My husband has had a stroke, but I hate feeling like his carer Ask Philippa

the question my husband had a mild stroke a few months ago. He is a scientist in his 60s and used to solving everything with his mindbut he has had to work a lot physically to regain his gait. He has gone from a wheelchair in the hospital to a walker at home and now uses a cane. But she’s getting frustrated with her slow progress as she wants to figure out how to get out of this and not exercise to get back to health.

I feel like I’ve been nagging him to do his exercises and I feel more like his mother than his wife these days. Sometimes I get angry and resentful, because he doesn’t share anything with me emotionally (he was never good at that before, so I don’t know why I would expect him to now) and I feel so distant from him..

I have tried to talk to him to express his feelings, but he is not interested. Then I feel guilty for having bad feelings towards him, because he is the one who is suffering. It has been an exhausting time for both of us. It looks like he will make a full recovery, but it is taking time.

Philippa’s answer When I have a psychotherapy client, one of the first things I want to know is whether their dominant (preferred) way of coping is thinking, feeling, or doing. I imagine these three ways of being as doors and I need to know which ones are open, which ones are closed, and which ones are closed. Some of us, like your husband, like to think our way out of trouble. Others need to explore their feelings first. Maybe it’s you.

Your husband seems like his thinking door is open, what he is doing is closed, and his feelings are closed. If I were doing therapy with him, I would walk through the open door, thinking of her. Through this door, I would try to reach the door of making and only by going through this route would I begin to approach the closed door, the door of feelings. If I were doing therapy with you, it is the door of your feelings that is open and that is how I would pass it to access the other doors.

What I would do if I were you would be to ask him – for you, because it would make you feel better – if he would accept a visit from a physiotherapist who specializes in post-stroke care, to come and help him with his exercises. The physical therapist could explain in scientific terms why the exercises are important (perhaps they help rebuild neural pathways) and then he could get into his “do” mode using his preferred mindset.

As for your own behavior, when you ask him to do anything, don’t say, “You should…” but rather, “I’d like it if… I’d feel happier/better if…” Remember, not “should”.

Isn’t it strange how illogical our feelings can seem? He has had the stroke and you are the one who is feeling and expressing what you call “bad feelings”. Just because he couldn’t help it, doesn’t mean you aren’t angry because he had a stroke, and also because he has a different way of dealing with you. Feelings are like that.

To make you feel better, you want him to be more like you. To react more like you. I think he’s probably had enough on his plate and can only deal with being himself at this point, let alone taking a leap and approaching his life and recovery the way you would. Remember that you are different and it was probably those differences that attracted you to each other in the first place. We often want or admire something in another person that is underdeveloped in ourselves and then, when a crisis comes, we get hot, because they are no more like us.

When life’s problems hit, such as serious illness or other catastrophes, it’s normal to become less flexible and even more fixed in our preferred ways. It’s like we go into emergency mode and become more rigid. He’s the one who’s had the stroke, but somehow it’s happened to both of you, so it seems like you’re both a little more entrenched in your normal mindset and less able to see the situation from of the other point of view or way of thinking, feeling and doing.

Before the stroke, he was never very open about sharing his feelings, but whatever he did seems to be enough. Now it seems that it is no longer enough. Is it also possible that the stroke has altered his personality? You will have to be patient. When someone is sick, we are often tempted to give them advice and tell them what they should do. Often the unconscious reason for this is that we may feel that if only they did as we said, then we wouldn’t have to feel so much for them, to feel their helplessness, vulnerability, pain and frustration. Remember, too, that for some people, being on the receiving end of some advice can feel like they’re being pushed away. Therefore, you may inadvertently be pushing his feelings further away from you.

Your role has changed from a wife to a more mother-like caregiver. Before your stroke, you will have felt more relaxed and therefore more flexible. See if you can feel your way back to your more relaxed body.

If you have any questions please send a short email to askphilippa@observer.co.uk

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