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Savvy Minds: Ask Dr. V ~ Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Savvy Minds: Ask Dr. V ~ Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Dear Dr V,

I’ve been married 22 years. My husband and I have not been happy for a long time. We have no children. A divorce in this case might seem like a no-brainer, and in fact I was trying to figure out how to approach him with that, when we got thrown for a loop: he’s been diagnosed recently with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). The only symptom right now is slurred speech. Nobody seems to know anything about how fast it will progress, or how severe it will be. We have an appointment in a few weeks to see a series of specialists about what to do and expect. I have no idea what to do. I feel guilty because my feelings about my husband have not changed, if anything we’re getting along even worse now (though I understand why he’s angry). I don’t want to abandon him, but I also feel trapped in that I don’t want to be married to this man any longer. We don’t hate each other, but we haven’t been in love for a long time. I don’t know what to do, I feel like there is no right choice for me. Please Help.


Dear Annie,

Please accept my deepest, heartfelt empathy for both the situation you find yourself in and your husband’s unfortunate diagnosis. As this is certainly what I would consider to be an extreme situation, I think whatever action you decide to take should only come after careful and deliberate reflection. Ending a marriage is never an easy process (though I am grateful for both of you that there are no children to consider, as that factor would complicate things infinitely more, and of course, require even greater selflessness from both of you). I don’t think that you necessarily have to choose between “abandoning” your husband or becoming a subservient caretaker to a man you no longer love. I think, with some work from both of you, you can stop being his wife without ceasing to be his friend. However, this of course depends greatly on how you two separate as a couple, the nature of the differences between you, and so on. What’s important to remember is that if you do wish to remain at your husband’s side, even in a more diminished, platonic capacity, to do so effectively means you must have a clear mind and heart. I will try to provide you with a roadmap to that place.

As daunting and overwhelming as the situation may seem, I really do think you must act soon if you wish to move through the process of separation, divorce and then begin your reconciliation as friends. You say that you two have not been happy for quite some time. Not to sound crass, but this may work to your advantage, only in that your husband will most likely not be blindsided when you express your wish to separate. He may even share this wish as well. He also could have been biding his time, trying to figure out the best way to broach the topic when, as you said, life threw you both for a loop. Pragmatically speaking, the reason I urge you to start this discussion as soon as possible is because, as I’m sure you know, ALS often robs its victims of their speech. Given the fact that your husband’s speech is already affected, I think it is of paramount importance that you maximize the remaining time you have for effective, direct communication. I know it might seem perhaps callous or selfish to bring this up with him now, but if you wish to be able to support this man in a healthy way, I think if you can, for lack of a better term, sever and cauterize the dysfunctional, unhealthy things that have grown tangled between you, you will make room for more positive, supportive energy and emotion. That is something I can assure you will be needed in the days to come.

Again, I don’t mean to suggest this will be an easy process for either of you, nor would I expect you to begin this shift with joyous hearts. You are sharing a painful and challenging ordeal; painful and challenging to each of you in its own unique ways. It may indeed seem masochistic to add to what already exists the stress and turmoil of a divorce. Yet, what is the alternative? If you were to both shove the existing issues to the backs of your minds and try to soldier on through the coming months (and perhaps years), I think something far worse would develop: an underlying and continuous shared feeling of contempt and resentment between you both. No doubt the road ahead will be hard and painful. I wish I could promise otherwise, but that is not the case, and I don’t believe in deception to be an effective painkiller.  Which is why I hope you both can find the courage and strength within yourselves to confront these previously existing issues, so that you aren’t carrying them as a new set of demands and challenges present themselves.

I think it’s admirable that you wish to continue offer emotional support to this man, even if he no longer your husband. Your question was relatively short but I feel it told me much about your strength and generosity of heart. I wish I could offer a brighter take on your circumstances, but I don’t think you wrote to me hoping for a magic solution to an all too real problem.  My sincere hope is that, despite his diagnosis, you and your husband can re-learn how to talk with each other. I hope you can speak to and hear each other in a way that is honest, empathetic and from the heart. You can do this. In fact, given what you are now facing, this may indeed be the most vital aspect of your marriage, and what I hope will be a continued friendship.

With Empathy,

Dr. V

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