Save Your Marriage from Food Allergy Stress
Allen and Debra Diewald with their two boys
Allen Diewald is the father of two children, one who has outgrown a milk allergy and one who is allergic to nuts. He admits he didn’t used to carry the epinephrine auto-injector at all times for his kids. His wife Debra has long been involved in the local FAAN (now FARE) Walk for anaphylaxis in Columbia, Maryland and his relaxed attitude at one time caused “a great divide in our marriage.”
He knows he’ll hear a collective groan from allergy moms when he says, “I don’t know why I did not take the EpiPen, but sometimes I relied on my wife to do it.” He explains: “I never forgot my son had an allergy. But since I cook the majority of the meals and prepare travel food I felt I had done my part – so the EpiPen was in my wife’s hands.”
At first Allen also didn’t understand why he would take an auto-injector to places like the park, where his son would not be eating. But as he watched other kids wiping sticky hands on the playground equipment, he figured it out. He also admits that keeping family peace is, in part, why he can now be relied upon to always bring the auto-injector.
But for every couple who finally figures out how to keep the peace, there is another one entrenched in a cold war. And children don’t have to be involved to feel the food allergy chill. Take the case of Karli*, who lives on the west coast and is married to a highly social extrovert who loves meeting friends for dinner, whether at a restaurant or at home. Trouble is, Karli’s multiple allergies include seafood, nuts, sesame, dairy and sulfites, and that list makes eating out difficult. The result? She’s always hosting meals at their place.
“I feel the onus is on me to do all the work for these events because it is ‘my fault’ that we can’t participate in easier social occasions involving food,” says Karli. “I guess deep down I feel that he thinks I am flawed.” She thinks she has to make up for it. Karli admits with sadness: “I feel very alone in dealing with the issues around my allergies.”
In fact, in this she is not at all on her own. Another theme that emerged clearly in the stories readers sent to Allergic Living was a sense of isolation when a couple wasn’t in unison on food management.
Remember Erin in Virginia who doesn’t trust her husband’s shopping? Besides handling her son’s allergies, she has her own severe milk allergy. She finds date nights difficult because her husband gets frustrated about having to check restaurant menus in advance and having to work around “her stupid allergy” as he’s inclined to call it.
Karli also doesn’t know if she can count on her husband to be in her corner when it comes to allergies. “I wonder what would happen if I had a serious reaction. I’m not even sure he knows the symptoms or would use an EpiPen on me, not wanting a fuss.” Kauke suggests the divide might not be as great for Karli and her husband as it appears.
“We are stuck in these patterns and we start seeing the other person as the enemy, when instead we should be looking at stress as the enemy. Healthy relationships have certain components in them like shared power – not control – and autonomy, respect, forgiveness and realistic expectations. If we want our relationship to be healthy, we have to work hard to manage our anxiety and not use it to inform our behavior.”
She says Karli’s husband may not realize that “his actions are having this effect on her, or perhaps underneath, it is fear for her. She needs to trust that he’s here for her, and I think that’s a fear for all of us.”
“If he can understand that, it can be motivating; we all want to be connected to our spouse,” Kauke says. She adds that anyone dealing with a similar situation should be able to tell their partner how this behavior makes them feel and, without passing on blame, ask why they act the way they do.
Some of the stories we received from readers – men and women – about spouses not believing the severity of their allergies were disturbing. There’s the husband who insists that kissing his allergic wife after eating peanut butter wouldn’t hurt her. A wife who continues to wear perfume even though it forces her husband to sleep in a separate room because she doesn’t believe he has a severe sensitivity to fragrance. Another husband thinks his wife takes her celiac diagnosis “too seriously” and she is forever re-washing her separate utensils and cutting boards that he has contaminated with gluten.
Kauke says about these cases, “I caution anyone not to mistake a conflict about celiac, food or other allergies with a more fundamental relationship issue. Think about when respect, honesty, trust, shared power and commitment occur in your relationship and when they do not. Sometimes our current struggle highlights a deeper, underlying issue and discontent is an invitation to evaluate the patterns of our own behavior and how they help or hinder the quality of our life.”
Next: Emotionally-focused therapy