"I feel like I'm sleeping next to my brother.”
The soldier's wife answered my “How are you doing?” question with a mixture of sorrow and shame. Her husband had returned from Afghanistan with a traumatic brain injury and a missing limb.
In an unguarded moment, she was mourning the loss of the emotional and physical connection they once enjoyed. Her achingly honest answer was a reminder of an aspect of war, injury and caregiving that no one really wants to talk about: emotional and physical intimacy — or lack thereof.
When roles change and one person finds themselves as a caregiver, the balance in the relationship can shift in subtle but essential ways that often go unnoticed in the midst of exhaustion, medications, new routines and other emotional ups and downs. It follows that connectivity and intimacy would undergo a change as well.
And these changes can affect our mood and emotional well-being.
One caregiving daughter, on the front lines with her aging parents, spoke of gradually losing connection with her boyfriend when she'd return home physically and emotionally depleted.
“It was a similar feeling to the exhaustion of new motherhood, that sense I had of being completely ‘touched’ out,” she said.
The big shameful secret about caregiving — the thing that most of us don't want to talk about — is what does or doesn't happen when the bedroom door closes. That part of the relationship between a couple is a private and often taboo subject in our society.
Find a new normal
When my journalist husband Bob was critically injured in Iraq in 2006, it took a full year before I let my breath out.
I was pulled in so many directions as a wife, mother and with work, that sleep was my only constant craving. The concept of physical intimacy felt like summiting Everest.
In those early days, I was almost afraid to touch him, horrified by the metal staples in his head and the trauma of life interrupted by near death as he lay in a coma for five weeks. For months afterward, maybe years, I viewed him as more fragile, unable to “un-see” all that we had been through.
Every ache and pain he had brought me immediate fear.
Caregiving a spouse is about as sexy as crepe-soled nursing shoes. The yin and yang we enjoyed so effortlessly as a couple had veered wildly off course with his injury.
Every day I wondered if we'd ever be the same again or if trauma had damaged and rearranged us permanently.