The stress of managing food allergies is pitting couples against each other. This article from Allergic Living magazine explores how to turn down the raw emotion and learn to work together.
BY THE TIME he was 18 months old, Olivia’s* son had been diagnosed with more than 20 food and environmental allergies and was suffering with head-to-toe eczema. First Olivia created a safe environment at home, and then she became the super-allergy mom, co-founding a food allergy support group, writing allergy guidelines for the school district, and training school staff on anaphylaxis prevention and emergency measures.
“Without a doubt I put everything I had into caring for my son for eight years. This is what I had to do to keep him safe,” she says. “I knew I was not making time for my husband but felt it was most important for us to focus on safety for our son at that time.”
But eight years is a long time. When Olivia’s son was finally in school full-time and she could turn her attention back to her relationship, it was too late. Her husband had lost interest and already decided he wanted to leave the marriage. Despite more than a year of counseling, the couple began the process of divorce.
It’s no secret that food allergies or gluten sensitivity can affect the quality of a family’s life. Studies of caregivers, such as the one published in 2010 by Dr. Ruchi Gupta’s team at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and a study review in 2011 by a Mount Sinai School of Medicine team, reveal a profound impact on both patients and parents.
The truth is that having to control every morsel that you or your child consumes means continuous pressure around food events outside your kitchen – whether a birthday party, a brunch with friends or a holiday dinner with family.
But beyond the social anxieties, what about the stress that day-in, day-out vigilance puts upon a once-happy relationship? Allergic Living reached out to readers to ask whether food allergies or celiac disease were affecting their marriages, and causing any struggles between husband and wife. The answer, and mainly from women readers, was a blisteringly emphatic “yes”.
Like Olivia, some readers told us about divorcing as a result of strains that began with food allergies, while in other cases there is still hope and enough love to stay together. But even when the marriage bonds are holding, there are many, many couples who are hurting; raw from emotion and the rigors of avoiding allergens or gluten. Scratch the surface of these families, and what becomes evident is that communication breakdown or worse is arising with concerning frequency, especially when the couple involved is in the early years of adapting to an allergen-safe or gluten-free diet.
“Stress, marital and otherwise, doesn’t begin to describe it,” says Nadia*, whose 2-year-old daughter has multiple allergies, asthma and eczema. She and her husband have had blow-ups over Nadia’s attempts to introduce new foods in order to expand their toddler’s diet that’s currently limited to soy formula, lamb, rice, potatoes and a few fruits and vegetables. But foods like milk, eggs, chicken and banana have led to allergic reactions, so her husband will demand: “Why do we do this to ourselves and her?”
Their daughter’s asthma or itching with eczema at night means serious sleep loss, “which provides more fuel for fighting,” Nadia says. But in a moment of pride, she adds about her child: “She is totally worth it, though.”
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.
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 new-found 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.
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
An asterisk (*) indicates name was changed for privacy.
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
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.”
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Next: Advice for Harmony
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.