By Catriona Daly
Most couples see their significant other’s family a few times a year on holidays, or even a night a week for dinner. But for many WAGS of SCI our relationships with our partner’s family members are complicated by our partner’s level of dependence.
When my boyfriend and I started dating, I fell in love with him for a lot of reasons. He was sweet, supportive, handsome, ambitious, and he made me laugh in a way no one else could.
In August of 2017 when JD jumped into a wave, sustaining a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down, everything changed. One of the unanticipated ways in which this changed our lives was the role his family would play in our lives moving forward.
All of a sudden, his family, which I was used to seeing a few times a year had become an integral part of our daily lives. No matter how nice they were (and they’re really nice), a change like that brought its challenges. While JD’s lack of physical independence had it’s obvious representations, as we moved into a room next to the kitchen in his parent’s house, it was hard for me to feel like I hadn’t lost my independence as well.
I know this is not the living situation that all WAGS of SCI have but JD and I were living in LA when his accident happened and we wanted to move home to Boston to get our bearings as we adapted to our new life. We wanted and needed support, so JD and I moved in with his parents and I got a crash course in how to work with your in-laws during the most difficult time in your life.
It’s been a humbling experience which has ultimately led to great personal growth and a greater connection with JD. While I know that our circumstance is on the extreme end of the spectrum, I also know it takes a village to support one person with a spinal cord injury, so even if you don’t live with your partner’s family, there’s a good chance they’re a part of your life. I wanted to share what I have learned in the last 12 months about how to effectively work with your partner’s family to help support the person you love.
If your partner’s injury is new, everyone is grieving.
I’m grieving, he’s grieving, his family is grieving. We’re all grieving. This means emotions are running high, people are feeling vulnerable, sleep-deprived, confused, and ultimately everyone is not their best self during those first few months. Take a deep breath and remember you are not the only suffering soul in the room. If you feel you about about to lose your cool, take a walk. (And be grateful that you can.) It’s worth acknowledging that you’re probably not mad at anyone, you’re mad at the situation you are in. You feel powerless to help your partner and it hurts.
Your partner’s relationship with his family is not your business.
This was a lesson I had to learn the hard way. Your partner knew his family long before he met you. They have their dynamic and it’s deeply ingrained. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. That is not your business. It’s important that you don’t invite yourself to every argument or conversation they have. Even if you feel convinced you have the answers, it’s important that your partner’s family does not grow to see you as an obstacle they have to climb over to get to their child. They will resent you for it. All you can control is yourself and your relationship with your partner.
Say “yes” to help.
To overcompensate for the lack of control I felt in my life after JD’s accident, I quickly became consumed with trying to be the best caregiver there was. When JD was in the hospital, I wanted to learn how to do everything so that JD and I could soon live independently. At its root this intention was good but it soon flowed over into an obsessive territory in which I didn’t trust anyone else to care for him the way I did. Unsurprisingly, this burned me out quickly to the point where I became resentful, cranky, and full of negativity. I had to loosen my grip and let people in. I thought that if I let people help, it meant I was “less-than” or that I couldn’t handle caring for the man I loved. Now I understand it doesn’t mean any of those things. Today I try to be conscious about recognizing and accepting help when it’s offered.
Have your own support system, outside of your partner and his family.
I’m sure most WAGS can identify, when your partner is first injured, people rarely ask how you are. Inquiries strictly relate to how your partner is doing. People don’t mean anything by it, but it’s easy to onboard their messaging that only your partner’s state of mind and body needs attention. We, too, have just experienced an extreme trauma, and we’re being asked to take on a lot of new responsibilities at a time when we’re feeling most depleted. Reach out to your friends and family. Make time to meet up with people who care a lot about you. I used to go to my parents house just to sleep. For like...12 hrs. When I am well-rested and well-cared for, working with JD’s family on the many things we do together daily becomes lighter, and less overwhelming.
Give yourself quiet time.
It doesn’t even have to be a lot. Even just giving yourself 5 minutes to check in and see how you are feeling makes an enormous difference. If your living situation is similar to ours, there are a lot of people running around in and out of the house, with all their own problems and bad days. It can be easy to get swept up in other people’s energy. I used to do it all the time. Someone else would come home mad and all of a sudden I noticed my energy shifted and everything was bothering me. I wasn’t even mad, I was just tired so I was just picking up on the energy of others. I wouldn’t be able to pull myself up out of it until I made time to be alone. Most of that negative energy would fall away once I had time to ground myself.
Becoming a WAGS of SCI has given me the opportunity to tackle challenges that most others never face. Everything is different now, but I have never felt more fearless. That’s the beautiful thing about getting through something that at one time looked insurmountable. It’s so painful while you’re walking through it but you come out the other side with an unshakeable confidence in your ability to persevere. And that, is the most wonderful gift I never expected to get.
My opinions are my own and relate only to my own personal experience being a WAGS of SCI