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"He Can't Handle My Illness"

Rachel is struggling with a debilitating disorder, but Adam, in his own way, is suffering, too. Can this marriage be saved?


Her Turn
"I haven't been well for a long time, and I get the feeling that Adam just doesn't care," says Rachel, 33, is stay-at-home mom. "Our once-great marriage is just a shell. 

"It's been this way ever since I got sick. About three years ago, my fingers began to ache and swell up. Then the discomfort spread to my hands and shoulders, and I started to feel tired all the time. I bounced from one specialist to another, undergoing test after test. No one had answers. While researching my symptoms on the Internet, I finally found an article on fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder affecting the musculoskeletal system. The disorder, which is often misdiagnosed, can trigger a number of symptoms -- many of which hit home for me. Though fibromyalgia is controversial and not all doctors believe it is a real disorder, I finally found a specialist who does.

"Some days, every muscle in my body hurts; other days, I just feel a sharp jab in the back. More constant are the insomnia and headaches. I have no energy for 8-year-old Brandon or 6-year-old Brett when they come home from school, and I feel guilty for pacifying Jake, our 2-year-old, with videos when I'm too tired to play with him. Simply getting through the day is hard.

"Because certain antidepressants in low doses can control pain, my doctor prescribed one for me. He also encouraged me to exercise in order to stimulate endorphins, the brain's natural pain relievers. I admit I haven't been very good about that. And even though doctors tell me that fibromyalgia won't disable me completely, I'm still terrified that it will. I keep checking the Internet for new information. 

"Last week, as I put Jake in his car seat, pain shot through my wrists and arms. I panicked -- I had this image of me incapacitated in a wheelchair and unable to mother my children. But when I told Adam what happened, he didn't seem concerned; he just mumbled a word or two and then changed the subject. Once in a while, he'll offer to give me a massage, but it's such a halfhearted shoulder rub that it's hardly worth the bother. The only time he takes any real interest in me is when he wants to have sex, which hardly puts me in the mood. 

"Adam says I overreact to everything, and I admit I have found myself screaming about things I know aren't important. Last week, I chewed him out for planting a new rhododendron bush too close to our apple tree.  

"But I'm not unreasonable when it comes to Adam's parents. I hate when they visit. His mother is always telling me how to raise the kids, and his father barely acknowledges me. Adam just says, 'Oh, that's how Dad's always been.' As if that's an excuse.

Their Background
"I never thought our marriage would turn out like this. We were always such good friends. Both of us grew up in the suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut. My father, an executive at a major department store, was warm and outgoing, but my mother was a total perfectionist. I know she loved my brother and me, but she'd snap at us if we didn't live up to her standards.

"Adam and I met in college, and I fell in love with his gentleness and romantic nature. We married after graduation, once I'd found work at an advertising agency and Adam was hired as a salesperson for a pharmaceutical firm. Brandon was born two years later, and I left work to be a stay-at-home mom. We always seemed to have time to go places and do fun things together -- and I had the energy for it, too.

"But one thing did happen back then that bothers me to this day. When I was nearly nine months pregnant with Brandon, Adam's company offered him and several other top salespeople a four-day tennis junket in Florida. I had a nagging feeling that the baby might come early, so I begged Adam not to go. He insisted, saying he needed a vacation -- and sure enough, I went into labor the day after he left.

"Now, once again, my husband is blowing off my concerns. If I had a broken leg, maybe he wouldn't think I was a hypochondriac. But this condition is far more debilitating, and I can no longer pretend we're this happy family. Things have got to change, or this marriage is over."

His Turn
"'I don't want to live like this, either. It's like I've lost my best friend," says Adam, 34, who's been married to his wife for nine years. "Rachel was the one person I could count on to be a sounding board. No one in my family ever talked about much of anything, certainly not about feelings. But Rachel took the time to ask and listen. She was the one who taught me about intimacy. 

"I do try to show that I care, but nothing I do meets Rachel's approval. If I give her a massage, she tells me I'm rubbing too hard or not hard enough. If I ask how she slept the night before, she thinks I'm being patronizing. Actually, I thought I was helping by not talking much about her illness. When I'm sick, I try to keep my mind off my problems.  

"I'm not saying Rachel is a hypochondriac; I know she's in pain, and I feel terrible about that. But I do think she spends too much time obsessing about her condition. Some of the best doctors in the city have assured us that her illness is not fatal or progressive, and that she's got to be patient with herself. There's a point at which you have to accept gracefully what happens to you.

"I don't think Rachel knows how nasty and critical she's become lately. When I planted that shrub near the tree, she shrieked as though I'd committed a crime. She complains that I don't help her enough -- cleaning up after dinner is her latest issue. I'd rather spend the time with my kids, so I tell her I'll do it after they're asleep. But she either storms into the kitchen and does the dishes herself, or else she hovers, telling me I'm not washing them thoroughly. And I can't believe Rachel is still upset about that Florida trip eight years ago. Isn't there a statute of limitations on a husband's mistakes? If you can never win, after a while you stop trying.

"Rachel reminds me so much of my father it's uncanny. My sister, brothers and I could never please him, either. If I mowed the lawn as a nice surprise for him, he'd point out the one tiny patch of grass that I missed. It's ironic that now it's Rachel who hates his attitude. As for Mom's parenting advice, she's only trying to help, and, after all, she did raise four kids. But Rachel won't even listen to her.

"I don't feel like we're a family anymore. I barely see my sons; Rachel insists that they be in bed by eight o'clock, and I usually don't get home until seven-thirty. After I help get them in their pajamas, I eat dinner alone while Rachel disappears upstairs, buries her head in a book and pushes me away if I try to kiss her. I'm not saying we have to make love every day, but she's never in the mood anymore. Maybe she's right -- if our life is going to become one long fight, it's time for us to split.

The Counselor's Turn
"When one partner suffers a chronic illness and the other feels helpless to do anything about it, the anger and blame can become toxic. How spouses cope with this situation determines whether their marriage flourishes or flounders. 

"Because fibromyalgia can take so long to be diagnosed, sufferers often have to deal with family and friends who think they're lazy, faking it or just seeking attention. This can make it hard to keep up their end of a relationship, as Rachel discovered. Compounding the problem was Rachel's need for control, which she had most likely learned from her demanding mother. When her expectations weren't met, she quickly lost patience. 

"However, she was so quick to blow things out of proportion that I wondered whether her medication might be exacerbating her anxiety. Rachel's doctor switched her to another antidepressant, which helped considerably. She eventually bought a home treadmill and joined a gym with child care for Jake. Over the next few months, Rachel started to feel much better.

"Meanwhile, we had to help Adam feel less rejected and more appreciated. Though he was trying hard to be there for Rachel, he had his limits and she needed to respect them. 'Adam becomes overwhelmed when he hears the same complaints time and again,' I said. Once she understood this, Rachel began limiting the amount of time she discussed her illness and stopped getting on Adam's back about minor matters.  

"I established some basic ground rules for Adam and Rachel to follow. They were to do something fun together at least once a week, and to call each other at least once a day to chat about anything they wanted to except trivial home problems or complaints like Rachel's illness. To keep them on track, I gave them a 'report card' to fill out every week on such subjects as hand-holding, phone calls and dates.

"One of Rachel's biggest challenges was staying patient. I told her, 'If you want Adam to reach out to you, it's important that you appreciate his efforts, even if they're not what you consider perfect.'

"But Adam had his obligations, too, such as protecting Rachel from his parents' criticism and intrusiveness. It was his job to stand up to them rather than to excuse their behavior. He finally found the courage to do so. 

"Both were still gun-shy about sex. I urged Rachel not to say no every time he initiated lovemaking, and I told Adam to give her more hugs, kisses and other signs of affection throughout the day. Rachel responded in kind. In about six months they felt intimate enough to resume an active sex life.

"These two have continued to negotiate compromises in ways large and small. They've proven that by making adjustments in their actions and attitudes, they can both feel loved and respected -- in sickness and in health. 

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This case is based on interviews and information from the files of Joyce Dolberg Rowe, M.Ed., a marital therapist with offices in Boston and Hull, Massachusetts. The story told here is true, although names and other identifying details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.

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