My partner is going to start chemotherapy in a couple of days. It will last six months. He spends a lot of time with his family on the phone talking, laughing, sharing the way he feels with his brother, his sister and his mother … I feel very lonely. It feels like I am just here to do the cleaning, the shopping, the driving to hospital, etc.
I don’t know what to do. Should I tell him the way I feel? I don’t want to hurt him. I went through cancer before I met him. I survived, but my then-relationship did not.
Eleanor says: Grief counsellors sometimes talk about the concentric circles around tragedy. There’s the person in the centre, to whom the thing actually happens, then one circle out there are the loved ones and close relatives who will wear the marks of the tragedy for a long time. Then there are the distant friends or relatives, and so on out by degrees until we get to colleagues or friends of friends. It’s meant to be a guide to who asks what of whom: while everyone in the circle feels shaken, we’re meant to send comfort inwards – to the smaller circles – and fear or frustration outwards. The teacher of a suddenly ill child gets to be teary over how confronting it is, but probably not on the phone to that child’s parents. Comfort in, worry out.
It would be easy to think of yourself as in the second circle immediately around your partner. But I want to encourage you to think that you deserve your own circle. There are two distinct stressful experiences coming your way here – one as the partner of someone suffering, and the other as a caregiver. In the first, you’ll be with your partner’s friends and family, all oriented around the shock of his diagnosis and treatment. In the second, you’re entitled to a separate support network – made up of your relatives and friends, where the fact at the centre is that caregiving is stressful.
Because caregiving is stressful. You’ve already mentioned cleaning, shopping, driving to the hospital – and that says nothing of the emotional experience. Caregivers can wind up feeling like a plus-one to some of the hardest events they’ve experienced. If you can create support for your experience – not just the one you’re having as part of an “us” – that loneliness you describe might ebb. You might even find you need different things in each role. As a partner you might want help processing how illness affects your relationship; as a caregiver you might need the exact opposite – a moment where no one talks about your partner.
You asked whether you should say anything to him. It’s difficult to say, not knowing the rest of your dynamic. I will say that people battling illnesses often keep the lowest-energy parts of their day to the people they love the most. It’s easy to see someone lighting up on the phone and feel confused or even resentful – “why aren’t they that vibrant with me?” – when in fact, their willingness to not be that way with you shows they trust you enough to not be “on”.
If you want to, you can share your feelings honestly, without asking him to solve them. Just be sure to recruit as much help as you can from outside the relationship to solve the trials that occur within it. That means vocally asking for assistance in both the stressful roles these months will force you into – naming specific things others can do to assist; acknowledging to yourself that it is legitimate to ask.
You and your partner face a big challenge. If you can meet the needs you have as separate people, you might be better able to help each other with the ones you’ll face together.
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