility. Doctors and nurses undergo years of rigorous training for the work that they do.  But caregivers can find themselves thrust suddenly into roles that they did not choose when called to care for a partner, spouse or loved one after a diagnosis or an accident.

At a moment’s notice, you become a caregiver without any warning or time to think things through. You feel like you have no idea of what you are supposed to do, so you do your best as you follow your instincts and common sense. You embrace the new reality. You simply care for the one you love.

When you become a caregiver for your life partner, a new and uncharted realm opens up.  Two distinct relationships must now be blended into one. The familiar partner from the past remains and is always present.  But now there is someone different on the scene – someone with a significant illness.

Suddenly, two people sharing a life together will need to face challenges that cannot be left unattended.  A whole set of new and hard-core emotions are likely to intrude on the relationship. Worry, detachment, mortality, anger, fear of abandonment and having to live life alone, to name just a few, intertwine with the idiosyncrasies of your personal dynamics. They can lurk in a caregiver’s mind when faced with a life-and-relationship-altering illness in your partner.

Caregiving is an intense experience that asks you to surrender yourself for the needs of someone else.   Oftentimes, you have to give up the things you love in order to care for the one you love.  Even though it may feel like a hardship, you make the choice because you know that it is what love and commitment is all about.  Yet it is not that simple, because caregiving can be an emotional, physical, and interpersonal roller coaster that is both tremendously rewarding and frustrating. These emotions can surely test even the best communication and trust in a relationship.  The common denominator in the blending of these two relationships is communication.

Communication is a funny thing; just like relationships.  It is funny how the two go hand in hand.  Successful relationships are built on strong communication and trust. It is through honest communication that the true essence of a partnership is reveled.  This does not change when you add the role of caregiver to the mix.  Communication has to be the focal point for conveying the wants and needs of the one who is ill, and this must be accomplished without losing the identity of either the partnership or the caregiver.  The term “delicate balance” takes on a whole new meaning.

Frequently reviewing and maintaining clarity in your roles becomes crucial so that your judgment and decision-making skills are based on sound facts instead of raw emotions. How much can the mind and body take when faced with so many changes in such a short period?  I think that really depends on the couple’s ability to safely, clearly, and honestly communicate their wants, needs, and desires as indicated by the partner’s health needs first and the personal relationship second.

While I have no doubt that caring for my partner (who has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer) has strengthened our relationship, it has changed our relationship at times, too.  I have seen someone who was firmly independent become dependent in certain areas of life that have been difficult for him to accept.   Stepping outside one’s comfort zone and asking for assistance with mundane everyday chores adds stress to both parties.  That is undeniable!

Caregivers often become the voice for the one who is ill. As caregivers, we have to be mindful that we are in a supporting role; caregivers are the advocates, not the “deciders”!  In this supporting role, we must remember that what we want for our loved one may not necessarily be what the loved one wants.  What a slippery slope this becomes when the person you are caring for is your life partner!

As part of an LGBT intergenerational couple, I have, on occasion, observed discrimination in our health care system. Here again, personal political preferences may need to be deferred in favor of pragmatism because I am in the role of caregiver.  Successfully addressing and focusing solely on the needs of my partner is paramount.  There will be plenty of time to step up and do what is politically right once I have insured his proper care.

Life’s journeys do not often drive on smooth roads, but we can always hope for a gentle wind at our backs.  That gentle wind is always fortified by love, trust, and commitment.  Come to think about it, aren’t all relationships manifested in this way?

 

Chris MacLellan is the coordinator of Senior Services for SunServe Social Services in Fort Lauderdale, FL.  He blogs about his LGBT Caregiving and his partner's diagnosis with esophageal cancer at thepurplejacket.com.

 

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