When Jules Dowler Shepard thinks of her former marriage and the issues that arose following her celiac diagnosis, she would also say they were a sign of a deeper malaise. “I was diagnosed two months before my wedding, so going gluten-free was a steep learning curve for both of us. This was back in 1999 when there was less awareness and fewer food choices,” says Jules, who today operates a gluten-free website and online store at GFjules.com.
The new bride was a long-time vegetarian but her husband began pressuring her to eat meat for nutrition, since she couldn’t have gluten. When the couple dined out with friends he would dismiss her food concerns as “being picky”. She adds: “He preferred to eat at steakhouses, leaving me to order a baked potato or something wholly uninteresting. I got used to it, but it sure would have been nice to have a supportive partner in my journey.”
In keeping with what Kauke advises, Jules says with the benefit of hindsight: “Perhaps one of the blessings for me with my diagnosis was that it made the weaknesses in our marriage more obvious, and may have been a contributing factor to ending our relationship earlier than it would have otherwise.”
IF YOU are in a relationship that’s hanging by a thread, the experts suggest couples counseling; Kauke specifically recommends Emotionally-focused Couples Therapy, or EFT. It’s widely respected and creates an emotional experience for the couples while also restructuring interaction patterns.
“In a situation like a family dealing with food allergies there are these powerful emotions that are happening as well as isolation and disconnect and that causes us to panic,” she says. In that panic, we may choose strife over the loneliness of managing alone, and argumentative patterns emerge. “There’s the blame game, we protest each other’s decisions or maybe we just stop talking altogether because we’re angry and what we’re really saying is: ‘Are you there for me?’ and ‘Do I matter to you?’” says Kauke.
The EFT approach is to look at how to move emotionally closer, provide assurance to each other, be in tune and attached. With enduring stress, such as we see with food allergies, creating that bond for the long-term is important. If you think this type of therapy would help your situation, Kauke suggests asking your insurance provider to see if it is covered under your plan.
When divorce is looming and children are involved, the experts advise proceeding with caution and preparing yourself for the fact that the stress is about to get worse. Olivia, the super allergy mom, finds that her anxiety level has ramped up now that she’s dealing with custody issues, such as communicating about medical issues and overnight visits to dad’s place. Her ex-husband now has a girlfriend, whom their son has yet to meet. Olivia has no idea whether the woman knows how to safely care for and prepare food for her child.
“When marriage ends in divorce, the major problems that the couple faced when they were together remain,” says Cathcart-Ross. “But now this needs to be managed from a distance, which can be even more stressful.”
Even for couples who are firmly on the same page while managing allergies, the high state of food vigilance can still lead to marital tensions. “We don’t fight because we don’t agree or one of us doesn’t ‘get’ our son’s allergies,” says Nashville resident Hannah Keldie. “We argue about insignificant things because we are stressed about him and don’t have any friends.”
The Keldies’ 2-year-old has multiple allergies and has had anaphylactic reactions to dairy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. This has put restaurants out of reach, and the couple misses church events and family parties because of unsafe snacks being put out at toddler level. While their child is being kept from reactions, they feel cut off.
Psychologist Laura Marshak recommends spending 20 minutes per day on the marriage
Laura Marshak, a psychologist and professor of counseling at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, thinks it’s important to deal with self-imposed isolation like this. She would suggest Hannah and her husband expand their network of friends to bring new people into their lives, like other parents of kids with food allergies.
“Changing circles of friends to include people facing similar circumstances is a major way parents of kids with special needs cope,” says Marshak. “It is nice with another parent who understands not to have to explain.”
If YOU really want to create a new normal with your spouse, reconnecting as a couple is key. Marshak advises taking off the parent hat periodically and focusing on the person once again as your romantic other half, the one you married because you loved him or her. As a starting point, a simple strategy she recommends is spending 20 minutes a day on the marriage.
“It sounds like a lot, but it’s 3 percent of the day.” That time needs to be devoted to being with your partner with no talk of children or food allergies, and is a way to keep food allergies from taking over life. “It’s hard at first,” says the psychologist. “However, it is the foundation for making marital life work.”
Finally, some of the best advice comes from readers who have experienced their own marital missteps on the food allergy journey. Melissa Sodowick of Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania has been married to her husband for 22 years, and when their daughter had a severe anaphylactic reaction several years ago, the couple’s responses were very different.
“I worried about everything and he went into denial mode,” says Melissa. “It’s not that he didn’t recognize the severity of her allergy, but he didn’t want to think or talk about it.”
Due to this and other stresses, the couple sought counseling and talked about how Melissa needed to be able to share her anxieties, and her husband needed to talk about his concerns about their daughter’s health in order to make Melissa feel she wasn’t being a neurotic control freak. “The marital therapy not only helped us in dealing with our daughter’s food allergy and our worry, but also in general,” Melissa says.
“We are better able to express ourselves now, knowing that seeing the other person upset or anxious doesn’t mean that we have to ‘fix’ the problem. Instead, it’s enough just to listen and support the other.”
As with any marital issue, coming to terms with stresses, fears and disconnection over food allergies isn’t fast and likely not easy. Maybe you can do it on your own, after gaining support from some new allergy family friends. Maybe you’ll need some EFT or other style of counseling. But to make a marriage good again, and a family happy again, it sure seems worth the effort. As Melissa says, when it comes to a child’s food allergy, “which can’t be fixed, just managed, it’s all the more important that he and I can be open and honest with each other, instead of staying silent.”
Advice for Finding Parent Harmony
Issue: Lack of communication on allergies.
Action: Assess how you’ve been speaking to your spouse. Is it as an equal partner, or more like a parent to a child? If the latter, it’s time to change this habit because your spouse will resent being “managed”. You may have more education on allergies than your spouse, but remember that it took a while to learn the risks and safe food practices. Keep your fact-sharing focused and perhaps print out a good article. There is a learning curve so try to avoid frustration when your partner doesn’t quickly “get it”. Otherwise you could make your partner feel incompetent and that will push you two farther apart. Aim to communicate with kindness.
Issue: Allergies are making me feel isolated.
Action: It’s important to find others who are coping with food allergies or celiac disease and create a network of support to reduce such feelings. You may find this through an allergy support group or an online allergy forum (such as the one at allergicliving.com) or through volunteering on an anaphylaxis fundraising event (such as the FARE Walks). Allergy dad Allen Diewald notes: “We food allergy families are a resilient bunch. We have met some really nice people just because we share this challenge in common.”
Issue: My partner thinks the precautions required to stay safe and avoid cross-contamination seem over-the-top.
Action: Bring your spouse along to a support group meeting or food allergy conference. Include him in allergist appointments. “I have seen good results from the spouse agreeing to speak to an objective expert to resolve the issue about how careful to be,” says psychologist Laura Marshak. While it may seem annoying to have an ‘expert’ say what you’ve been saying, she adds: “it works.”
Issue: A high stress level in the household.
Action: With a child with multiple food allergies, it’s easy to go into crisis control mode, but you can’t live well every day at that level. Don’t let the allergy become the family’s identity. Once safe eating and label reading rules are in place, find opportunities to develop your child’s independence. Help young children develop confidence by allowing them (with assistance) to call friends to initiate a play date. Encourage normalcy that doesn’t focus on allergies and parents should take time to focus on their own relationship. Date nights with no allergy talk should be mandatory.
For adults with fears about safe eating outside the home: do more home entertaining (but keep it simple, don’t make it a burden). Once feeling more confident, find one good accommodating restaurant, then maybe another to widen your safety net. Join a support group and learn to manage anxiety. Marshak also recommends the books The Worry Cure by Robert Leahy and The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques by Margaret Wehrenberg.
Issue: I’m doing everything!
Action: Focus on including all family members in daily tasks so that you are not over-burdened, but don’t micromanage. Assign tasks according to strengths: a detail-oriented spouse can label-read at the grocery store, a child can put the groceries away at home and the partner can help with meals. It’s counter-intuitive to give somebody a task they will not succeed at.