Cancer In Young Adults ... Through Parents’ Eyes

Cancer in Young Adults: Through Parents’ Eyes

7. Effects on marital relationships

Cancer in Young Adults

This issue is not based on the life-stage of the young adult with cancer; rather it is focused on the parental relationships and the impact of the illness upon them. However, although many of the issues addressed here might apply equally to parents facing the life-threatening illness or death of a child at any age, when added to the particular problems created by life-stage factors the impact on the marriage may be more far reaching. If parents already have to manage the disruption to family dynamics, which have been so powerfully expressed through the research, any fragility in their relationship is likely to be exacerbated.

In the narrative material there is evidence of blame, self-blame and mutual recrimination between partners. Only one narrative speaks of the family becoming stronger, while several tell us of marriages that have failed, or have been put under immense strain.

Only one narrative addressed the resumption of a sexual relationship after the death, but this may have been an issue for other couples too. Rosenblatt (2000a) says that after the death of a child many couples experience a break in their sexual relationship. Low energy levels, emotional distance, depression and resistance to pleasure all contribute to a loss of libido. According to Rosenblatt, some couples resume sexual intercourse as a result of it being the woman’s primary goal to conceive. Although no parents whose stories are told in this book have supplied their ages, it is probable, given the age of their lost children, that many parents are in their 40s or 50s. This suggests that a significant proportion will be at an age and life-stage where further procreation is less likely to be an option.

However, not all the accounts tell us of the failure of a marriage, and those stories which do relate experiences of hostility and marital disruption also tend to suggest that there were pre-existing problems. Where a marriage has been ‘hanging on by a thread’ or where there have been significant resentments or differences that predate the illness, it is clear that the illness has not succeeded in bringing the couple closer together. Indeed this would be unlikely; as even in those marriages that have survived there is an acknowledgement that each partner has been so damaged by the experience that they are the one with least resources to offer the other. Again this reflects Rosenblatt’s work. However, where the partnership has been strong, despite differences in coping strategies – commonly the man being unable or unwilling to articulate his feelings while the woman wants to talk about her fears and emotions – this has not threatened the relationship. In such cases each partner has allowed the other the space to adopt a particular role in relationship to the illness and its management without necessarily articulating the difference to the other.

Gender is clearly a central issue in this chapter, as Walter (1996) argues, there is evidence that men and women grieve in different ways, though most theories of grief are based on grieving women. This may precipitate problems as Brabant, Forsythe and McFarlain (1994) say that where parents have contradictory perceptions of the nature of the family following a child’s death they experience greater problems. Riches and Dawson (2000) observe that the majority of research studies suggest that fathers are more likely after bereavement to put their energies into practical tasks while mothers are more likely to connect with their feelings and to express strong emotion. Though these authors also caution us that generalisations can be dangerous, such a position would appear to be supported by the narratives in this chapter and can be seen to cause problems between parents. The research of Reay, Bignold, Ball and Cribb (1998) suggests that that the adoption of gender roles represents an ‘exaggerated normality’ and that such gender patterns raise difficult issues within heterosexual relationships. The result is ‘emotional distance, incomprehension and interpersonal friction’ (51).

So, what can be done to support partners undergoing such a crisis? Riches and Dawson suggest that we are poorly equipped as a society to deal with loss, and that the intellectual models available ill-prepare us to know how it feels to lose a child. They argue that those who work with bereaved families need to be able to contemplate their own deaths and – even more difficult – the deaths of our children. They also provide a summary of support principles that include the following;

  • Attention should be directed not only at the individuals but also the relationship contexts
  • Talking is a key resource for making sense of death
  • Differences in grieving need to be appreciated
  • Fathers tend to be overlooked
  • Grief can produce resentments that exacerbate pre-existing problems
  • The acceptability of ‘time off’ from grief should be confirmed
  • Supporters should not forget the positive outcome of sharing the challenge of the death.

(Riches and Dawson 2000:74-75)

Marital relationships may be less likely to be discussed with health professionals than the other effects of the illness that are addressed in this book. However, if health professionals are aware of the likely effects on a marriage, they may be able to suggest counselling, if appropriate, or at least offer reassurance that tensions are to be expected under the circumstances. As Rosenblatt (2000a:111) says, ‘Finding out what is “normal” can be reassuring as you learn that others have had to deal with the same pain and frustration.’