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Hidden issues: relationships

Looking after a partner who needs our care is one of the most profound ways to express love, and one of the greatest challenges for any relationship. It’s not something to face alone – so let’s open up this issue so we can get the help we need.

“For better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.”

Johnnie and Tiggy

If we said these words when joining our life to our partner’s, chances are we had very little idea what they actually meant, nor how difficult it would be to keep the vows they express.

For most of us, when we were at the altar, or wherever it was we indicated to our partner that we should stick together, we probably weren’t thinking about relating to them as a carer. At least, we were probably hoping that we would have lots of time relating to them as a lover first!

For some people that’s the case, and caring arrives gradually as we get older and our relationship is already mature. For others, caring can arrive all of a sudden when our relationship is in its relative infancy, and it can stop us in our tracks.

It’s not that ‘caring’ and ‘loving’ are mutually exclusive – more that caring changes things. If we’re under physical, emotional or financial strain, if we’ve given up work to care, we’re feeling cut-off from friends and family, then this all makes loving so much more difficult.

Our partner’s illness can also make them very different, sometimes changing them beyond recognition, so that in a very real sense they are not the person we committed to. And as we focus on their care, it’s very easy to lose sense of our own identity, perhaps changing beyond recognition ourselves, or putting our own needs and desires aside.

The fact is that caring will affect different relationships in different ways. What matters most is that however it affects us, there’s a way for us to talk honestly about it and find help when we need it.

Tiggy and Johnnie Walker storyTiggy and Johnnie's story

Tiggy and Johnnie Walker are patrons for Carers UK's 50th Anniversary year. They have each cared for the other during cancer treatment and recovery – and found that caring pushed their relationship to the brink.

By Tiggy

Quote 1

As with so many carers, my life was turned upside down when my husband Johnnie was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. First there was the shock, and then the complete rearrangement of our lives as hospitals became our backdrop instead of Radio 2 and Soho production companies.

I ceased to exist as my former self – career girl and social animal. I now existed for Johnnie. Whatever he needed I sorted. We had only just married so I was still full of the fervour of new love and devotion.

At first, as he tried the ‘alternative’ route, it was an enormously bonding time as together we became de-toxed vegans while he took intravenous B17. However, this did not work and his condition grew worse. So we returned to the NHS where they were anxious to start chemo. This is when our lives changed the most. The side effects were extremely harsh. He really suffered and as a result became afraid, insular and at times cruel.

His four months on chemo were the toughest and loneliest of my life.

I didn’t see it at the time, but our relationship was gradually changing from one of lovers to that of a mother and child. We were both guilty of changing our behaviour. For every “eat this Johnnie” he would retort with a “leave me alone”. Often our positions became so entrenched that we became alienated yet trapped in the same flat, and the same horrible drama.

Fortunately the situation eased when he had an emergency operation due to a perforated bowel. He was hospitalised for a month and taken off chemo. Then my caring was physically demanding as I drove two hours each day to visit him with his daily requests, but mercifully it gave us some breathing space

When he returned to Radio 2 after a nine month absence, I was exhausted. I became depressed. The vibrant career woman he had married was gone. A spent husk remained in her place..

I assumed that I would soon recover. But I didn’t. Indeed resentment grew in me for all I had lost and the emotional knocks I had taken.

After a few years this imbalance reached a crescendo and we found ourselves having counselling with Relate. In that neutral space I was able to explain that my identity had got utterly lost. With their help and time, we gradually rekindled our love.

My sense of identity remained squashed until quite recently. Having some personal coaching I concluded that I had not lost my identity. Indeed, I had developed it. I may not have been the full time career girl, but I had become the person who had helped Johnnie survive.

Could there be a greater accolade than that?Quote 2

Johnnie and Tiggy - hair

By Johnnie

Quote 1

Tiggy was never going to get cancer. She did yoga, went down the gym and ate healthy, mostly organic food.

It was a massive shock when, in December 2013, staff at Salisbury District Hospital told her they were fairly sure the lump in her left breast was malignant.

Now it was my turn to be a carer. She had done such a wonderful, supportive job caring for me through cancer – could I do as good a job for her?

This all happened just a few days before leaving for Australia for a holiday and a visit to her brother Graham and his family who live in Sydney.

Tiggy seemed able to push it to the back of her mind and do her best to enjoy our time there – I think I was more worried than she was. The friends of someone diagnosed with cancer find it difficult to know what to say – well, it’s the same for a partner or spouse. You can’t say: “Don’t worry, I’m sure all is going to be OK!”, but neither do you want to be negative.

Finding the right balance between support and honesty is tricky. Tiggy made it easier for me – she sailed through her lumpectomy operation, cracking jokes on her way into the theatre and spreading laughter and joy as she always does. She didn’t like chemotherapy, but who does?

I even managed to do something useful when I suggested to her oncologist that maybe Tiggy didn’t need quite so much chemo. She agreed and one of the drugs was removed from the cocktail.

I’m shocked when I read Tiggy’s account of caring for me – I didn’t realise I could be so difficult. I was always asking for things, but little bits of home like a small portable radio and ear bud headphone can make such a difference to time in hospital.

She also got grumpy and irritable at times, which is entirely understandable – it’s a tough road and caring puts a big strain on any relationship.

But, it’s not all bad. Caring for Tiggy was a real privilege and a huge learning experience for me. Facing such a situation together and finding ways through it touches depths of your love that are normally never reached.

We are very lucky in that Tiggy’s come through the other side now. She looks great, and, God-willing, all will be well in the future. Both of us have grown, we are stronger now than before and so is our love for each other. Quote 2

Expert comment: seeking relationship help

Relate counsellingTiggy and Johnnie turned to Relate for help working through the impact of caring on their relationship. Relate Chief Executive Ruth Sutherland explains more about what this support involves:

At Relate, we know that relationships are the things which get us through good times and bad, but we also know that relationships can be put under real strain. Long term health conditions can place pressure on relationships, especially when one partner acts as a carer for another. This can cause a shift in relationship dynamics which can be challenging for both people.

Relate is here to offer support and advice for all relationships, and our counsellors are trained to understand the impact of long term health conditions on relationships of all kinds. Relate can help with relationship-threatening problems or those that are just making things a little more difficult. Our counsellors provide a caring and supportive environment to help you find a way through any difficulties you may be facing in your relationship.

For some people, we transform their relationships and their lives; for others we help them solve a specific problem and move forward with more confidence and less anxiety. Even if things don’t change, counselling may help you to see things in a different way or make the decision that’s right for you to move forward. Just talking to someone who isn’t involved in the relationship can help you:

  • Book a counselling session at your local Relate Centre
  • Try a free Live Chat session with a trained Relate Counsellor
  • Talk to us about your concerns or questions on 0300 100 1234

Tiggy and Johnnie are patrons for Carers UK's 50th Anniversary year.

This article first appeared in Caring magazine issue 36. Packed full of news, information and features on all things caring, the magazine is out four times a year for Carers UK members. To get your copy, join our supportive community and be part of our movement for change.

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