I was having lunch with my friend Sheila (not her real name) when she confided a secret to me about her marriage. She said she couldn’t tolerate her husband when he gets sick. She said he is a perfect husband in every way until a viral infection takes over his personality and turns him into a whiny, dependent shell of a man.
I admitted that I struggle with the same issue. I told her I try to show sympathy but after a couple of hours of shaking chills, I admonish Patrick to, ‘snap out of it and stop being so dramatic.”
I told her I have to overcome this shortcoming because Patrick has put a huge deposit into our marital bank account during the past twelve weeks while I’ve suffered from a peri-tonsillar abscess, recurrent sinus infections and an unforgiving asthma flare.
I declared my resolution to show him a softer, kinder self the next time he has an illness.
Details of his investment
I recounted Patrick’s patience and all the things he had done for me:
- Drove me to the doctor and dragged my limp body into the exam room.
- Fetched antibiotics, pain relievers, inhalers, nose sprays, cough syrup, and panty liners.
- Never complained when I cried and coughed in the night disturbing his sleep, only getting upset when I settled onto the couch, urging me to return to bed so I’d be more comfortable.
- Helped me regain my composure when I was under the influence of prednisone, exhibiting uncharacteristic irritability and agitation.
- Accepted my ‘attitude’ when I was angry about my slow progress and frustrated with my symptoms.
- Assumed extra duties to compensate for my exhaustion and lack of energy.
- Insisted I stay home and rest, and became my gatekeeper against the outside world.
- Failed to mention how frightening I looked with dark circles under my eyes and a death-like pallor.
- Watched me raise yucky mucous and perform nasal irrigations and told me I was beautiful.
- Encouraged me to keep in touch with my doctor and follow her instructions without telling me what to do.
After my conversation with Sheila, I admit I was anxious for an opportunity to show Patrick the love and empathy he deserves. Of course, I didn’t wish illness to strike him, but if in the natural course of events it happened, I was ready.
That same evening as we were brushing our teeth preparing for bed, Patrick pulled down his lower lid to show me a red, inflamed eyeball.
Here’s what I believe I said with a look of concern, “Oh darling, that looks so uncomfortable. Use some of my allergy eye drops so you can get some relief.”
Here’s what he thinks I said accompanied by an eye roll, “I noticed that. Squirt some of these eye drops into it and shut up about it.”
I believe the truth lies somewhere between our polarized perceptions.
I probably did say I had noticed the red eye earlier because indeed I had noticed it. I did not, however, recognize this minor issue as a golden opportunity for me to practice my newly claimed empathy skills.
And the eye roll is definitely an unconscious act that I need aggressive therapy to defeat. Maybe even shock treatments.
I know I didn’t tell him to ‘shut up’ about his condition. Not in those words at least.
Meanwhile, I’m grateful that instead of separate accounts we have a joint marital bank account with a hefty balance funded by Patrick’s supreme efforts. And I’m determined to make a contribution the next time Patrick has an ailment.
How do you cope when your spouse or partner is ill? Do you have what it takes to show empathy?