“My spouse has cancer and is pushing me away.” This comes up frequently during coaching. Being pushed away by someone with cancer is a common occurrence, and you might feel like your spouse has become withdrawn when they are coping with a cancer diagnosis.
Each person’s experience will be a little different. As my husband’s cancer progressed and his body began to fail him, he started to push everyone away but me. This created a lot of tension in the family and made it difficult to ask family members for help.
It is not uncommon for a person diagnosed with cancer to go through a period of isolation or withdraw or actively push people away. However, there are ways you can help create space for this and support your partner and yourself. When they are ready to connect or open up, they’ll do so knowing you’ve provided a safe place for them.
Why Do People with Cancer Withdraw and Want to be Alone?
As human beings, our experience of the world and the circumstances in our lives are shaped by our personality, past experiences, current stress levels, coping tools, and any number of other factors. Adjusting to a cancer diagnosis or a change in prognosis will affect people differently. Each person will have to come to terms with what this news or circumstance means for them in their own way. That can be a lot to cope with.
It is not uncommon for people with a cancer diagnosis or a recent change in that diagnosis to pull away or distance themselves from the ones they love. There are a variety of reasons for this, but all of them come down to the thoughts and feelings they are having. If this is your spouse, it can be helpful to explore some of the reasons why your partner with cancer may withdraw and want to be alone.
They Might Feel Isolated in Their Experience
Your spouse with cancer might feel isolated and alone, even when surrounded by family and friends. As humans, we want to share our experience with people who understand how it feels. If your spouse doesn’t know anyone else in a similar situation, it can feel very lonely.
They Might be Adjusting to Their New Reality
Another factor may be that adjusting to their new or recently changed diagnosis can be emotionally overwhelming. Your partner may feel fearful, uncertain, scared, worried, or any number of emotions and not know how to process them. If your spouse constantly has people asking how they’re feeling, sometimes it’s easier to withdraw than try to come up with an answer.
They Might Feel Uncomfortable
When someone has cancer, they naturally become the center of attention because they’re sick, which can be uncomfortable. Your partner may feel like they are a burden to others and struggle to navigate the attention they receive. In response, they may distance themselves to deal with this discomfort and downplay their needs.
They Might Feel the Need for Privacy
Others may be struggling with the loss of independence and privacy. Cancer treatments can be very invading of a person’s personal space. Having to talk about things that feel private and having your body poked and prodded is an adjustment for anyone, but especially for someone who highly values their privacy. Withdrawing or distancing from others can be one way to maintain some sense of control.
They Might Feel Uncomfortable with Their Body
Another cause for distress can be the changes your partner is experiencing in their physical body. This can be upsetting and a reason they may not want to be around anyone. This can be especially true if they’re going through chemo or receiving other treatments that cause them to look and feel different.
These are just a few reasons you might be being pushed away by someone with cancer. And none of them have to do with you personally. Your spouse could be experiencing one or a number of these issues and not be aware of the cause of their feelings. The good news is that if your spouse has cancer and is pushing you away, there are ways to give them space while staying connected.
What to Do When You’re Being Pushed Away by Someone with Cancer
Cancer patients pushing loved ones away is not uncommon for a variety of reasons. If your spouse is distancing themselves from you during this time, here are three things you can do to stay connected.
1. Hold Space for Their Emotions
When you see your spouse struggling emotionally or physically, it can be difficult. Out of love, you want to do something to help them or ease their pain. So you try to be positive or reassuring, and they respond by shutting down. This can feel very frustrating and confusing. You just want to help them feel better!
Most of us feel discomfort when someone we love is hurting, so we are quick to want to fix their pain. I did this with my husband and usually ended up irritating him. I later realized that he wanted to be understood and needed space to work through his emotions on his own. He didn’t want me to try to fix anything. He knew I could fix this for him. But I could support him and love him.
How to Create a Safe Space for Your Partner with Cancer
If your loved one is angry, frustrated, or withdrawn, you don’t have to try to fix them or make them feel better. Instead, you can create a safe and judgment-free place for them to express their pain and work through it in their own way. In coaching, we call this “holding space.”
When you hold space, you allow your spouse to feel and express whatever they are going through without having to worry about anyone else’s feelings. You acknowledge their fears and worries without trying to fix or reassure them. You don’t offer advice. You don’t tell them how they could feel better. You simply let them be where they are and let them know you are there for them.
In practice, this might look like simply giving them space without comment. Or saying, “I’m here for you if you want to talk.” Or a squeeze of the hand or a hug. My husband simply wanted me to love him. So I would sit next to him, hold his hand, and think about sending him my love. To learn more about holding space, read: How to Support a Spouse or Partner During Cancer Treatment by “Holding Space.”
2. Don’t Make it Mean Anything
If your spouse has cancer and is pushing you away, it can be easy to see this behavior and come to all sorts of conclusions about what it means:
- They’ve given up.
- They don’t want me around.
- They are depressed.
- They need help.
Any conclusions you draw about their behavior are your interpretations and are not necessarily true. When you jump to a conclusion, especially one that causes you to be fearful or worried, you will likely respond in a way that is not helpful to them or yourself. Be careful about what you are making their behavior mean because there’s a good chance you are wrong. You can’t know what is going on with your spouse unless they tell you. If they aren’t ready to tell you, that’s OK. Maybe they are still figuring it out. Either way, avoid jumping to conclusions about their behavior and instead practice letting them be where they are.
3. Believe in Their Strength
When your partner is struggling, they may doubt themselves and their ability to get through this time. One of the best gifts you can give is to believe in their strength and ability to weather this storm.
I have found that all human beings have an inner well of strength and resilience. However, it can be hard to see our own. Sometimes it takes someone else to believe in us and our strength to uncover that well. If you’ve ever had someone remind you of how strong you are, you know how powerful it can be!
You can be that person for your partner. You can decide to believe in your spouse’s ability to get through this time, no matter what they are doing now or have done in the past. No matter how strong they think they are, you can believe in them no matter what they believe in themselves.
What does this look like in practice? As their partner, how you think about them and their resilience will impact how you show up in the relationship. When you truly believe in their inner strength, it will allow you to relax and not feel so worried. You will be able to be calmer. You will find it easier to give them space without making conclusions about it. And you don’t have to tell them–you simply have to believe it’s true, and they will pick up on your energy.
How do you believe? Find all the ways it is true. Think about all the things they’ve gotten through in the past. Think about their strengths. Decide they are strong enough! This is a gift you can give them and yourself.
Learn How to Connect with Your Spouse Throughout Their Cancer Journey
Everything changes when someone is diagnosed with cancer. You might feel like you’re being pushed away by someone with cancer and will have to find new ways to connect as you navigate this journey, which can be difficult to do. As a coach for you when your partner has cancer, I want to help you learn how to stay connected with your spouse while making sure you both get what you need. Click here to set up a time for us to talk about how I can support and help you navigate this time.