Dear Captain Awkward:
I have had a very complex life in the last couple of years. I have gone from having a fairly normal life in regards to health and then I went on dialysis. Since that point I now have a kidney transplant.
My girlfriend currently has a really hard time wrapping her mind around the changes in lifestyle that I have to live. She almost finds my precautions somewhat unbearable.
What should I do? She also makes fun of my situation or lightheartedly jokes about it.
Unfortunately they don’t offer empathy transplants.
Was your girlfriend with you since before the changes? Because I would imagine that watching a partner go through dialysis and a kidney transplant would make it sink in that 1) Hey, you could have DIED 2) Following your doctors’ recommendations carefully is serious business. If she met you after the changes, maybe the seriousness of it hasn’t really sunk in. Which isn’t an excuse, but it gives you a place to start in deepening her perspective.
If you want to try to make things work with this person, I think there is both a Big Serious Talk to be had and some day-to-day scripts.
The daily script is, when she makes a joke, to say something like “Whoa, that really hurts my feelings.”
After you say that, be quiet, and listen to what happens next. There is going to be a very awkward moment, and it is not your job to smooth it over – the awkwardness is the way that you get to the resolution. If she stops, apologizes, and changes her behavior, that’s a good sign. If you’ve been putting up with the jokes for a while, it may take a few tries for it to sink in – you are subtly changing the “rules” of how the relationship works and some people don’t get it right away. You can openly acknowledge the rule change with “I know I usually let it go, but….” or “I know you mean that as a joke, but….” when you say things like that, it really hurts my feelings. Can we find another way to talk about x issue?”
If after saying that her jokes hurt your feelings, she doubles down on the joking, or starts justifying why it’s okay for her to make jokes that hurt your feelings, she is pressuring you to ignore your healthy routines, she calls you “too sensitive” and tells you to “toughen up,” or for whatever reason the conversation ends with you apologizing to her for bringing it up and being upset, here there be Evil Bees.
I would try that script several times before escalating to the Big Serious Talk. You will get some information about what you’re dealing with that will help you have the talk, and you’ll get some recent examples of the behavior that bugs you.
The big talk is telling her what you went through, how painful and scary it was, and why these lifestyle changes are very necessary for you, and asking her directly for her kindness and support and to lay off the hurtful jokes. There is also some asking to be done about her point of view, one way to start the talk is to maybe ask her how things are affecting her. “I know we’ve been through some changes, and I get from the jokes that you make that you’re still really processing them. I know it was hard for you to see me go through that crisis. Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s been like for you? In a perfect world, where you get everything you want, how would our relationship work? Is there a way we can make the relationship work better for both of us?”
I don’t think it’s okay for a partner to belittle you for having needs, or make jokes about your health needs, or laugh off your very real concerns and issues, and this way of opening the conversation might seem way nicer than she deserves. My reasoning is this: When you have to have a very difficult conversation, it helps to treat people as you want to be treated. You are modeling good behavior by being up front about your needs and asking her to articulate hers in the hopes that she will rise to the occasion.
In the most generous possible interpretation of her behavior maybe the jokes are her way of getting uncomfortable feelings out there that she didn’t ever feel safe to talk about when you guys were in full “gonna die, can’t talk now” mode. A drastic change in diet or energy or what activities you do does affect the other person in the relationship, not to mention being a caregiver or watching someone you love go through a huge medical crisis.Whatever happened to her during that time was definitely happening to you way more, obviously, but *something* was happening to her and maybe she needs a safe place to talk about how scared she was. If she is a new partner and wasn’t with you during the time before the transplant, maybe she doesn’t fully understand what happened and how serious it was, and needs to be told explicitly what it’s like for you.
Your health needs and not-being-belittled-by-someone-who-says-they-love-you needs trump her feelings, obviously. But the best way to figure out if this is a My Girlfriend Is Bad At Communicating vs. My Girlfriend Lacks Empathy situation is to ask outright and give her the opportunity to surprise you with doing the right thing. This talk might be a much needed way to process everything together and find a way forward. If it goes well, consider seeing a couples counselor where you can have an ongoing conversation about this and really work on communication.
Sadly, it may be the time you find out that you guys are really not on the same page. Maybe the changes in your lifestyle really are “unbearable” for your girlfriend. That is something she gets to decide, and she gets to leave and seek another partner. But she doesn’t get to hang around and be mean to you. If you open up and she makes fun of you, laughs it off, and keeps going with the jokes, realize that there are people out there who won’t treat you this way. And if she for one second implies that “someone in your condition” is lucky to have her and that you won’t be able to find anyone else, run (or wheel yourself, or crawl) for the nearest exit. That is a big, bad sign that she is emotionally abusing you, and that is 100% never okay.