Most marriages start from a position of equality. Both partners are expected to “pull their weight” and contribute equally to the relationship. I can’t think of anyone who wants to build a partnership of lopsided responsibilities. Over time, with illness and age, a vast discrepancy between one person’s contribution and the others can develop, though, and the reality of one person taking on more in the relationship than the other is likely the longer the two are together.
That’s the norm. That’s the expectation. We start out young, healthy and happy and we grow old, or sick together, the stronger caring for the weaker depending upon what ails us.
My marriage never started this way from the beginning though, and with one in four American suffering from a mental illness and half of Americans suffering from a chronic disease, the landscape of what is normal, or expected is changing.
In my house, we concern ourselves every day with medication times and the amount of food eaten with each dose. We live around these details. We go to the doctor every few months for blood draws and check-ups and visit the pharmacy to refill medications once a month. Those are the most visible signs of illness in our house, but they are not the most difficult, or challenging.
It is the panic attacks that can derail brunch with friends, or cause a cancellation of a six-month planned vacation that is harder to live with than the daily maintenance. The most terrifying and difficult thing though is the possibility of a break from reality. There are no classes or preparation for a spouse that has an episode of psychosis that can be brought on by trauma, addiction, bipolar disorder, or in my case, schizophrenia.
My husband would be more than uncomfortable with the label of caretaker. That title just doesn’t suit him when it comes to our relationship and the reality of us. My husband has the chronic illness sarcoidosis, and when he gets sick (which is frequently) I am the one who makes him honey and lemon tea, checks his temperature and calls the on-call nurse to see if we should go to the doctor, etc. I am also the one who cheers him on when he gets a promotion or award at work. I am his biggest fan and the number one person who looks out for him.
My husband has a more significant role in the caretaking arena than I do, but the reality is we care for each other. His illness is more easily understood than mine, and the symptoms are more socially acceptable (he doesn’t hear voices, or believe he is talking to God). But if social media is an indicator on how far we have come to overcome stigmas and fixed notions of relationships that are a carryover from the past, then we have made progress. Not a single day goes by when I don’t read about someone struggling with anxiety, autism, mania, depression, or hallucinations on social media. There is some truth to the fact that otherwise private experiences are now put out in public for all to consume.
With so many Americans dealing with physical and mental health issues, the landscape of partnership, spouses, marriage is changing. What was once said by most couples getting married, a vow to care for each other in sickness and in health, is now more of the given than a promise we make to each other to be cashed in on at some distant point in the future.