When someone is ill and nearly dies, life is fraught for all concerned. If they then recover, everyone may think things should go back to normal, as they were before. There may be a need to cope with the aftermath of the illness for the person who was ill, but they expect the partner to be unchanged. However, often there can be serious problems some time after the recovery. The threat of death can feel like the threat of an affair. Death very nearly took them away – and in the process, something broke.
I think that ‘nearly dying’ feels like a serious threat of abandonment. It can make a partner or the children so afraid of being left that they desperately seek alternative support. Small children may not recognise the mother who returns after being ill. Older children may withdraw. Partners may find an affair, a new, alive person, suddenly terribly attractive.
Some people can manage on their own; others are too frightened. The fear of losing their partner or their lover may remind them of previous times they were abandoned – perhaps by their mother, perhaps by being sent away from home when they were children. They may have lost faith in the ill person being there for them, and seek someone else who seems more likely to survive them.
Partners are supposed to take away the fear of being left alone – so someone who ‘nearly dies’ has broken their side of the bargain.
The fact that the ill person ‘couldn’t help it’ doesn’t seem to help enough. It may still feel like an abandonment.
Ann was ill and nearly died. Her partner Bo was wonderful while she was ill, but six months after she recovered, Bo confessed to having begun an affair while Ann was in hospital, and Bo left.
Ann was outraged that anyone could behaved like this. She didn’t think she had done anything to deserve it.
It was difficult for Ann and Bo to talk about what had happened. They didn’t want to remind each other or themselves of the bad time while Ann was in hospital. This meant that neither really knew what the other had gone through.
Ann had been so out of it that she hadn’t really been aware of anything. She hadn’t really thought about what it had been like for Bo. She thought it Bo was all right, Bo wasn’t ill, Bo still had a life. Bo had been busy rushing around, feeling as if Bo’s life was falling apart for ever. Neither of them had quite realised how much they needed each other.
Some people in Ann’s position find they can forgive and take their partner back. Others cannot.
I sometimes wonder if it is ‘hardwired’ into us, that we withdraw from people if we think they are leaving us for ever. In evolutionary terms it might make sense; that we stop investing affection, concern, care in someone who is not going to be around for long. On the other hand, many people do manage to go on caring and loving, knowing that someone they love is dying.
I don’t know what makes the difference. Some people would say it is just whether the person is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; well brought up or badly brought up; selfish or kind to others. I think it is more complicated than this. I think situations can make people selfish or kind, good or bad. It is easy not to steal if you have enough to eat. People who have never felt loved enough may find it hard to hold on while the person who loved them ‘decides’ whether to go away for ever, or to come back to life. This kind of uncertainty can feel unbearable, a threat to life itself.