On being … different roles

By Ingrid Sapona 

The other day I ran into a senior who lives in my building. It had been a while since I saw her and her husband. I always used to see them together and so I asked about him. At this question she teared up a bit and said that her daughter was upstairs with him while she went to the market. She then explained that he’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which she sees as an especially cruel twist of fate. “He was such a prominent lawyer for 50 years and so smart and with it. And now, he can’t figure things out or remember things,” she said with a tear. 

It was sad news and I told her how sorry I was for him – and also for her and her family, as I’m sure it’s hard on all of them. She mentioned they have a caregiver who helps out a couple of times a week, which she appreciates – but I could see how tired she was. Though I don’t know them well, I felt comfortable enough to raise something that is sometimes easier to hear from a stranger: I wondered if they’ve considered the possibility of – at some point – finding a dementia care place for him. 

I wasn’t surprised she appeared crestfallen at the idea, or that she said “Oh no, no…”. But I was surprised by what she added: she said she didn’t know what she’d do with herself if she didn’t have him there to look after. “You know – he was the one who everyone knows. HE used to talk to everybody. I would send him down to get the mail and he’d be gone three-quarters of an hour, talking with the concierge and others. When he got back, I used to tease him saying I was worried that something happened to him. But he just laughed and said he was talking to so-and-so,” she said. “The thing is, I don’t know people. I don’t really have friends of my own,” she added. I tried to reassure her that many people would be here for her, but at this point, she can’t see herself in a role other than that as the wife of a once gregarious lawyer. 

What my neighbor said brought to mind something a family friend said years ago. We were at a memorial service for a friend who died unexpectedly, leaving a wife and child. We were all saddened by the death and we talked about how bad we felt for his widow. The family friend then remarked that he also felt bad because she’d realize there’s more to it than just missing her husband. He referred to what he called “the division of labour” in a marriage – the practical, day-to-day things the deceased probably took care of that would now also fall to his widow. In other words, he was talking about the nature of roles people take on in the relationship of marriage. 

This got me thinking about the actions and behaviours that end up accompanying the roles we play in relationships with family and friends. In particular, about the extent to which we shape the roles and how they shape us, whether we realize it or not. I doubt my neighbor whose husband has Alzheimer’s intentionally ceded to him the building of friendships. Though she realizes that’s what happened, I imagine all these years she was just focused on supporting him and her children, which was enough until now. People who lose their spouses (whether by death or due to debilitating illness) are forced to take on new roles, which is difficult at any time but even more so coupled with the heartbreak of loss. Could they have prepared themselves for their new roles? Perhaps – but I think much of what makes a good relationship work is that people are comfortable and happy in their roles, so there’s no impetus to make changes. 

But what about when you realize you don’t like the contours of a role you’ve had in a relationship and you’d like to evolve it. Say, for example, that you’re tired of being the social convener or schedule maker. Though it may be something you’re good at, perhaps you’re tired of it. Or maybe it’s something you should let others learn to do, as someday they may have to. 

How do you change your behaviour in a role without completely jeopardizing the relationship? That can be tricky, I think. For starters, it requires awareness of the complex texture of the relationship. And, because you can’t control others’ behaviour, you have to figure out what you do that contributes to the way others in the relationship view your role. Only then can you even hope to change your role and the relationship along with it. 

I have no answers, though I think the first step is becoming aware of the nuances of your role in different relationships. Seeing your roles clearly requires objective awareness of others’ roles too. If you’re happy with a role, there’s no pressing need to change your activities or behaviours. But life has a way of bringing unexpected change. I think the more you’re aware of the nature of the roles you play, the better equipped you might be to foster – or accept – changes to those roles. 

© 2024 Ingrid Sapona


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