This essay was originally published in The Huffington Post. Re-posted with Jacobs’ permission.
“What made you decide to end your marriage?” I asked the exasperated 42-year-old woman in my office.
We were having one of those post-op individual psychotherapy sessions shortly after the couples therapy I conducted with her and her husband had failed. Our bid to save her marriage had gone poorly from the start.
A year ago, her husband had had a major heart attack that killed 40 percent of his heart muscle and left him weak and highly anxious. Every time he felt chest pain in the months afterwards, he was convinced he was having another heart attack and repeatedly called 911 to carry him out of his workplace on a stretcher. (No further heart damage was ever detected in the emergency room.)
As a consequence of these disruptions, several different employers had fired him in quick succession. During our couples sessions, he pleaded with his wife to be patient with him until he found a position that suited his now diminished physical abilities and he regained confidence in his health and safety. But she eyed him coldly and expressed no empathy—only anger.
“I’m tired of working and working and working,” she complained to me during our individual meeting. “I have to take care of the house and do hair and everything. And he just doesn’t do anything. I’m tired of him saying he can’t do things.”
“But don’t you think his heart condition has changed what he can do?” I responded.
She shot back with rising irritation, “No. It’s all mental. He’s never been able to keep a job. Not since the beginning of our marriage 17 years ago. And he’s just trying to use his heart now to manipulate me to take care of him. But I won’t let him do that any more.”
Her view of him was as unshakeable as it was unforgiving. They separated soon after. She wound up starting her own small business and eventually marrying an older, affluent man who catered to her. He crashed on friends’ couches for a few weeks before moving into a homeless shelter. He only got back on his feet when he found another woman to take him in.
So what’s wrong with this picture? He was a lousy provider, in all likelihood, who’d made her feel victimized for nearly 17 years. She had every right to decline being re-victimized as his put-upon cardiac caregiver. Some would call that karmic justice.
But what happened here, in my mind, wasn’t simply an illustration of a bad relationship history undermining the willingness to make sacrifices on another’s behalf. She attributed malice to her husband’s intentions. At the same time, she trivialized his disabling heart functioning and resultant anxiety. It was as if she believed he was a malingerer and sociopath who willfully interpreted his chest pains as heart attack symptoms just to ride the ambulance and get out of a day’s work.
To me, this was a distortion of the medical reality. Worse, it was a kind of character assassination that amounted to kicking a man when he was already down.
This happens in family caregiving in more subtle ways all of the time.
Think of the emotionally distant adult daughter who avoids dealing with her father with dementia because he had always been mean to her when she was growing up. She perceives his yelling now as more of his old orneriness and not the agitated protests of a diseased mind.
Or consider the wife of a lung cancer patient who blames him for ruining his life and hers because of his heavy smoking. Not every one of these family members will sever their ties with the care receiver when the time for caregiving arrives. Some will keep their distance and give little. Others will give lots but do it with an edge of resentment while assuming a bossy, morally superior stance.
This kind of blaming may feel right. But I think it’s misguided. Ill-used caregivers are entitled to walk away but do themselves no honor assuaging their guilt through being vindictive toward the newly vulnerable. That turns caregiving into a grudge match which compounds the suffering of the already disabled care receiver. It precludes any possible joy in the caregiving. It impedes real understanding of and empathy for the present predicament.
We need to carefully distinguish the clinical symptoms of aging and illness from the past’s negative emotional legacy or risk conflating the two. Heart attacks needn’t prompt attacks on the heart.