My wife can walk into a room and get to know 10 people, while I stand in the corner and talk to the one person I know. People love her, and I have no problem with that. Because of her great sociability, when friends get sick she loves to help, jump in and do what she can. In the past year, for example, two of her friends have died of cancer. My wife spent days in the hospital with them – often more time than the families themselves, which caused friction with the relatives. These were not her best friends, but friends nonetheless. So many emotional causes come her way, however, that our relationship has really suffered. The balance in our lives seems to be disrupted so often. I feel like a jerk for even mentioning it. Why should I be so selfish when it’s her friend who’s dying?
Ah, don’t beat yourself up too much. I know exactly how you feel.
Lately my wife, Pam, has been going out quite a bit herself. Every time I’m not invited – even to stuff that doesn’t make sense for me to be at, such as girls’ Scrabble night (though one other dude has managed to worm himself into that, I’ve noticed) – I get a little poopy pants and think, “Hey, what am I? Chopped liver?”
Then the other night we were watching a news item about a man who wrote a blog called Dying Digitally. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer and wanted to record the experience. In the piece, his now widow was crying and saying how he was her soulmate and she didn’t know how she was going to go on. It was touching.
I turned to Pam and, thinking I was paying her a grandiloquent compliment, said: “See, that’s how I’m gonna be if you die before me,” – a highly unlikely turn of events, BTW, since she is fitness-forward and I am, well, let’s say, less so – “totally distraught. I’m gonna be a wreck, a mess. I’ll go into a terrible downhill spiral …”
“Dave, I don’t want that,” she said, surprising me. “I don’t like the idea that your happiness depends on me. If I die first I want you, after a suitable period of mourning, to find happiness in the arms – and between the bosoms – of at least one if not two buxom young poetesses.”
Okay, I added that last bit. But the “your happiness depends on me” part got me thinking. As Joseph Conrad said, “we live as we dream – alone,” and each of us is responsible for his/her own happiness, even if we’re involved in a marriage or other long-term relationship.
Sir, I respectfully suggest you adopt a similar attitude. Now, by your own testimony, you are more wallflower than social butterfly: That’s fine. I’m a bit of an “urban hermit” myself. Happiness does not depend on one’s social life – in fact, it’s quite the opposite, I sometimes think. (Are people getting more annoying or is it just me getting older and more curmudgeonly?)
The work one does plays a part. And one’s family. Maybe a hobby or sport. Good Lord, man, there’s plenty out there left undone that needs doing: Get out there and do it! Train for a half marathon. Build a ship in a bottle. Write a screenplay. Volunteer at a shelter. Become a better chef. Whatever makes you feel involved and engaged.
Because the involved and engaged man is the stronger man, the independent man, the man who is not sitting around steaming and stewing and wondering what’s taking his wife so long – not a good look for anybody, I think we can all agree.
And then and only then – when you feel involved, engaged, strong and free – might it be time to take a look at what’s driving your wife to interject herself into all these difficult situations.
I mean, if she’s spending more time with her ill friends than the family themselves, to the point where it’s irking the families and keeping her away from home for days at a time, well, maybe more is at play than simple friendship and compassion.
Maybe there’s a soupçon of pathology, a twist on “Munchausen's by proxy.”
(“Munchausen's syndrome” is where you pretend to be sick because you love all the attention. “Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy” is where you pretend your kid’s sick because you love all the attention. Maybe your wife has a touch of “Munchhausen syndrome by friendship.”)
Or perhaps some other issue is driving your wife to be in the centre of activity.
In any case, make sure you’re independent and ulterior-motive-free before you tackle the question of whether your wife has some kind of psychological disorder.
It’s like what the flight attendants always tell you about the oxygen masks on a plane: Help yourself first. Make sure you’re breathing freely and thinking clearly – then turn your attention to helping the people nearest and dearest to you.
David Eddie is the author of Damage Control , the book.
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