Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Paul can’t help but be concerned about his wife, Judy. The regimen she has to follow for her chronic condition places a lot of demands on her. Paul wants to be an active, supportive partner, and Judy appreciates what he does for her.
Yesterday, Judy hit a rough spot. It wasn’t her first, that’s for sure. And as always, Paul was right there with her. He took the day off work today to watch over her, though Judy had insisted he didn’t need to. And watching over her—oh, boy, is he ever. Making food and encouraging her to eat it. Jumping up to walk with her, in case she loses her balance. Bringing her medications to her to keep her on schedule.
Again, Judy appreciates Paul’s concern for her and knows how fortunate she is to have such a supportive partner.
But sometimes … like today …
“Shouldn’t you be resting?” Paul asked when Judy got dressed and went out to get the mail.
And at meal time: “I know you’re full, but have a little more of this.” It didn’t seem to matter that Judy had insisted she didn’t need any more scrambled eggs.
And then, “Are you sure you took your pills? I didn’t see you take your evening dosage.”
Judy was feeling a little frustrated with Paul. Maybe a lot frustrated. “I know what I’m doing,” she finally said, as calmly as possible. “You don’t have to worry about me so much.”
That’s what Judy said. But what she was thinking was that Paul was treating her like a child who couldn’t be trusted to make sound decisions. Being watched that closely was disempowering, even though she knew he meant well. And his constant hovering was stressing her out, when what she really wanted was to have some quiet time to relax and recover.
Coping with parental behavior begins with understanding your partner
Have you ever felt like Judy? Our loved ones can come on a little too strong when they’re worried about us. Or maybe you’ve felt like Paul, wanting to do anything and everything to help.
Here are some ideas to help you cope when you find yourself in Judy or Paul’s shoes.
If your loved one is being too parental:
Be patient. It’s easy to feel on edge emotionally when you aren’t at your best physically. What you may want the most is to be left alone. However, you and your partner are a team, and your teammate wants to be by your side.
Recognize what’s behind all that parenting. In a word: helplessness. One of the hardest things in life is to watch someone we love suffering and not be able to make it all better for them. Your partner is feeling helpless, and he or she is trying to manage their helplessness by hovering over you. So all that excess attention coming your way is about you, but it’s also about your partner.
Let them know how you’re feeling. It’s easy to assume that good intentions are being interpreted as such by the other person. So it might help to let your partner know that what they feel is support is being experienced as lack of trust in your ability to do for yourself and to speak up for yourself. You can say something as simple as, “I know you’re worried about me and I really appreciate that. But you’re coming across as kind of parental. And that makes me feel like you don’t trust me.”
Be gentle, but also firm. And specific. Let your partner know what they don’t have to do to help you, and what they can do. Try to find a balance between doing what you want and need to do for yourself and letting them give you a hand. “Please know you don’t have to worry about____. I am on top of that. But you could help me a lot if you would____." You may have to repeat this a few times. Again, your partner is only making you feel like they think you’re helpless because they’re feeling helpless.
Think out loud. It might also help to do a little more verbalization than you might normally do. Say, “I took my meds on schedule this morning” or “I feel up to getting out for a while.” This may keep you from having your partner deliver what feels like an interrogation. While also helping him or her to feel less worried. In other words, helplessness is the elephant in the room. So do what you can to address it.
And if you’re the one doing all that parenting:
Take a step back. Ask yourself: What’s going on with me emotionally? Am I being helpful or am I at risk of pushing a little too hard? Is it possible I’m starting to become badgering? Also ask yourself: How is my partner reacting to my prodding and questioning? Am I creating calmness or stress?
Recognize your own helplessness. Cope with helplessness by first admitting to it. You’re feeling helpless because you are helpless. At least, helpless to make whatever your partner is dealing with go away. While your heart’s in the right place, this is one thing you aren’t in control of. But look at it this way: when you admit to what you can’t control, you can stop fighting yourself. And you can focus more clearly on where you can help.
Consider the impact. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. How would you like it if you weren’t feeling well and someone was standing over you and treating you like an irresponsible child? What would you find helpful or not so helpful?
Ask, then listen. Yes, it’s that simple. “Honey, I know you’re having a rough time. It’s hard to watch you not feeling well and so I’m feeling kind of helpless. Can you let me know what I can do to help?” Listen to their response and try to act accordingly. Even if it means biting your tongue a few times to keep from jumping in with a question or an order.
It’s hard to watch someone we love not feeling well. And it’s hard to not feel well and have someone treat you like you need supervision. Let’s try to be more aware of each other’s needs. And be more patient. And communicate with compassion and clarity. We’re all in this together.
How’s the teamwork in your home when it comes to chronic illness? Share your advice—or ask for a little help from our community—by commenting below.