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Food Allergy

Save Your Marriage from Food Allergy Stress

Among the readers’ stories of their marriages, common threads begin to emerge. Often like Olivia, allergy moms are taking on so much responsibility. The mother usually speaks of being the main caregiver, assuming the role of providing a safe buffer between her allergic (or celiac) child and the rest of the world.

For instance, there’s Erin* from northern Virginia who hates grocery shopping. But she feels she can’t trust her husband Steve* to read all ingredient labels and watch out for foods their two sons must avoid. Steve has given her reason to doubt: after one of his shopping outings, their older son had a bad reaction to noodles, which turned out to carry a warning that eggs (one of his allergens) were processed on the same equipment.

While there certainly are involved and cautious allergy dads out there, reader response shows there are also many husbands who just aren’t on the same page with their wives in terms of consistent reading of package labels for allergens, making sure the child always has his or her epinephrine auto-injector and watching out for cross-contamination with foods that must be avoided.

Louise*, from Toronto, told us that her husband “just does not seem to get it and I definitely feel the burden of being the primary caregiver for my 10-year-old daughter with multiple allergies.” If she has to travel, “I do all the shopping and make all the food ahead of time because I just don’t feel I can trust him.”

Erin would understand. She notes that when their son’s reaction to noodles occurred because of her husband’s failure to check a label, she couldn’t help but see him as solely at fault. If she had done the shopping, the reaction would not have happened. But being right doesn’t necessarily help your marriage.

When you start playing the blame game, it creates a gap in the relationship,” Erin admits. “It always finds a way to creep up in arguments.”

Being the more knowledgeable one about food allergies also doesn’t lessen your anxiety. The 2010 Northwestern University study involving 1,126 caregivers found that those who were more educated about food allergies and anaphylaxis risk were also more likely to feel stress and have a poorer quality of life than those with less awareness. What may be good for safety can weigh heavily on the mind.

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Beverley Cathcart-Ross: Founder of Parenting Network, a Canadian organization

In creating a safe buffer for a child, parenting expert Beverley Cathcart-Ross says some mothers place themselves in the position of stressed-out “gatekeeper”.

Cathcart-Ross, a certified parent educator and founder of Parenting Network in Canada, says it’s common for mothers of children with special needs to do this, and these women may feel like everything depends on the family – especially the husband – following their directions on the “correct” way to manage things. She adds that if the father doesn’t fall in line, the mother tends to pull back from the relationship.

When we’re feeling resentful, we’ll pull away the most powerful thing we have, and that is our love for them,” she says. “We marginalize them, we’re cool and distant and sleep in a different bed and we’re critical of everything they do – and things will continue this way until the hurt feelings are dealt with.”

Even if a husband is arguably in the wrong for not fully grasping the allergy rules, marginalizing him is more likely to lead to defensiveness and resentment than newfound understanding. Cathcart-Ross says the man will often feel as if he’s being treated like one of the kids instead of an equal parenting partner. When an adult is spoken to that way, he or she is more likely to react to the treatment than to absorb what’s being said.

If you’re not sure if you’re treating your spouse as an equal or as a child, examine your parenting style – if you’re using that same style on your partner, it’s time to change your approach. “If the wife wants to be in charge of the process (of allergy management) then she needs to learn to communicate effectively to get her partner onside”, says Cathcart-Ross.

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Kristen Kauke works with many couples dealing with food allergy stress

There is considerable research to suggest that men and women also have vastly different approaches to problem-solving and stress, and that won’t suddenly change with food restrictions as the central issue.

“Men like to solve problems; women like to direct (the process) and they’re not always in sync,” says Kristen Kauke, a clinical social worker from St. Charles, Illinois who works with many couples dealing with food allergies. Under stress, she says women are also verbal and emotional whereas men tend to go silent. This might appear to a wife that her husband doesn’t care as much about a child’s life-threatening food allergies, when he is experiencing concern internally – but just not talking about it.

“I think knowing and respecting that we have different ways of coping is important,” Kauke says.

Next: How to keep the peace

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