As word of Rebecca’s diagnosis spread throughout our network of friends and acquaintances, we are told, more than one person said, “That’s why she was placed with the Meyers. If anyone can handle something like this, it’s them.”
It’s flattering, I suppose, to be thought of that way. Certainly it’s better than having people say, “Oh crap, that’s about to be a Category 5 train wreck!” But how many couples were thought of the same way we were, and ended up separating? Do they get marked in the false-predictions column, a lesson that we don’t know other people as well as we think we do? Probably not. Selection bias runs strong, especially when it comes to our assessments of others. When our guesses about other people are right, we take it as proof of our insight; when they’re wrong, we tend to shrug it off as “people change” and forget that we’re often wrong about other people, never mind ourselves.
What concerns me is that this kind of thinking can easily lead to thinking that those who face crisis and stay together are strong, wise, noble — and that those who don’t, aren’t. It makes a morality play of how people cope with events largely beyond their control, which is unfair no matter how things turn out.
After all, it’s not actually the stress of a crisis that drives people apart. What breaks a relationship is how the people in it react to the stress, and (even more importantly) how they react to each other’s reactions. Under stress, and particularly under extreme crisis, we are tested in entirely new ways, and our legitimate and honest reactions may or may not be acceptable to our partners.
To pick an example that didn’t happen, suppose that Kat and I had disagreed about where to take Rebecca for proton therapy. One of our other choices was Bloomington, IN, about two hours closer to home than Philadelphia and definitely closer to several of my relatives. Suppose I had decided that was where we should go, and Kat had decided that Philadelphia was best.
Already, that’s the seeds for a major conflict, because it is, in a very real sense, a life-or-death choice. It’s not like arguing about where to go for dinner. It’s a fundamental disagreement over a fundamentally critical choice.
Now, suppose that one or both of us reacted to other’s decision with outrage, panic, even scorn: “How could you think that way? How could you endanger our daughter like that?” And been met with outrage over the outrage, if you see what I mean. Both of us being unable to understand how the other could act and react in such a way, when the right answer seemed so obvious. That’s a fracture that will not easily heal.
Or, to pick another example that didn’t happen, suppose one of us had felt that they couldn’t stay in the PICU ward with Rebecca as she lay half-conscious, waiting for surgery after surgery. Suppose one of us had stayed in a nearby hotel. You might feel an instant, instinctual contempt for such an act, even knowing that it didn’t happen in our case. We both stayed by her side non-stop, to the point that people started gently urging us to take some breaks away. On rare occasion, we actually listened.
Come back to that contempt, though — how could a parent run away from a sick child? Yet some parents do, and to judge them for that is contemptible in its own right. Perhaps they know their anxiety, terror, and anguish would be so amplified by staying that they would do more harm than good. Perhaps they know they would break down, become almost catatonic and unable to help anyone. Perhaps they know they would go effectively crazy, and endanger their child and themselves.
Whatever the reasons, suppose one of us had stayed away. How would the other have reacted to that? With compassion? Sympathy? Feelings of betrayal? Scorn? Contempt? Righteous anger? All of the above?
Or more recently, when I cracked and had to set a limit for my own good, what if Kat had been unable to accept that limit? What if what I needed was the exact opposite of what she needed, forcing us to choose which one of us didn’t get what they needed? That sort of conflict can easily sow resentment, and resentment can easily become anger and contempt and worse.
It’s pretty easy to see how, no matter how deep their love, a couple might split up over such differences. Maybe not in the throes of crisis, but sooner or later.
Had we had split up, people might have said, “Oh my, I guess they weren’t strong enough to handle it after all.” That would sound true, but it would be a lie. You could have the two strongest people in the world split up just because they can’t accept how the other deals with a crisis.
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, even though it so often does. It’s astonishing enough that any of us can find someone who’s sufficiently compatible to live with us full-time, with all our quirks and foibles and failings, someone who can accept the way we hang the toilet paper roll, squeeze the toothpaste tube, and load the dishwasher. To have that same someone accept, let alone admire, the way we react to extreme crisis… that’s luck so incredible as to defy belief.
I’m not saying anything your local therapist or religious leader doesn’t already know. They see this play out over and over, year upon year. I just want to remind the rest of us that it isn’t strength that keeps a couple together in the face of crisis. It’s having the luck to remain compatible under the most extreme pressures. Like any complex interaction between two complex systems, the outcome is fundamentally unpredictable. If an unresolvable incompatibility is uncovered, it doesn’t mean the people involved are weak or undeserving. It just means they’re people.
(Just in case anyone takes this as some sort of veiled announcement, Kat and I are not getting nor plan to get nor have any expectation of getting a divorce. We both hope it will stay that way — a point of compatibility all its own.)