BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My husband and I both retired two years ago, after I was successfully treated for breast cancer. I’m enjoying my retirement, but he isn’t. After my surgery, I had to have radiation treatment at a location that’s a subway ride away plus a long walk from our home. He decided to retire early so that he could drive me to the radiology clinic. I didn’t really want him to retire, but I told him I would support any decision he made. Now, two years later, he’s so depressed that he sits around the house moaning and groaning that he “never should have retired,” and calling it the biggest mistake he ever made.

This upsets me, because he retired for my sake. He insists that it’s not my fault, but I still feel like it is every time he complains about not having his job, which he hated to begin with. You would think he’d be happy not to have to get up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus to the subway, like we both used to do to get to our jobs. I chose to retire after I was cancer-free so I could enjoy life while I was still relatively young and healthy enough to do so. Between reading books, writing one of my own, attending yoga classes, and doing other things I never had time for while I was working, I have plenty to do. But my husband, who used to like writing, now just uses his computer to look for jobs and send out his résumé. So far he’s gotten only rejections, which depresses him even more. He can’t go back to his old job, because he’s afraid of losing his pension.

There are days when I want to just walk out and leave him to his misery. I know that depression is what’s making him this way, but I still resent him for ruining my retirement because he thinks he retired too soon.

What do you think I should do? I can’t divorce him, because we’re Catholic, but I wouldn’t mind living apart from him. Should I try harder to deal with his depression, even if it’s making me depressed?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

I’m glad to hear that your treatment was successful and that you’re enjoying your hobbies in retirement. And I’m sorry to hear about the strife in your marriage now that you’re well again. You may be frustrated (and confounded) by your husband’s depression, especially given your positive treatment outcome, but you might find yourself better able to understand what he’s going through if you consider a common misconception about surviving a serious illness like cancer.

And that is this: Many people assume that having cancer or being married to someone with cancer will be emotionally challenging, obviously, until the whole ordeal is over—and then all they will feel is huge relief. In reality, however, many people—including the ill person’s family members—find that they’ve been so focused on survival, along with the logistics of getting through the treatment (managing the side effects, coordinating appointments, dealing with the insurance company, keeping food in the house, getting the bills paid), that when things calm down, the entire range of their feelings surfaces.

These feelings might include sadness, as the weight of everything that has happened begins to sink in. They might include loneliness, when the team of people who had been involved on a daily basis disperses (both the medical professionals and the friends and family who had been regularly checking in or bringing meals). They could include anxiety about the possibility of recurrence, the fragility of life, or the impact of changes in physical appearance on intimacy in a marriage. And they might include stress from all that needs to get done in the day-to-day of normal life that had been put aside during treatment.

Many people in marriages also feel a sense of guilt for believing they were a burden on their partner—or, alternatively, for having felt that their sick partner was a burden on them. Others are grieving the loss of security they believed they had before cancer struck. They may also feel anger at having had to go through this experience at all, or having to struggle with the financial, physical, and emotional aftermath. And when these feelings become too overwhelming, some people shut down completely, unable to experience any feelings, including joy.

My point is that everyone goes through this experience in his or her own way, and that the feelings rarely follow a neat narrative. Maybe you were very frightened during the treatment and your husband felt he had to be stoic for your sake. Or maybe you were very matter-of-fact, and he was struggling with the anxiety of what might happen if he lost you.

Whatever the case, if you didn’t talk about it then—and it seems like you may not have—you probably aren’t talking about what each of you is experiencing now. And if you can’t understand what the other person is experiencing, you’re going to be frustrated that he’s not embracing retirement, and he’s going to be frustrated that you’re not there for him in his time of need—even if that’s not what he purportedly is frustrated about.

For you, a brush with mortality has made you place extra value on your newfound freedom. For your husband, your illness may have made him acutely aware of not just your mortality, but also his own. Then came retirement, which, like illness, can bring up deep anxiety about death, along with profound questions around meaning and purpose in life. (I’ve heard people describe both release from cancer and release from a job as similar to being let out of jail—you’re glad to be free, but now what?)

From your letter, it sounds like your husband is going through a reckoning of his own without knowing how to talk about it—or with whom. The result is a pattern in which he complains about his regret, you get angry—and you both retreat into your separate emotional silos.

I should mention, too, that trauma (such as an illness) and big life transitions (such as retirement) can both bring to light preexisting issues in a relationship. These issues in your communication were probably there pre-cancer as well.

If you don’t know how to talk with each other about hard topics like the profound impact of a cancer diagnosis on a couple (and many couples don’t), now would be a great time to see a therapist together. Not only would doing so help with the immediate problem more quickly and effectively than if you try to have these conversations on your own, but it would also enrich your relationship in areas where you two may have struggled before. As you both search for how to make the most of your time going forward, the quality of your relationship will play a large part in this, and if you invest your energy in it, you may well look back on this post-cancer period as the most meaningful time in the entire course of your marriage.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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