How love can turn to hate when a partner refuses self-care, and because of either vows or situations, you feel trapped.

Maybe for life, at least until the end of theirs.

This past week I wrote a difficult story about what happens when you watch a partner self-destruct. I got one answer that troubled me so much that I asked to print it here. I have that permission.

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

Medium reader Kathleen L. Johnson penned this:

You’ve described my marriage perfectly. My husband of almost 35 years is a poster boy for an unhealthy lifestyle. Terrible diet and food choices, daily alcohol consumption, obese, smokes cigars, rarely exercises, yada yada. And he has diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, among other things. His medicine cabinet looks like a hospital pharmacy.
And of course he’s falling apart physically- and it pisses me off big time. I am 68 today. And my greatest fear for the future is that I will end up being a wet nurse to this man who I stopped loving years ago and who has no intention of changing anything about himself. (author bolded)

So many of us, like Kathleen, (barring Covid, kindly) are living longer and can expect to live well into our eighties. Gray divorce has also exploded, for a variety of reasons. This article explains some of why:

'Gray Divorce' Is on the Rise: How to Strengthen Your Relationship at Any Age | Everyday Health
The recent news that Bill Gates, 65, and Melinda Gates, 56, are divorcing after 27 years of marriage took much of the…

From the article:

“We know that staying in a low-quality marriage can be very detrimental for individual health and well-being. When you look a little deeper, marriage is protective for individual health and longevity when couples are in satisfying and rewarding marriages, but in marriages that are low-quality and full of conflict, the outcomes are significantly worse on average,” Brown says. (author bolded)

Kathleen is expressing, the way I read her comment, this very thing. Her husband’s willful resistance to taking care of himself is likely to eventually make her ill, whether from anger, stress, resentment, or any number of issues, if not all of them. In some cases no matter how much we might have once loved a partner, their choice to become sicker and sicker ends up being marital abuse.

If you love your partner, and they disintegrate before you by choice, and that is the key phrase, the way I see it, that’s spousal abuse.

Here’s what I mean.

What Kathleen describes is an ongoing, resentment-filled daily prison with a man she no longer loves, and whose habits and attitudes she finds repulsive. While I am not privy to the inner worlds of either of these people, the way I see this is that it feels as though her partner, and those partners of ours who willfully and with intent ruin their health, are effectively punishing those they married and say they love.

In such cases, wedding vows are weaponized, and the partner is reminded of “in sickness and in health.” I am suffering, in other words, and making it worse, and you have to suffer with me.

I would rewrite that vow to include a proviso that allows an escape clause when one partner intentionally makes him or herself ill. That could be from any number of causes, be it mental illness, anger, a twisted sense of what love looks like. That’s over my pay grade. However, from where I sit, if I were to make myself horrifically ill on purpose, then that rather defeats the idea of in sickness and in health. The idea is that when sick, we partner to return to full health as much as possible. This isn’t that.

Particularly if I am aware of what I’m doing, I know what’s happening, and refuse any and all attempts to stop the spiral. Those are key points. The choice is willful, intentional, and resists any and all movement to stop and get better.

I am intentionally repeating myself here for the scan readers and trollers itching for a fight. This is a very specific situation and I am being very clear about how narrow this is.

That is abusing your partner by ruining their life along with yours. Married or not, you have no right to drag others down with you on purpose.

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This is purely my opinion. But here’s the piece. If you deteriorate due to disease, or accident, or long-haul Covid, with rare exception, that is not your fault. I read articles all the time about people whose spouses married them as disabled folks and signed on for life, knowing what would be asked of them. When disaster strikes and the love is strong, people hang in, because they understand what happened. I read articles about spouses whose loved ones are crippled by car accidents or long-haul Covid and they knuckled down for the ones they love.

This is fundamentally different. And before you come after me with the titanium claws out, this is very specific to intent. If anything, folks like that are perhaps even more likely to eat more, drink more, and drug themselves more to be right about how disabled they are.

This is how we end up dying in a ditch to be right about how “if you really loved me, you would stay with me. Take care of me. Be my wet nurse and not mind it a bit.”

Or possibly, blaming you for not saving them from themselves, despite numerous attempts, perhaps over years, that you’ve made pleading, begging, exhorting them to stop, seek help, get better.

Particularly for women who are in their sixties and above, having largely cared for that spouse AND the kids AND AND AND, to then be burdened with this right about the time she has the time and possibly the dime to be herself for once in her life, this is a death sentence. It of course works both ways, in any pairing.

In a sick kind of way, such spouses might well believe that they can lock their loved ones into prison with them. Their poor health and neediness mean that they can’t be left alone, and so the spouse can’t leave the house or have a life.

That, in fact, may well be the whole point.

I’ve had friends whose sick-in-the-mind husbands honestly believed that if they were able to keep their wives obese, then they would never be lonely, so they pushed food onto those women even as the women struggled to take care of their health. My dad did that to my mother, so I watched it first hand. I knew precisely what he was doing and why.

These are fear-based behaviors on steroids.

Some folks who are terrified of being left, being left alone, use wedding vows to shame or control people who really do not want to be with them anymore. It’s terrible psychological warfare. Guilt is the primary weapon and pity another. Unfortunately, it can also backfire, when the healthy partner watches this process and backs away for their own mental health and a better future alone.

As the Everyday Health article above notes, strong relationships are made up of people who think, “If you really loved me, you’d love yourself FIRST, and enough so that you’d take care of yourself FIRST. You would love me enough that you would take care of yourself to bring your best self to this love.” That goes both ways.

Photo by Ave Calvar on Unsplash

Two partners who do this bring health to the pairing. They bring self-respect to the loving relationship. They have enough self-esteem to know that love is earned and renewed each day. Nobody can “fix” anyone else.

Some time ago one commenter on an article of mine wrote me about marrying very late in life, in her late seventies. She got co-opted into being a full-time wet nurse and caretaker. She’d been convinced to move across the country, losing her support system, and now she doesn’t have the wherewithal to divorce and leave. She is miserable. Her story broke my heart. She fears that she has given up the rest of her life to care for someone who lied to her from the start.

She isn’t alone, either, sadly.

There are lots of reasons gray divorces are on the rise. Partners want more lithe, younger people in their lives (if you aren’t, Sparky, good luck with that), or they got dumped by an impatient spouse tired of having their love, trust, and vows abused.

I’ll say this again: If a spouse’s willful torpedoing of their health costs their partner their life, options, career, friendships, and happiness, that is abuse.

You and I, if we are doing this to ourselves, are given a stay of execution, if you will, for just so long before our partners realize that they are stuck with a whining, mewling, complaining bag of anger, whose self-destruction threatens to take them and maybe the kids down with them. I cannot speak for you. I know what I would do if said partner flat refused any kind of help, guidance, counseling.

I would make an exit plan if anything were possible. I’d start reaching out to friends, getting legal advice, lining out my options. Because if you’ve watched it happen long enough, and nothing that you have done has worked, at some point you may realize nothing is going to change for the better.

I can’t advise anyone on this. It’s over my pay grade. But these stories are becoming more common as health issues are causing more aging folks to reach out for company online, when the real intent is to get free full-time nursing care.

When a long-term marriage disintegrates like this, I can’t speak for you, as I have never been in one. I’ve been in a couple of lengthy part-time connections and finally found the guts to call it quits. But in all fairness to those whose marriages involve difficult financial considerations, all the more reason to find some way to extricate yourself before there is no longer a way forward until someone dies.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I have never been in this situation. All I can do is comment on what people write me, rightly or wrongly. However, for my part, whenever I have been in a pairing, I consider it my sacred responsibility to bring my best possible self, mind, body, spirit, and intellect, to a pairing. I would hope for the same in return. Haven’t found it after 68 years. May never. But that doesn’t stop me from working hard on that best self in all spheres.

Because after all, I still have to go to bed and wake up with myself. Might as well have it be the best self it can possibly be.

My thanks to Kathleen for her brave comment and her willingness to share what likely too many of us are juggling right now and godspeed on that journey.