The Aftermath: Destruction and Growth of Marriage During and After Cancer
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
When the fire is burning, our focus is on the blaze; controlling it, fighting it, making it out alive. After the fire, we assess the damage; What has been destroyed? What can we salvage? Is there anything left smoldering? We collect the untouched treasures, amazed they made it through. And then we examine our losses; trying to remember what the ashes were before the destruction; questioning what we can rebuild or replace; accepting we’ve lost things we can never get back. Fighting the fire is hard, but so is the aftermath.
I am cancer free. The intense chemo is over. My surgery was successful. I’m done with radiation. I rang the bell. This should mean the hardest part is behind me. That it’s time to move forward with greater ease. And in many ways, it is and I will. But while I spent much of my time and energy focused on the fight against cancer, other parts of my life suffered and now require attention again. The most important being my relationship with my husband.
It’s reasonable to assume that adversity would bring two people closer together; that appreciation would grow deeper because the future has been threatened. And although I can confirm the moments do become sweeter and memories made are more cherished, challenges also drastically shift the dynamics that have previously worked in a relationship.
In my own marriage, these changing dynamics meant my husband had to take on more; more child rearing, more cleaning, more cooking, more responsibility in general. Because sometimes I didn’t have the energy or the motivation. I physically wasn’t able or mentally couldn’t handle it. And then there were times I simply wasn’t home.
Of course he took on the extra tasks and demands of life without question and did a wonderful job. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t resent our situation. That doesn’t mean he didn’t get burned out. As much as I was grieving the loss of my life before cancer, so was he.
And sometimes, I couldn’t help feeling like this was my fault. Even though I didn’t choose cancer, it was still my situation that dictated our schedule, demanded so much from us, and forced our relationship to change in drastic ways.
I grappled with these feelings of guilt, but also my own growing resentment. Because I was the one with cancer. I was the one who was really struggling. He should be grateful his concerns weren’t personally life-threatening. He was lucky and he should act like it. An unfair judgement on my part, but nonetheless, a conclusion I still made.
On top of this, we also changed as individuals. Particularly me. And I think I expected those same changes to happen to him. But they didn’t. Because although he lived through this fire with me, the flames touched us in different ways.
I was burned to my core. Stripped of so much that it was easy for me to see what was important. I was gifted the kind of clarify that only comes from realizing you could lose everything at any moment. Every part of life became more meaningful.
I appreciated the simplicity of the day-to-day and found splendor in the ordinary. Going to the grocery store with my son felt like a special trip. Preparing a meal for my family was a metal break from my anxious mind. And the laundry went from being mountains to molehills - so much easier to ignore. But for him, these were still just the monotonous and tiresome tasks of being an adult and a parent. It was just more dishes, more folding, more work. And unfortunately, like I said before, a lot of it fell on him.
Since our experiences were different, so was our outlook. He always had a blind faith that everything would be okay. And since he refused to entertain any negative outcomes or worst-case scenarios, his level of concern didn’t meet my expectations. This was frustrating, and at times, hurtful. It seemed like our situation was more of a passing inconvenience for him than the full-on tragedy I was experiencing. This made it hard to feel emotionally supported.
Regardless of our differences, we were both broken. This made it extremely hard to lean on each other. Expectations were not being met, resentments were building, and our energy to appropriately address any of this was low. We were in survival mode, unable to adequately prioritize each other or clearly understand the pain, fear, and stress the other was facing because we were so consumed by our own.
Until now. And that’s what makes the aftermath hard; facing the inadequacies that developed, forgiving the mistakes that were made, and addressing the feelings and emotions that still smolder under the surface.
Honestly, it would be easier to pretend our relationship made it through unscathed; to just cover up the damage with moments of contentment, the never-ending responsibilities of parenthood, and the always-present tasks of the day. But building on a faulty foundation isn’t wise. Eventually it will start to crumble; especially when the heaviness of life starts to put more weight and pressure on what’s been left standing.
So we dig through what remains first, identify what can be recovered, and let go of what can’t. There may be parts of ourselves we’ll never fully rebuild, and who we are as a couple will never be quite the same. But it’s the process that’s important.
This is how our commitment grows stronger. It’s how marriage continues to transform. And it’s completely normal. Relationships may fluctuate to different degrees for different couples but getting burned is part of fighting a fire together, and it’s the actions that come after the distraction and devastation of the flames that truly matter.