I wrote this a couple of years back as part of the Blog Exchange Network. Reading Jersey Cynic's piece on John McCain's treatment of his first wife brought it to mind.
I wish people would give some thought about what it really means to stand by someone for 40 or 50 years. You know - after all the romance and ‘aren’t you cute’s’ have gone the way of the Dodo. ‘For better or worse’ isn’t just an outdated bromide like that ‘obey’ bullshit; and it means much more than not bailing during catastrophic injury or illness. It means being there to help and support. It means not blaming them for whatever accident or illness has crippled their body – and offering comfort when that body is wracked by pain or disease. Perhaps most importantly – it means not adding to that pain through repetitive emotional abuse. You do not look at your spouse and say “You’re no fun anymore” or flinch away; repulsed because they need a hug or some other physical reminder that they yet retain their humanity. When they already feel bad because they cannot attend that concert or go on that wished for vacation because of surgery or pain, you do not compound their misery with selfish displays of disgust and regret. Marriage isn’t a euphemism – it’s a reality; and that reality can sometimes chafe and burn. Love is supposed to circumvent all that. Don’t they say it conquers all?
Allow me to get personal for a moment. Before I married my husband, yet while we were living with one another, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The thing was exceptionally large (about the size of a soda can) and if not removed would definitely kill him within six months. Time became compressed. Important decisions had to be made lightening quick – where to have the surgery (as surgery was our only option), how to pay for it all (insurance left us liable for 20%) – and most importantly (from my point of view) whether or not to hang around for what could be a challenging aftermath. Yes – I really thought about it. His doctors were crystal clear in their assessment. Should he survive the surgery (which lasted 12 of the longest hours of my life) he might be left blind, deaf or paralyzed. That’s one hell of a lot to handle when you’re barely 30 years of age. So I thought – can I manage this? More importantly – do I want to? Have I the strength to make such a decision? Because once made there would be no going back. It was all or nothing – I stay, or I go; no third road option. Obviously I stayed – but that’s not my point. My point is I seriously considered every angle. It was more than ‘do I love this man’; it was ‘do I have the physical and emotional strength to cope with what could be a lifetime of struggle’? My answer was yes. Now – the surgery was a success (thank god) – and outside of some facial paralysis and his being deaf in one ear there were no lasting physical effects. Personality wise – now that’s something different altogether. No one said he’d become a different person. I was totally unprepared for that. But I made my decision. I married him, I loved him, I cared for him – 20 years now and counting. But not everybody really thinks of these things – of the changes that can happen at a moments notice.
Side-stepping the realities of life are not the sole province of the young, either. Grown-ups do it too. Even for those certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had duly considered all vicissitudes – life can suddenly rear up and bite them squarely in the ass. And there they are – relying on that ‘for better or worse’ clause in the marriage certificate. Abruptly they discover that clause to be non-binding; that their spouse may have considered ‘for better or worse’ as only relating specifically to them. You’d think the opposite would be true – but it’s not. Whatever the reason – one spouse suddenly finds themselves in a place they don’t particularly want to be. But leaving someone because of accident or illness is really frowned upon societally speaking. The person doing the leaving is looked down on as morally bankrupt. So people stay. They stay somewhere they do not want to be. And it makes them angry – they are stuck, now, you see – no exit. And whether they intend to or not – that anger and frustration gets taken out on their spouse. Why get married in the first place, you ask? Well (and this rings especially true for men) - because it was fun. They had met someone with whom they always had a good time; and they anticipated that good time lasting forever – uncluttered and unsullied by either age or infirmity. Suddenly bam! Paralysis or cancer. Pain and doctors bills. That carefree, ‘you and me against the world’ relationship has changed – irrevocably. The same thing often happens with the birth or death of a child. Whatever the reason – one spouse withdraws – leaving the other to handle the situation virtually alone.
I’m not really assigning blame here. Some people are just wholly unsuited to heavy physical or emotional responsibility, something they cannot admit, even to themselves. Perhaps they looked upon marriage as being taken care of - spouse as substitute parent. It may never have occurred to them that they might be the ones having to administer that care – and it leaves them as angry as a child being denied a wished-for toy. Though they might not give breath to the words, “I resent you!” – the sentiment nevertheless runs underneath everything they say and do. Now imagine how all this feels when you are on the receiving end. It hurts. It hurts, it de-humanizes, it crush’s the very soul. Rejection by a spouse is bad enough in the best of circumstances; when you’re fighting trench war on a physical level it can be devastating. Many people would consider divorce at this point. In my opinion - divorce effectually leaves the unaffected spouse off the hook. Not that that spouse can really be the one to suggest it without seeming to desert their marriage at a critical point. Now here’s where it all gets a bit sticky. If they can push the other into suggesting it – say, nag or belittle them into fleeing for sanity’s sake…..well; best of both worlds. Social taboos regarding abandonment have not been violated - and most importantly - they become separated from that which they wished to avoid in the first place: a sick or deteriorating spouse. Poof! Responsibility all gone. Any imperative to stay till the bitter end has been resolved. It now becomes the sick spouse’s sole responsibility to provide for their own care and comfort. The additional pain and suffering this causes the affected partner is dismissed under a cloud of denial. “It wasn’t my fault” or “I’m not the one who asked for a divorce”. Whatever the excuse – the reality is: someone desperately trying to process massive physical, mental and emotional changes is now expected to handle all that, along with the logistical and practical end, without a net.
So think very, very carefully before saying ‘I do’. Look long and hard at the person standing beside you. Will they still be standing there were you in a wheelchair? Would you do the same for them? I think Paul McCartney said it best – which is sad, in a way, considering his own current failure on this account: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?” Though I must say - he never left his first wife’s side while she was dying. He really did mean ‘for better or for worse’ when he took those vows, his lovely wife Linda holding a white kitten for her bouquet. Theirs was an enduring marriage between two people who truly loved and respected one another. His current wife bailed at the first sign of trouble. Seems she didn’t want to be married to an ‘old man’; just to his money. That says a great deal about her character – don’t you think? And character is the key, here. So if you’re only pulling a Brittany Spears – don’t bother. Trust me when I say your prospective spouse would be much better off without you in the long run.