What attracted me to my husband was not all the things that we had in common, but the strength of the pull despite the differences. We are TOTAL opposites. So, it’s no surprise that we’ve handled his cancer diagnosis in two wholly different ways. When trauma happens in your family, your coping skills will rev up BIG time, and your way of coping may completely different than your husband’s way of coping.
These differences can create tension and stress between you two, if you’re not careful. But, they can also be what keeps things balanced.
Two important things to keep in mind when dealing with the stress of cancer: first, identifying your own coping strategies, and second, understanding that your husband’s way of coping may be completely different.
Analyzing each other’s coping mechanisms for dealing with stress is not typically something the average Joe does. I mean, when does this ever happen in the course of run-of-the-mill married life? It doesn’t.
In fact, even when I was in the throws of dealing with the madness and trauma of our initial diagnosis and treatment, I’m not sure I could’ve put words to it. It’s just not something that I ever thought about.
It’s really, only now, looking back that I have gained perspective on how we both dealt with things so differently–and still do.
I felt like there was one clear path on how to handle the news. It’s what made sense to me. In my safe little bubble of life, it was all I was able to understand: attack, be strong, research, absorb, take care, heal, recover, done.
I wanted to talk about every study I found in my research and breakdown and analyze every detail about his treatment, and he didn’t. He wanted to get it handled and move on. He didn’t want to agonize over the details like me.
We responded this way because our brains are wired differently to handle stress. His brain tells him how to handle things to take on stress, and mine tells me things to do to be able to take on the stress of cancer. Same goal—different paths to get there.
Same Goal—Different Paths
It’s such an interesting concept to me. You can be so in love with another human being but handle trauma so completely differently. This starts the second the news arrives, all the way through the treatment, and even during recovery.
That’s a profound discovery, really—learning how your spouse and you handle life’s hurdles. What’s even more profound is seeing how you can make it through together when your perspectives are coming from polar opposite places.
It can be terrifying, frustrating, and even more stressful when you look at your partner and see they are going about things so differently than you. Their “way” may not make any sense to you. It can even freak you out or baffle you. It may down right piss you off. And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to make sense.
Your husband’s brain is telling him how to survive the trauma just like yours is navigating you through it. Your wiring may be different, but your goal is to make it out alive and as unscathed as possible.
Self preservation is the goal no matter how you slice it.
Fight / Flight / Freeze
Okay, my husband and I fall in this category…on opposite sides. Whether I’m coping with cancer or any other life trauma, I am a fixer by nature. I’m like my father, and as he says, “We handle shit. That’s what we do.” He’s right. I gear up my fight responses and start fixing things. But, its also how I try and control the uncontrollable. It’s how I make sense of the senseless.
Then, there’s the flight response. My husband was good at “compartmentalizing” which can be seen as a flight response. It often gives your brain a chance to figure out what the-F is going on. It’s not always about running away. Sometimes its just about breaking it down into digestible pieces to comprehend.
Oh, the freezing! Being paralyzed by fear is something that I dare say happens to all survivors and spouses at one point or another. Sometimes it may just be the entire thing feels so surreal that it takes your brain time to catch up with reality. So, we freeze.
Tend & Befriend
“Tending to” and trying to decrease the pain is what a lot of women do in response to trauma or stress. And, we often sacrifice ourselves in the process. Obviously, not good for anyone.
Also, “befriending” or gathering a social circle around you may be beneficial to you or your husband (or both). However, it may be better for one of you and not the other. Watch out for that.
Another thing to consider is that responding to stress by using charm, whit, or humor to ease the sting of the stress may be your brain’s way (or your husband’s way) of dealing. Though it may come across as taking things too lightly or being flippant. But, again—it’s just the brain’s way of taking a second to figure out what’s happening and what to do next.
Understanding Can Be Calming
Cancer is one of those traumatic events that can change you forever. And, it can also bring out our most basic instincts. That’s why it’s important to consider how your mind and your husband’s mind responds to stress.
How you’re WIRED will show up time and again during the cancer battle.
You may be wired to handle stress like a bulldozer. He may be wired to deflect and avoid. There’s no ONE way. There’s no RIGHT way. But, it may feel that way when you’re knee deep in cancer stress.
Don’t add to your own stress by wondering why your spouse isn’t handling it in a way that you are. Coping with cancer differently could be an asset. The differences can actually often compliment each other at different times of your journey, so it isn’t all bad.
Try to remember: you are in it together even though you may DEAL with it differently.