Dear Imprudence: A “Tired Wife” Strikes Back?

The hits just keep on comin’, thanks to Slate. Earlier this month in Dear Prudence, we got to read this winner:

Dear Prudence:
My husband had a stroke 18 months ago. At first he was unable to speak and his right side was paralyzed. He regained his speech and, with a lot of work, got full use of his arm and leg. But the stroke made it impossible for him to practice his profession, and he continues to have short-term memory problems. He’s home on extended leave. My problem is that he is obsessed with what he has lost and how bad things are. When I come home from work—I have to keep us fed and housed—all I hear about is what a terrible state he’s in. I’ve tried various things: We’ve gone to a counselor, his doctor has given him anti-depressants, I’ve encouraged him to go back to his hobbies. I try to plan things that will be enjoyable for him. Nothing is working. He won’t take up his hobbies or socialize, and he dwells so completely on the negative that even his closest friends are getting weary. It seems to me that he should be grateful he survived and regained so much. I am so exhausted by his negativity that sometimes I just wish I could leave him, but I would never do that. Is this the way it’s going to be forever? –Tired Wife

First, something tangential: Is this not THE perfect mishmash of weird disability-related hangups from an abled person plus some lovely Feminine Mystique-era gender(ed) expectations? It’s like it was made for a takedown on this site.

Moving on: On one hand, I can certainly see why this woman is frustrated. Adjusting to newly-acquired disability can be an extremely difficult process — not only for the person with the disability, but for their relatives and loved ones as well. However, there are a ton of stereotypes made explicit in this woman’s letter, not least of which is the “he’s just so NEGATIVE!” and the related expectation that her actions and her efforts will somehow make him become a happy, compliant Good Cripple. I have to wonder, has she stopped to consider that adjustment to disability is a long process? Or that having to go on leave from one’s job due to a newly acquired disability might, in fact, be extremely taxing on one’s self-image? Apparently not — all that matters is that he show proper gratitude (and non-“negativity”!) for all of her efforts, and not trouble her with his “dwell[ing] completely on the negative.” I am sure that many of us would find it hard to be “grateful,” too, if we had someone treating us this way due to our disability (or disabilities). Once again, a disabled person’s feelings and experiences are steamrolled over in favor of those of a person who is not disabled, and this is apparently acceptable because they are in a relationship.

The gender question, too, is worth a look; while it’s pretty common knowledge that women, on average, do much more “caretaking” work inside the home than men (at least in the U.S.), there are a few things that stick out, mostly based on what the letter writer does not mention. Was she primarily responsible for managing her husband’s schedule and social life before his stroke? If “nothing is working,” has she spoken with him about it? Please understand that I am not trying to blame her for larger sexist patterns of who tends to do the home-related care-taking and who does not; it does, however, seem odd that she has not (as far as we know) attempted to speak with her husband about this — his “negativity” nonwithstanding.

The sense that I get from this letter, overall, is that this woman has spent a huge amount of time and energy trying to fulfill the role of the “perfect” wife, and now that her husband cannot fulfill the complimentary “perfect husband”/breadwinner role, her resentment is close to bubbling over. Add to this much of mainstream white, abled feminism’s emphasis on “independence” — which seems to exist in a magical land where no one is (or should be) dependent on anyone else — it is not terribly surprising that she feels that her only option would be to leave her “negative,” disabled partner. That these seemingly opposing tendencies could show up in one letter is not surprising, either.

So, what do you think, commenters?

7 Comments

  1. One thought occurs to me here – the oft-used reverse-sexism trope women use regarding the expectation of them to get well quickly from ailments and tend the house while men are accused of feigning near-death from something as simple as ‘flu.

    To me, this woman’s comments just reek of “if the situation were reversed, I’d be expected to buck up and get on with it.” Maybe she’d do well to consider how that would make her feel if she were the disabled person.

  2. I’m curious Annaham, what did you think of Prudence’s advice?

  3. I suspect that you’re right about the gendered expectations – she’s been “perfect wife” and now she feels that she has to be “perfect wife (caring and planning)” and “perfect husband (earning)” while her husband has to take on no role at all. Whether or not he’s depressed (or she is!) it seems like she feels that there’s no place for him in their relationship. Without being able to analyse *why* their relationship is constructed that way, she is blaming his disability, when really that’s a catalyst rather than a cause.

    I understand what you mean about the over-valuing of “independence”, but that’s not something I see here – she wants to be part of a partnership, but doesn’t know how.

  4. I find it odd she didn’t mention caregiver respite programs, made for such situations. I know not all areas have them but many states in the US and I am fairly sure other areas in this world have resources. If he is disabled, which obviously in this letter he is, then he also may qualify for another caregiver beyond her to relieve some of the burden. I felt the response was okay but it wasn’t very proactive and still puts all the stress on her husband for not being ready to heal and “get over it”. His brain was damaged by his own body, that is a grievous blow!

  5. I think you’re being a little too harsh. My husband and I BOTH have chronic illnesses, which can be an emotional struggle in many different ways. We both generally try to make the best of our situations, but it is impossible to stay upbeat all the time. It is certainly hard for me when my husband is going through a depressive period, and it is hard for him when I am. It is immensely hard to see someone I love suffer, and caring for a depressed partner takes up more spoons than either of us have available some days. (Even temporarily abled people only have so many spoons afterall.) I think it oversimplifies things quite a bit to say that the woman is simply upset that her husband can no longer fulfill the role of “perfect husband/breadwinner.” Having been on both sides of the caretaker/caretakee relationship throughout my marriage, I can say that each time I step into either roll, it provokes a new range of thoughts and feelings about my relationship and my life.

  6. Mel, I actually quite liked Prudence’s response (shocking, I know!). The letter, meanwhile, really raised some red flags for me (particularly with the gender issues), which is why I decided to focus on it and not the response.

    Elizabeth, your point is well-taken, but I mean to address larger attitudes about gender, caretaking and disability and their effects on individuals here, rather than say that this individual letter-writer is bad or awful for feeling the way she does — that said, I do not think my post is particularly “harsh.” It’s clear to me from her letter that many dominant stereotypes about PWDs are affecting how she thinks about her relationship with her husband (which is, on some level, assuming A LOT, but I find it interesting what is included in her letter and not) You do raise some excellent points, though.
    .-= Annaham´s last blog ..Imbroglio a Go-Go =-.

  7. From a feminist perspective, I’m happy to see a woman reaching out and asking for help (even if it is of an advice columnist) … a woman saying, “I can’t do this by myself. I don’t know what to do”. This is so much better than just resigning oneself to the role of suffering martyr woman who takes care of all although she feels like dying (or killing) on the inside. It’s hard for me to comment beyond that because I don’t know how I’d handle that situation – that level of stress would be hard for me to cope with.