By Baila Sebrow

 

My son is dating a lovely young lady who has a chronic condition requiring lifelong medication. Even with medication, she has bad days when she is bedridden. My son knew about this all along, but he kept it from us (my husband and me, as well as our other children) until it got serious enough for them to discuss getting married. (They met at a camp reunion and have been inseparable ever since.) I don’t want to come across as mean, but I’m worried about what kind of life he will have with her. I know that she’s worried he’ll lose interest because he told me she shared that concern with him.

I don’t know where to turn for advice because when I talk to people about my concern, they give me a dirty look — even our rav. Why can’t people understand that I’m worried that my son will not be able to handle it? If they have kids, how will his life turn out? As his mother, don’t I have the right to ask such questions?

Response

Regardless of your son’s age, as his mother you have every right to ask any question that pertains to the well-being of your child, not just physically, but emotionally, too. Particularly because he is not married yet, now is the time for you to voice any concern you may have. You are doing your son a great service by posing questions that will most likely come up later, at which point he might be unprepared to answer or even address them.

I will start off by stating how much I admire your son for his selfless devotion to a young lady who unfortunately endures a chronic illness. I am sure the apple does not fall far from the tree; he surely received a loving and caring upbringing from his parents to demonstrate such commitment, which is a beautiful testament to you and to your entire family.

One of the major advantages that singles have when they meet on their own in a natural environment — such as how your son met the young lady he is dating — is that they have the opportunity to get to know one another based on the impression they make on each other at that time. Whether or not your son knew about her condition immediately upon meeting her, because the setting was so natural, he was able to see who she is beyond any physical ailment.

Now that the relationship has apparently taken a more serious turn, their future happiness needs to be viewed from an objective stance. I believe that your concern comes from the caregiving perspective, and how her condition will impact on your son’s life and their marriage together.

When two healthy people get married, they marry for better or worse; they pledge to be committed, caring, and dedicated to each other in good times and bad times. People who are in good health, especially when they are young, typically assume that they will remain that way and grow old together in decent physical condition. For many couples, that is exactly how life goes. Unfortunately, there are those who may marry in excellent health, but then, unexpectedly, one of the spouses takes ill in a serious way, and the healthy spouse finds herself or himself in the position of caregiving.

People who observe the situation from the outside may understand the physical toll that illness takes on the patient and the healthy spouse. It is hard to imagine how emotionally shattering it can be for the couple, not just for the one who is healthy. Sometimes the sick spouse feels guilty that his or her healthy spouse cannot live a normal, routine life as they had originally planned together. I believe that the young lady your son is dating understands these perspectives.

In many cases, a serious chronic illness may crop up during a marriage, sometimes several years after the wedding. Your son has the advantage that he knows about her condition and there are no surprises. So, with some planning and laying emotional groundwork, the marriage can work.

Let’s first look at it from a realistic viewpoint. Chronic illness can take a toll on even the best relationship. The unhealthy spouse may have days where he or she is totally not his or her usual self, and the healthy spouse may not know how to handle the changes, which oftentimes leads to feelings of despair and sadness. When the couple is middle-aged or older, the good times and memories they hopefully shared in the past will serve to hold them up during a major challenge. When the couple is young, they have not had enough time to build on a foundation of commitment, so the strain can be much more difficult to endure.

Like any other relationship needs communication to thrive, so does a marriage where one spouse is sick and the other is the caregiver. The mistake married couples in such circumstances will oftentimes make is that they are afraid to speak their mind. It is not uncommon for the healthy spouse to be afraid to express his or her feelings in order not to upset the unhealthy spouse and make things worse. The unhealthy spouse may feel guilty saying anything because of the burden he or she feels is being placed on the healthy spouse. That is a lethal marital mistake. It leads to bottled-up feelings and can create distance in the relationship.

There is nothing wrong with the healthy spouse venting and expressing his or her feelings and being emotionally comforted by the unwell spouse. The unwell spouse feels empowered by being able to offer support, and the healthy spouse is never left wondering if he or she is doing right by the ill spouse if that spouse talks about things that feel troublesome. Marriage is a partnership, and just like business partners brainstorm together to solve issues, the same should hold true in every marriage.

From the little bit you are saying about this relationship, the young lady your son is dating hints to the fact that he may not be able to deal with it. She is, in essence, opening the lines of communication in giving him the opportunity to express his fears about the future, even though he may not even be thinking about that yet. He needs to be urged to talk to her about his feelings in every respect.

They should both be encouraged to maintain the friendships they have. One of the worst things for any marriage is when either partner distances himself or herself from family and friends. Isolation from past friendships is destructive, as it can lead to feelings of depression. In a sick–well spouse relationship, the importance of friendships cannot be stressed enough. They need the support of their friends to normalize their marriage and make them feel part of society. You say there are days the young lady is bedridden, so I have to assume there are times she may require a wheelchair to go places. The friends with whom she has had a relationship know that, and they have been including her thus far in their social circles, so continuing those friendships will only serve to benefit both of them when they are a married couple.

There will likely be limitations they both need to be cognizant of. It is of utmost importance that your son begins to accompany the young lady to her medical appointments. He needs to familiarize himself with her condition and learn to understand when she can push herself to do more than she is accustomed to, and at which point she needs to take a pause. Frequently, the unwell spouse may feel emotionally pressured to do more, in order to keep the well spouse happy. If the results can cause harm, it is important for both of them to understand that and accept it.

For her own good, she also needs to be totally upfront about her illness and how it affects her in ways that may not necessarily be medically evident. I would imagine that since this has been going on for a long time and she attends functions, she does not view herself to be a victim. It is vital that she continues to see herself as an important part of her family, circle of friends, and society. I would also advise the couple to have a mentor so they can be guided in their marriage if any unforeseen circumstances come up.

A marriage like that is not for everyone. If someone cannot cope with it, that does not make him or her a bad person. It’s just that such a person is not cut out to handle a marriage of this sort. It is not easy watching somebody you love suffer in any way. Being in a relationship with somebody who has a chronic illness is not only challenging but unpredictable. Things may change from day to day, or even hour to hour. The well spouse needs to be somebody who is stronger and more patient than the average person.

Marriages in which one of the partners is sick can sometimes be even stronger than a marriage where both are healthy. They spend more time together than healthy couples, and the emotional intimacy of such a relationship can be deeper than any other. They are more aware of their blessings and know how to make the best of a challenging situation. I have seen how such marriages can be the envy of other couples. Your son and the young lady who will be your future daughter-in-law should be zocheh to enjoy many joyful years together with abundant, blissful blessings.

Baila Sebrow is president of Neshoma Advocates, communications and recruitment liaison for Sovri-Beth Israel, executive director of Teach Our Children, and a shadchanis and shidduch consultant. She can be reached at Bsebrow@aol.com. Questions and comments for the Dating Forum can be submitted to 5townsforum@gmail.com.

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