One of my friends is fighting a terrible, mysterious chronic illness right now. He’s undiagnosed and just in immense amounts of pain, with new symptoms every day and no light at the end of the tunnel. This all came on suddenly. Up until it was hard for him to walk and focus, he was doing really well in his career — like, jealousy-inducing well. He’s super talented and it just totally sucks for him to have to power through this just to get back to where he was before — if he ever does. In pictures on Facebook, I can see he’s stayed with his girlfriend through all of this even though, as he wrote in a recent blog post, she is just as frustrated by a lack of information or timeline on his getting well as he is.
Another friend was recently diagnosed with cancer right at the start of a new relationship. She gave her girlfriend the out: “I am sick. If you don’t want to be with me right now because it’s too much and we’re just getting to know each other, I am okay with that.” But the girlfriend stayed.
I’ve been thinking about these two friends a lot lately. And strangely, a lot about their significant others, whom I don’t know — so maybe this is creepy. I’ve been wondering if I could similarly be that strong. If my partner was very sick, would I stick around? What if they gave me permission not to? What exactly are you signing up for when you date someone?
It’s easy not to think about it. Every day, if you’re lucky, you wake up and assume certain things: like that no one is going to randomly contract a debilitating illness. You think about something fun you and your boo will do later — what movie you’ll see, what sex position you’ll try, whatever. You think about everything in a very conventional way. You don’t anticipate roadblocks like this. Maybe they won’t be able to do the things you love to do together anymore. Maybe they won’t look the way they did when you fell in love with them. Maybe their personality will change some because of their medications. Think long and hard about this: Does that stuff matter to you?
Would you want your significant other to be glued to your bedside if you were ill? While perhaps selfishly I would want them with me to hold my hand and keep me from getting bored or feeling the pain (and because I obviously enjoy their company), I would constantly worry that I was forcing them to waste their life tending to me. Shouldn’t they be out doing the things they want to do? They’re not sick. Why should they be shackled to someone who is out of commission on life when they have so much life to live? Even if they said they wanted to be beside me, I’d start to feel guilty and probably suspect they’re only there out of obligation — or not wanting to look like the dirtbag who dumps the sick girl. I mean, how could you ever really know? You could only trust they don’t come to resent you for taking up their time. You’d have to trust that the relationship is worth it. That this will only make you grow closer and stronger.
Maybe they’re telling the truth. I know if my partner got sick — and maybe it didn’t look good in the long-term — I’d want to spend as much time with them as possible because the future has become so uncertain. I’d want to take care of them. But I know that if it were me who was sick, I’d struggle with my boyfriend/girlfriend seeing me looking sick and terrible in a sort of dramatic, “Don’t look at me! I’m hideous!” kind of way. (I don’t like anyone seeing me vulnerable, which is a whole ‘nother can of worms.)
But I think, while noble, it’s not up to the sick party to send their partner away. It’s nice to give them the out, but I think it’s better to have faith that they want to be your sidekick in this, that they know themselves well enough to know when they need to take care of themselves and when they can totally give themselves over to being your support beam, that they want to be beside you — in sickness and in health. It’s a humbling thing to do to give up control like that, but maybe you need someone who can see you at your weakest, at your worst.
Someone who takes that in and still stays.