Dear Belleruth,

My wife was diagnosed with PD 14 years ago.  For a long while before that we thought she was depressed.  Now we know it was probably the beginnings of the Parkinsons.  Our kids don’t live in town.  I am her main care partner and do what I can to encourage and support her.  I bring her to support group meetings when she’s willing to go.  Sometimes I go without her anyway, because it helps me either way.

I’m extremely frustrated at the way she resists suggestions for help.  I’ve brought home books, nutritional supplements, suggestions for physical therapy, chair yoga videos and, yes, even your guided imagery for PD.  She mostly acts like a rebellious teenager or a passive resister.  This has caused tension in the home and a lot of anger inside me.

I just don’t understand her attitude.  When I had open heart surgery years ago, I fought hard to get well again, in spite of pain, weakness and depression.  I tried all kinds of life style changes, many of which I still do today.  I know this sounds foolish, but what can I do? Why can’t she be more like me? 

John (who loves but wants to strangle his wife)

Dear John,

I empathize with you and appreciate the frustrations.  Truly.  But I have to answer you with this bitter pill: she can’t be more like you because she’s not you.  And, sorry, heart surgery is not the same as Parkinson’s.  Itching though you are to rehab her and shape her up, you’re just going to have to be with her where she’s at.  And I know that’s easier said than done, because it’s really hard watching someone you love suffer.  Nobody likes feeling helpless.

But here’s the thing: the more you take on the role of cheerleader or fixer-upper, the more oppositional she’s going to get – because you’re now locked into opposing (and perfectly balanced, even static) roles.  The more you fly the banner of motivation, the less she has to feel motivation inside herself.  In the jargon of my profession, it’s called “projecting half of the ambivalence”.  Couples fall into this all the time. It’s no big deal.  It’s only trouble when you get stuck in the same role every time.

Here’s how it works. Let’s assume she, like all of us, feels both ways about this.  Some of her wants to try, fight, get some mastery over this frustrating condition.  And some of her wants to say ‘to hell with it, why bother, it’s only going to get worse, and besides, I’m really tired’.

It’s uncomfortable feeling two ways at once.  So it’s easier to take one of the ways and put it on the other guy, and then duke it out with him.  Thus we externalize the discomfort, the push-pull, the ambivalence.  And the more you, Sir, wave your cheerleader pom poms, the less she has to feel her desire to fight for herself.  

What’s amazing is how quickly the roles can reverse if you’re willing to mix it up a little.  So, if you were to express the ‘why bother’ position, (as in, “This is really hard… sometimes I just get worn down and discouraged and don’t want to try anything..”) she just might take on the other pole and start cheerleading for herself.  (Because we all know nature abhors a vacuum).  

Or you could just stop pushing her to try harder, just hang with her in the ambivalence and let her duke it out inside herself, keeping her company and being supportive but stifling your cheerleading impulses.  She may surprise you with some changes.  

Those, Dear John, are your real options.  Continuing to press her in the way you’ve been doing will keep you locked in a static struggle that will aggravate you both and keep you stuck.  It’s a good general principle for any couple:  pairs that are willing to mix it up a little and switch around their roles have much more energy fun and interest in each other.

Good luck with this.  And let me know how it goes.