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My partner's cancer diagnosis is affecting our relationship

I have known my partner since May, and since the following July he started having stomach pain. He tried to combat it with painkillers but when it got worse he saw his GP who referred him to get a scan. By December he was referred to a cancer clinic where he underwent tests, but since July he was gradually withdrawing from me. He has also had other issues, with his children that didn't live with him but ended up moving in with him during his diagnosis. Since then, I still haven't met his children. He started chemo in the following February and has completed the sessions, recently he has been referred on for radio therapy. 

Since his diagnosis he has got worse towards me - for example, last week he went awol for 6 days where he wasn't home (we don't live together but I popped to his to check in), there was no prewarning, no texts, no calls, nothing. On Monday he finally texted me to say he had gone for his pre radiotherapy appointment (which is about 2 hours away) and from there he had stayed at his friends who lives halfway between the hospital and where his daughter's university, which he was due to visit. Eventually I went to my partners home to find out why he has been behaving like this towards me.

He tells me that he feels like everyone wants a piece of him, and that he is being pulled left, right and center. He tells me that the reason he didn't tell me about the radiotherapy appointment is because he doesn't want to make a big deal of it, which is why he went on his own. He also told me that he is fed up of not having energy to do the things he wants, which is why when he does have the energy, he just goes and does them. A month ago I sent him a text to ask him how he is capable of doing things that require physical effort, but in a week he doesn't find 10 mins of his time to call me. His reply to this was that he just gets on with those physical things because he doesn't want to feel like a failure. 

In heated discussions, he has also told me that if I don't like his treatment of me then 'I know where the door is'. This is hard to hear when you care about someone and want to help, but after speaking to Macmillan, he could be talking like this for many reasons. He could be trying to push me away because he feels that since we are a new relationship, if things get worse with the cancer, I may leave and then he will be on his own. He may feel like he doesn't want me staying with him out of sympathy. He may not want me around because he may feel guilty that he cant give me a 'normal' relationship. There are so many things, but the only thing I can be 100% sure of is that I want him to involve me with all that he is going through, not out of sympathy, but more because to me a relationship isn't just about the good times. I feel lost, because if I walk away due to his treatment of me, it really chokes me up to think that I wont know if he is still alive 6 months down the line. 

I'd listen to Macmillan if I was you...
Of course it's incredibly hard being around someone when they're facing such a worrying time. We usually just want to help and do what we can to ease their burden and encourage them to be positive. The problem is that we also usually try to do that from a position of knowing best. 

From what you tell me, it sounds like you would like him to behave as you think he should and when he doesn't do that, all the doubts you describe bubble up to the surface and you end up thinking that the relationship must be in real trouble.

I think you're coming from a good place but you need to stop and think about what his needs are right now. He has cancer, he has issues with his kids and is telling you that it sometimes feels impossible to cope with all the things he feels he needs to do. At the same time, you're feeling insecure and checking out where he is, what he's been doing and drawing to conclusions that may very well be wrong. 

Your comment about him doing physical things but not having the time to call you is interesting. I'm wondering if he finds the intensity or emotion involved in calling really difficult and that getting the physical stuff done, which requires neither emotion or intensity just helps him to feel a bit more connected to normality. People so often do this when life feels very abnormal as it must surely feel to him right now. Sometimes we seek relief in the small, practical things that help us to feel grounded and alive when the odds may in reality feel stacked against us....

I'd like you to have a really good look at your last couple of lines. You're very clear you want 100% involvement in everything he's going through. The trick here though is to work out what he actually needs from you at the moment. It may change over time and just because he may need to get through his health issues in ways that don't always involve you doesn't mean it's the end of the relationship and you just walk away. Of course that's an option but what is clear is your wish to offer your partner loads of support. My advice is then if that's the case, maybe work out what that needs to look like from his, rather than your own perspective.

Clearly things have been said which feel unkind but do remember that he probably feels very anxious and if we're honest, most of us can probably relate to snapping and not getting it right more often when we're worried and feeling overwhelmed. It was great idea to speak with Macmillan and I'd suggest that you speak with them again for support as and when you too feel things are difficult. The reasons they've offered you for his current way of doing things all make sense and maybe the way forward is to provide the help he needs when he needs it and encourage him to believe that you understand his agenda and are there for him. 

It really is the case that sometimes we want to show someone we really care by showering them with what we've decided they need. Don't make that mistake and instead maybe focus more on listening and less on transmit.

Do you have a question to ask Ammanda?

Ammanda Major is a sex and relationship therapist and our Head of Service Quality and Clinical Practice

If you have a relationship worry you would like some help with send a message to Ammanda.

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