Hi Captain! All names have been changed to protect the guilty. Sorry this is long, but the backstory is rather necessary.
I’m a 45 year old pansexual poly woman. I’ve been with Wolfie since I was 18, married him at 23, and had two sons with him, who are now both out of the house. We’re also kinky, both dominants. I met Jon through a kink website, and while our relationship started as purely D/s play partners with friendship, we’ve fallen in love over time. Jon wears my collar. Wolfie’s known about the relationship with Jon from the beginning. Wolfie and Jon get along really well. Over the last four years, Jon and I have gotten much closer. And he confessed last fall that he wants to marry me when Wolfie dies.
Wolfie’s ten years older than me, so he’s 55, and while I knew demographics suggested I’d outlive him, it’s another thing to have it brought home to you when you’re still feeling young. He smoked for most of our marriage and well before, has worked a lot of physical jobs, gotten in a lot of fights, and…. the outcome is congestive heart failure, COPD, arthritis in all his joints, and diabetes. He’s on disability. I could wake up to him dead in bed beside me tomorrow, to put it bluntly. As it is, I’m pretty sure he won’t make it to 60. He is not trying to manage his conditions. He is in total denial of all of this. As far as he’s concerned, he has about thirty years of happy retirement to look forward to.
I had been going down (it’s an hour drive, we live on opposite sides of a large metropolitan area) to see Jon for the weekend once a month for about eight months of 2016/17. Jon developed a drinking problem last fall, and in the course of his achieving sobriety, I spent a week with him on a couple of different occasions, and that blew away any reservations we had about our eventual future. We also grew close enough, and our relationship deepened enough, that I now view myself as having two primary partners. We three decided that Wolfie and I should come down to Jon’s place and spend the weekend, unless Wolfie was busy, in which case he’d drop me off or Jon would come get me and Jon and I would have the weekend alone.
Well, I’ve done two weekends with Jon alone, and one weekend with Jon and Wolfie, and Jon said to me that Saturday night, “Next weekend, I’d rather have neither of you come than both of you come.” And I understood why. Wolfie likes to be the center of attention. He has needs. Actually, he has NEEDS. It’s hard for him to get up and down, and the arthritis makes it hard for him to stand very long at all. And he has no wind, so he gets out of breath at the slightest exertion. So it’s, “Get me a glass of tea. Get me the ketchup. Pick up the fork I dropped. Help me on with my shoes. Take my socks off.” He also needs to be the most important man in my life, flattered and reassured constantly. It honestly feels like having a child hanging off me. When I’m at home, it even interferes with the housework and cooking; he wants me to be right there within view.
This is newish behavior. He’s never been the same after the hospitalization in 2015 when they found out he had congestive heart failure and drained 30 pounds of fluid. He’s King Baby all the time now. It’s interfering with his relationship with his sons, and it’s building up a lot of unhappiness in me. Needless to say, our sex life is non existent. I have my time with Jon as a safety valve…. 50 or so hours where I get to be a beloved and adored adult woman with her own needs and desires sweetly catered to, and then back to the rest of the week of caregiving for someone who never says “Thank you.” I can stand it, because I don’t have to stand it for another five years, even. He’s already showing signs of the heart failure getting worse.
I know that I should hold a firm boundary with him about my weekends with Jon. But if I am firm about this, he will get tremendously hurt, yell, and start talking about how maybe he should go talk to a lawyer about a divorce. I don’t want to divorce him. I love him, and have loved him, for more than half my life. It matters to me to be beside him when he goes. And while Wolfie knows (we did have this conversation last fall) that Jon wants to marry me someday, so “he doesn’t have to worry about me”, he’s not willing to do some other things that need to be done. I’d like him to write down the stories about his firearm collection so his sons can have them, for example. I’d like to clean out the basement. And I can’t talk about this stuff because he’s totally in denial.
So how do I hold my boundary without destroying my marriage or damaging my other relationship? And how do I cope with the denial without going insane?
Thanks in advance to all.
The Lady Perplexed
That’s a lot to sit with right there, Perplexed Lady. Let’s sit with it together.
I. The Five Year Plan
If Wolfie did in fact have “another thirty years of happy retirement to look forward to,” that’s a good thing, right? The two of you, growing old together, you staying on as the loyal caretaker and wife, visiting Jon on the odd weekend, forever, for the rest of your lives? That’s what you want! Yaaaaaayyyy!
“I can stand it, because I don’t have to stand it for another five years, even.”
My dear Lady Perplexed, it sounds like part of you is waiting for Wolfie to die so that you can both be the loyal, loving wife who stood by him until the end and then finally be happy and start over with Jon.
Meaning, you are one burned-out caregiver, having not-uncommon-burned-out-caregiver thoughts that are very ugly and guilt-inducing when dragged out into the light in front of strangers. These thoughts borne of grief and stress are not the whole of you, or your love, or your relationship, but they are something you should pay attention to. Think of them as canaries in the coal mine of your happiness.
If you’re committed to being there for Wolfie as long as you need to be there, then you need to make your day-to-day life sustainable and not just live for those weekends away.
To do this, at minimum, you need:
- Time to yourself. You need your weekends with Jon, and you also need a certain amount of time to exercise, read, rest, recharge, take care of your own health, and hear your own thoughts without interruption.
- People to talk to who aren’t Wolfie or Jon. Friends, a counselor, an online support group. Fellow kinksters and/or kink-aware professionals who will understand your situation. People you aren’t sexually involved with, people who don’t have a vested interest in your choices. You can’t do this alone.
- Help with caregiving. Caring for someone full-time is a job. The people who do that job do not do it 24-7 and they don’t do it for people they have complicated emotional and financial ties to. You need help.
- Time with Wolfie that isn’t just about you caring for him. Is it time for a return to Date Night, even if that looks like ordering in and watching a favorite movie or playing games together? Can you ask him to take the lead in thinking about something you could do together that week?
Would you be this committed if you knew he’d be around longer? Is it possible for you to have a happy and rewarding life soon, or now, inside this marriage? Those are questions I can’t answer for you. Let’s stick to the minimum today.
II. Standards & Practices
I think you and Wolfie need a professional caregiver to come in at least some of the time and I think you need this now. Wolfie is going to resist this, and you need to do it anyway, in part because a professional caregiver will have boundaries. S/he will enforce boundaries with Wolfie and model expectations for you.
True story: My grandparents were in their 80s, living at home, and my mom helped sign them up for Meals on Wheels. Finally, my grandma wouldn’t have to cook three meals a day and could get a little bit of a break. Except my Grampa [“King Baby” is a great term, btw] complained constantly about the food: he hated it, wouldn’t eat it, it was the worst ever, it was disgusting, why was she putting him through this, couldn’t she just cook? My grandma was not a gourmet, y’all. Canned vegetables heated in the microwave, a lot of Campbell’s soup, a lot of sandwiches, Spaghettios, franks & beans, fish sticks, the odd casserole — Trust me when I say that the switch to Meals on Wheels wasn’t like being married to Ina Garten one day and living out of a campus vending machine the next. Anyway, she made so much friction about it that it became “easier” just for her to do all the cooking.
After she died, Grampa asked my mom if he could have the Meals on Wheels again. “But you hate it!” my mom said. “No, I love it!” he said. “Then sign up yourself! Here’s the number!” she said. She was (rightly) furious. When it could have given her mom a respite from cooking, Grampa wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted to be fussed over and waited on, specifically by Grandma, or it didn’t count. We had a running joke in our family, where, whenever Grampa came over I’d set the table with every possible utensil, textile, and condiment I could think of next to his plate, because he would always, no matter what, without fail, request something that wasn’t on the table. Not this kind of mustard, the other kind. Not this knife, another one. Not this kind of napkin, one of those dish towels. Tablecloth on the table? Could he have a placemat, too? Did we have any mint jelly, by chance? My brothers and I would take bets about what it would be, something, anything, to get either me or my mom (never my dad or brothers, hrmmm, strange) to get up and fetch it for him and fuss over him. He did this to my Grandma at breakfast lunch and dinner for 60 years, which explains the other family “joke” at mealtimes: “Grandma, sit down! We’re not going to start eating until you sit down! We don’t need anything, just eat!” He’d trained her to never, ever let herself get settled into her chair.
A professional caregiver can help Wolfie with things he can’t do himself. Someone like an occupational therapist can help him find workarounds so that he can do more things himself. Neither of these people will treat a dropped fork like a crisis that requires an emotional performance of homage. Wolfie probably won’t like that, especially at first, but the more he can do for himself the better he will feel, and your relationship will be healthier for it.
III. Summoning The Cavalry/The Story Of The Guns
Call your sons. Tell them some stuff and ask them for some stuff.
- “Son/Sons, y’all know that your dad is not in good health right now?”
- “We’re doing our best, but he needs a lot of care, and I need a respite sometimes. Can I count on you for some help with this?”
- “Specifically, I’d like you to each take a turn, one weekend a month, of being ‘on call’ for him so I can get away for a day or two and recharge. Sometimes that could just mean giving him a call or dropping by to see if he needs anything, but I hope you’ll spend some quality time together, too.”
- “I know, it’s really hard to think about him getting older, but it’s time to get honest about this as a family. I need some help here, and I want him to tell you the family stories while he still can.”
- “Thank you, this will help me a lot. Let’s figure out a schedule together. Love you.”
I know, geography might not be in your favor, I know, everyone is busy and it might not work every weekend, I know, he might need more intense care than a phone call or dropping by, so, okay, what can be done? Your sons might say no, which, okay, it’s their decision and their loss. If you haven’t already asked, it’s time to ask.
See also: Call Wolfie’s other family members and friends to help you. Call them so that you don’t burn out. Call them because chronic illness is lonely and depressing and isolating and this is a way to fight that, for both of you.
IV. Fuck Cleaning The Basement
Ever quit a job, and as soon as you give your notice, your boss dredges up a million projects that were never really a priority before but now they simply must be finished before you go? Like, two years of neglected work that is now supposed to be magically completed in two weeks? Wishful thinking and denial in the face of impending absence takes many forms.
If Wolfie has trouble putting on his own socks, how’s he gonna clean out this basement, exactly?
We die in the middle of the things we didn’t finish. Five years or five minutes or five decades from now, Wolfie will die in the middle of something unfinished, too. Denial won’t stop it coming. Acceptance won’t, either. In his shoes, you would want to do everything you could to wrap things up as cleanly as possible for him for when you’re gone, but you’re not the boss of his (possibly) impending death and how he faces or doesn’t face it. Can we really judge him if he needs to believe it will come “someday, a long time from now,” out of the blue, a complete surprise? Could anything be more common, more human, than that wish?
So, you have limited time and energy and you need to budget them. Save your Difficult Conversation Units for the essential stuff and for stuff that improves your quality of life now. For example:
- Do you both have updated wills, medical directives, and the insurance you need in place in case something happens? (We owe this work to our spouses, even if it sucks to think about, so this is worth pushing).
- Can you get the periodic respites from caregiving you need now, be they weekends with Jon or the freedom to be in a different part of the house for a while? (You need this, so, push for it).
- What caregiving assistance can you hire, or access through your community? Now? In the future, especially if he deteriorates more? (You both have a right to draw on whatever resources and safety net you can).
If you’re looking for avenues to practice acceptance and letting go, the basement is probably going to stay how it is until you decide to clean it. If your sons don’t ask for the stories behind the guns, they might not ever get them.
We die unfinished.
V. Calling The Bluff
Next time you plan to visit Jon, tell Wolfie that you’re going alone from now on.
Him: “But we talked about me coming along.”
You: “I know, but I really need a little time away to recharge. I’ll see you Sunday.”
Him: “But how will I ____ without you?”
You: “Son 1 (Englebert) and Son 2 (Humperdinck) said they’ll drop by for a bit and keep their phones on this weekend, so call if you need them.”
Him: “But I need someone with me all the time.”
You: “Okay, then let’s call [Caregiving Agency] and set that up.”
Him: “But I need youuuuuuu!”/”If you loved me, you’d ______.”
You: “Love, I need this break. This isn’t a negotiation – I’m going solo.”
Him: “But I came last time and I thought it was a really good weekend. Do you and Jon not want me there?/You’d rather be with Jon than with me/Was this Jon’s idea?”
You: “I need these weekends to unwind and relax, and it’s hard for me to do if you’re there, too. It’s not a competition, please don’t make it one.”
Him: [yelling]”Well, maybe I should call a lawyer and see about getting a divorce!!!”
You: “Wow! A divorce would make me very sad, because I love you, and I don’t want that at all. But if you’re ready to divorce me because I need a couple of days to myself, I can’t stop you. It doesn’t change the fact that I still need that time.”
Four suggestions/things to remember:
- Own the decision. Jon was the one who said “come alone or don’t come” (good job with boundaries, Jon!), but in your conversations with Wolfie you should own the decision and express it in terms of what you want/need/have decide.
- Keep the conversation narrowly focused. The topic is “Solo Weekends With Jon: I Need Them” not “Mortality: It’s Looming. Any Thoughts?” or “Don’t Worry, When You Die, Jon Will Give Me The Cherishing I Deserve.”
- Wolfie has choices about what he does about his feelings and how he treats you. If he wants to renegotiate the terms of your relationship, he can talk to you about that. If he has sad or lonely feelings he can call a friend or write a poem. You are not responsible for everything he feels or for ignoring your own needs to only cater to his.
- Setting a boundary only works if you enforce it. If you give in and stay and let a fight derail your plans, you’ll teach him that threatening you and making a big stink works to get his way. On the other hand, he can only really make this threat once with any credibility. If he doesn’t back it up with action, you’ll know it’s just a bluff to manipulate you. (If you think he really would divorce you over this, then you need a lawyer and a plan for protecting yourself financially if that really were to happen.)
VI. Minding the Ps and Qs
There are people who think that good manners are things you put on for company and that with family, bluntness is closeness. There are people who think that good manners and observing a few formalities like “please” and “thank you” are even more important when you live in close quarters. Mixed marriages occur all the time, and sometimes you need to say say “habits and upbringing be damned” and negotiate which kind of family you want to be.
Being sick is exhausting, and Wolfie probably has little energy left over for asking nicely when he needs something. There are times when a terse “Come help me!” has an extra layer of “Being vulnerable and asking for help sucks, and I am trusting you to come help me without needing a lot of negotiation or a performance of gratitude on my part.”
But if the terseness or rudeness or constant catering to him is wearing you down, ask for something different. Save the conversation for when he’s not in a crisis mode and for a request that isn’t urgent. Maybe a script could be:
“Wolfie, if you say ‘Come help me!’ or just yell my name from the next room, I’ve been reading that as ‘Emergency! drop what you’re doing and come right now!’ It’s not sustainable to do that all day, every day. If something is not an emergency, can you try making it sound less like a command? With a ‘please’ and a ‘thank you’ attached?”
He may grumble, or not understand why you need this – “I shouldn’t have to thank you for everything you do, you’re my wife!” – try saying “No, but it would make me really happy if you did it sometimes, when you’re able. Can you try?”
Y’all are kinky and have made polyamory work for you for years, so I bet you know how to negotiate a lot of tough things. Try negotiating this the way you would that? With humor, and trust? “This isn’t a scene, so, ‘Get me a glass of tea’ isn’t gonna fly, Lord Domly Pants.”
That’s the sitting time I’ve got today. I hope you can take some of the pressure off, get some boundaries in place, and figure out what you want and need from the next five years and beyond.
Edited To Add:
- The more the Letter Writer updated, the more it became clear that this is a highly untenable and emotionally abusive situation, where every one of her needs comes in second to Wolfie’s. Get the foot surgery. Call in every resource you can…FOR YOU. Call social workers, doctors, and think about talking to a domestic violence hotline or counselor. Even if you can’t call it “abuse” yet, even if it hasn’t crossed over into hitting or whatever your threshhold is, I think a kind, trained person who will believe you and connect you with resources can be really helpful right now.
- The comment discussion has grown beyond what I can reasonably moderate. Thanks to all who left helpful, respectful comments. Discussion closed as of 5/22.